Event Recap: Flatliners and The Science of Near-Death

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Is there an afterlife? In the 1990 thriller Flatliners, five medical students attempt to find the answer through near-death experiences. Four of the students undergo a process of death (“flatlining”) and resuscitation. The film is a dark meditation on what happens when the living try to navigate the space between life and death, as the students’ past sins are brought back to haunt them. 

The film, director Joel Schumacher stated at a screening at the Imagine Science Film Festival on October 19, is about amends. The characters, he pointed out, need to find grace, like Kevin Bacon’s character who apologizes to a woman he taunted in grade school. Joining Schumacher for a panel discussion of the film and the science of death were moderator Jad Abumrad, RadioLab host; Benjamin Abella, MD, from the Center for Resuscitation Science; and Christian Macedonia, MD, a U.S. Army surgeon. 

The first question on the panel covered Schumacher’s high-art portrayal of medical school. There are no white hallways and small classrooms in Flatliners. Instead, the students dissect bodies in what resembles an art museum. The chosen artistic direction of the film, Schumacher explained, was to bring the conceit of the film to a level of theater. Macedonia complimented Schumacher’s choice by comparing it to 2008’s The Hurt Locker, which he stated did not portray the technical details accurately but captured the emotional integrity of the scenario. 

For film, Schumacher mentioned, the production team researched near-death experiences. The opening scene features a woman discussing her experience, which Schumacher pointed out, was taken word-for-word from a woman they interviewed. Abella, who studies cardiac arrest, stated near-death experiences are not universal but many people do experience visions of bright lights and tunnels. Science does not have an answer yet, Abella said, for why near-death experiences are similar across cultures. When the brain is deprived of oxygen, Abella explained, the brain does experience hallucinations. One thought is the physical structure of the brain might account for each person experiencing the same hallucination.

As for the science in the film, Schumacher made light of the neon blue blankets used to cool the students’ bodies down but stated it came from a real piece of science. It is true, Abella said, that cooling down the body can extend the window for resuscitation, from 5 minutes to 30 minutes. Cells need energy to die, Macedonia explained, and cooling decreases the energy, allowing the body to live longer. What about scientific evidence of an afterlife? As a scientist, Abella admitted, the answer is elusive. We may get answers one day, he said, but we are nowhere near close.

The evening wrapped with a few more questions, including the craziest thing to happen on set (Kevin Bacon accidentally broke Kiefer Sutherland’s rib!) and a brief Q&A session with the audience. To learn more about resuscitation science, learn more about Abella’s work at http://www.med.upenn.edu/resuscitation/.

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.