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Student , Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art


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How does life/death manifest itself in the human brain? Is brain death the ultimate end stage of life?

Recently, I watched the TED talk “Stroke of Insight” by Jill Bolte Taylor (http://www.ted.com/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight.html), in which she discusses the experience of having a stroke from a scientific perspective. She was able to diagnose herself throughout the process, even as her brain functions slowed or stopped altogether. Her story gives rise to a very important question: what is the connection between life, death, and the human brain?

In my Bioelectricity class this week, we discussed the use of EEG’s to record brain waves. A patient whose EEG reading shows a lack of brain activity is declared to be “brain dead.” In the medical community, “brain death” is considered to be equivalent to “death.” However, many consider this definition of death to be problematic. Even when a patient exhibits a lack of brain activity, her or she may still have functioning organs. The circulatory and respiratory systems, for instance, have been observed to be active in people who are brain dead. Is it really appropriate to define death as the cessation of brain function? Or, should the medical definition of death be modified from its current form?


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    Mar 8 2012: The current brain-centered medical definition of death seems outdated given how our bodies and definitions of self have undergone such radical changes (e.g. posthuman/cyborgian bodies) since this definition took hold. (In 1968, a committee at Harvard Med School defined brain death as death, and this was in part a response to the first human heart-to-heart transplant in Africa.)
    • Mar 8 2012: Jae,
      Thank you for your comment!
      I agree that the clinical definition of death should be adjusted to account for the advancements in medicine/technology that have been made in the recent decades. Today, even brain transplantation is within the realm of possibility; it seems old-fashioned to continue to define death as a lack of brain activity.

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