Q: If energy is neither created nor destroyed, what happens to the energy within our bodies and brains when we die?

Quick note: If you’re presently grieving, don’t read this.

The original question was: If energy is neither created nor destroyed, what happens to the energy within our bodies and brains when we die?  I think I understand that the metabolic energy tied up in our cells will be used in the decomposition process, but what about the electrical energy in our brains/bodies?  This would seem to be a measurable amount of energy that at the moment of death is no longer required by the body/brain and would have to go somewhere.  I’m not asking from a theological or spiritual perspective, but strictly as a question of physics.

… [is there] a measurable radiation of heat at the moment of death.  Do you know if there have been experiments that have measured the heat loss and correlated it to the known amount of electrical energy in the human body?


Physicist: Electrical energy is nothing special.  Just like the chemical energy in our bodies, it breaks down into heat.  For example, the heat given off by light bulbs (or electric heaters for that matter!) is a result of electrical energy.  When electricity is flowing to a light bulb, that’s where the electrical energy is going; it’s turning into light.  When you pull the plug (so to speak) what tiny, tiny amount of electrical energy there is in the wires runs out almost immediately.

The term “electrical energy” is actually a little vague.  So, to be specific, in our nervous system there are tiny ion pumps that maintain an imbalance of charges between the inside and outside of the nerve cells.  When a nerve cell fires, charges are allowed to suddenly flow through the cell membrane in a process called an “action potential“.  The way electricity flows along nerve cells is different from the way it flows down a telegraph wire (“inside-to-outside” instead of “along”), but whatever.  The point is, there are mechanisms that maintain an imbalance of charge (which is electricity waiting to happen), and that imbalance is drained a little bit every time the nerve fires.

Death (excluding spectacular deaths) isn’t instantaneous.  In fact, what with medical science, it’s become more and more difficult to even define when people are dead.  Time was you could define death as being a lack of heart beat, but people have come back from worse (by that metric, Dick Cheney has been dead for a while).  Death is more of a break-down of the whole system, as opposed to a sudden event.  The heart stops doing whatever hearts do when they’re not loving, oxygen and nutrients stop going where they’re needed, and in short order the nerve cells in the body lose the wherewithal to pump ions.  Like batteries that are no longer being recharged, they run down.  Nothing special.  Like every kind of energy, whether electrical, kinetic, sonic, or sports fever, the electrical potential in the body eventually becomes heat energy (it’s an entropy thing).

The energy we “carry around” takes the form of chemical energy like fats and sugars.  When our nervous system creates electrical energy we lose an equal amount of chemical energy.  So, rather than being energy itself, life is all about moving energy around from one form to another.

What this question is clearly really about is the fact that it seems as though there’s a fundamental difference between animate and inanimate people.  Admittedly, dead folk are a hair less energetic than living people (with some exceptions).  There are a few kinds of energy (surprisingly few), but spiritual energy doesn’t seem to be one of them.  In terms of physical energy, the difference between a living body and a very recently dead body is just a question of how that energy is being organized.  Living critters in general are very good at using chemical energy for things like moving, growing, etc.  Newly dead critters have about the same amount of chemical energy, it’s just that they don’t use it.  Instead, whatever comes along to consume the body uses it (whether that’s fire or decomposition or whatever).

There have been many, surprisingly callous, attempts to measure a drop in energy and/or mass leaving the body at the so-called “moment of death”.  However, these experiments have been vague and, much worse, unrepeatable.  The most famous is the experiment by Dr. Duncan MacDougall in which, by putting patients dying of tuberculosis on giant scales, he found that those patients lost 21 grams on average between life and death.  To be fair, homeboy had 6 data points (that is: people) and a lot of statistical noise, so his conclusions have about the same amount of statistical weight as “vaccines cause Autism“.  To date, there are no confirmable experiments that show that anything special happens during death, other than a general “shutting down”.  In particular, nothing that’s both “inspiring” and verifiable seems to suddenly leave the body when we die, materially or energetically.

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115 Responses to Q: If energy is neither created nor destroyed, what happens to the energy within our bodies and brains when we die?

  1. steve says:

    I think if we looked into our atoms we would just find energy at its raw form. Isnt that the same exact energy that was around going back to the big bang? I think the only difference in being human and being anything else is the conscience we seem to love. Since we don’t have any answers on where it comes from, how it works and where it goes when we die its hard for me to accept any answers as truth when concerning death. Awesome discussion, and very civil- well done internet.

  2. Anmol says:

    practically people dies. but hypothetically does not.According to A Einstine energy can never be created nor destroyed..like wise the energy within the body never dies, hope so.If it is converted like in decomposition, the energy is converted to mechanical energy( locomotion of microbes that consume body( dead).Again by burning body it is converted to heat energy.
    After the initial conversion of energy to what again is converted to.?
    Again ?? lies in between
    conclusion, if the stated line of A Einstine is right then life never dies..if it isn’t the stated lines of Einstine is wrong.

  3. The law of Physics is very clear about our consciousness and energy……Clearly energy is living and cannot be destroyed….

  4. Adam says:

    So, apparently, even though the physicist answers the question, the people who comment think they’re going to prove him wrong? Lol.. Please, give me a break.

  5. E says:

    There are different fields within physics and different scientific perspectives on this subject – therefore no two answers are ever the same. The ‘truth’ is that we are still discovering it.

  6. Jason Flatt says:

    I don’t think it’s so much about give the physicist a break as they only see things black and white thru science and I lay those who think outside of the box with abstract thought actually do amazing things. Like Louis Pasteur for example and others. There is too many variables that physicists do not account for. The 21 grams test-not theory TEST. Things outside of the realm of conventional thinking. Physicists tend to think that when you die- That’s it you dead end of discussion. From all the things that prove that isn’t the case they negate or discount as coincidence. I’m sorry if your a true scientist and everything over the 2000 years of writing discusses and proves that there is another place after this why would you not spend your research time using those as a plateau to prove it’s right than more unsupported factors to prove it’s wrong?

  7. Mary lee says:

    I have experienced energy all around, seen it and even sensed some trying to communicate, I do not need to go into detail, but I know I am not the only one who has experienced spiritual life around us. A lot of my friends have had similar experiences which they described to me. I am a person who likes to be clear headed and very perceptive. My question is, to the physist, how would you describe and explain that particular energy around us. Thanks.

  8. M says:

    Xlnt question. This I bet is hard to answer.

  9. Rob says:

    Is excess electrical energy ever produced by the neurons for example at the end of a muscular movement or highly emotive state? If it takes a chemical process to produce the chemical energy, that help neurons fire in the nervous system, how is that energy not ” created” as the only step before that, as far as I know, is the bodies breaking down of food for ” energy”? Food doesn’t have any kind of energy by itself before the body adds it’s special blend. Or does it?

  10. C. DeCosta says:

    There are a few kinds of energy (surprisingly few), but spiritual energy doesn’t seem to be one of them

    I am not a scientist but wanted to comment on the above statement…before thermometers were invented, there was no way to measure heat energy. What if one day there’s an instrument to measure spiritual energy or ones “aura”? My point is that as science develops, new discoveries are made. Even Tesla thought: “The day science begins to study non-physical phenomena, it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of its existence.”

  11. Are says:

    Within every atom is an unbelievable amount of ‘bounded’ energy. The atom is balanced with itself, nucleus against electrons. Electrons are MOVING. This is the source of all chemical energy: electrons move and jump valences and between atoms, forming multi-atom structures called molecules. A molecule can only exist because atoms are endlessly in motion. And molecules interact with other molecules via the same process of trading electrons-in-motion between each other, resulting in trades of whole atoms as well. When systems break down their energy is relieved the need to spend itself on maintaining those kind of active bonds and exchanges; physics does not even understand what consciousness is, things like Global Consciousness Project demonstrate the validity of “extra-physical” fields of information-energy in which life participates. Science needs to lose its ignorance and arrogance and learn to see what it does not yet understand, as Tesla said when science starts taking non-physical phenomena seriously it will make more progress in a single decade than all years thus far. Real thinkers like Tesla and Einstein understood that our knowledge are drops in an ocean; faith and passion for the sublime, for truth itself and not for one’s own mere ego and proud skepticism are the real basis of science.

  12. bizee says:

    For any science to believe that they are the pinnacle of understanding of any one thing in a clear, concise, black and white fashion is a crippling fog to that “science”. I am not in disagreement with a lot of the understood, but I don’t rule out perceptions of unidentified energy and methods that our brain can’t grasp at this stage of human development. There are so many real life examples of science discovering methods of seeing how things work that are constantly evolving its almost laughable to come to a conclusion like the above and expect that to be forever finite and never seen from a different perspective, with a potential for a better understanding of analysis that seems impossible with our science as of now. The fish believes it’s not in a bowl and the world was once flat. Science is important but shouldn’t be so rigid that it creates tunnel vision for the evolvement of a better science. I respect the writer but wonder how this will stand up in 500 years. MAYBE it will stand up… maybe it won’t. Either is possible if you ask me.

  13. cy kane says:

    I believe energy as well as all things (dead or alive) fractalize down to an undetectable unit of, who knows what. We have no idea how small things can get, or how big the universe is for that matter but Al was right about one thing. Energy is there. Everything we do makes us a part of it. Just being alive marrys us to it until our bidies die. Then it get smaller and smaller until, who kniws what?…..Aloha

  14. Robert says:

    What about out of body experiences, where a person was clinically dead (science). Where the person, when revived was able to say in detail everything that went on in the room.
    Science is obviously unwilling to look at the obvious, which is documented thousands of times, not isolated incidents.
    Then we have sleep walkers, that are able to walk in their clinically proven being asleep, yet they are able to walk without hitting into objects, with their eyes closed. According to science, this is impossible.
    Need more, I have more, those are just two of the obvious.

  15. Reitz says:

    You know. You could have just said you don’t know. That would have been much shorter than this article.

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