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

  1. roberta says:

    @ James dunkerton, thank you for saying that, with everything I have been reading on here, I was beginning to think I was the only one who knew the concept ‘you don’t know that’. As I said the first time, “it’s the uncertainty that’s hard for me.”, but in time we learn to move away from it, some better than others. What scares me now is that one day my son will feel this way.

  2. James Robertson says:

    Is the purpose of human evolution, to one day replace our mortal body with a “Bionic Body,” that uses electromagnetic energy to function with unlimited mental and physical superiority?
    A body that doesn’t require the nutrients a mortal body requires, is mortal disease resistant and allows a mortal being before they die to program their bionic computer brain with all the pertinent information needed to carry-on their “purpose for being” for hundreds of years to come; or until someone or something breaks their life cycle!

  3. Firstly may I say that there is no purpose or meaning to life,do animals have a purpose or meaning except to be eaten by us.
    Secondly,I don’t think that they will ever create cyborgs.The brain is much too complicated to replicate,with it’s trillions of neurons and synapses.They might be able to create new organs such as liver,kidneys and heart but there is no cure for an ageing brain.I can visualize life extension but not infinity.

  4. Rachhel √ says:

    Interesting article but where can I find more on the cycle of energy from the human body after death? I’m fascinated with the chain of events that happens when the body decays… its a full circle I think with the energy maybe esome loss during transfer

  5. First of all,who says that energy can’t be created nor destroyed?These theories by physicists should not be taken as gospel.They theorise that the big bang came from nothing,how can ‘nothing’ explode?.There must have been some form of energy there in the first place to cause an explosion.So we are back to the ageless question,who or what created that energy?As for your constituent atoms when you die Entropy will make proper provision for those.

  6. jimthebutcher says:

    I think the real question here is what happens to the consciousness when we die. The physical body and its constituent molecules can easily be seen to be a system definable in terms of matter and energy and thusly predictable by our knowledge of physics,no brainer. However, science has yet to explain what thots are in terms of matter and energy. Science can not touch or measure or contain a thought, and therefore it is niether matter nor energy but something verry unique occupying our spacetime with perhaps an entirely different set of laws governing its behavior. Are thoughts just a measure of entropy,order, a natural progression of matter to form more and more complexity and out of this complexity -consciousness. They are at very least able to observe this continuium of spacetime but could easily be on the outside looking in,or conversly on the inside looking out. Our spacetime has quantum fluctuations,”random” spikes popping in and out of existance,the quantum soup, and also has that persnickity law of thermodynamics that favours maximum randomness. It is because of this that some say life cannot possibly evolve out of the cosmos because it is clearly much more ordered than the dust from which it came. Yet if we trace the timeline of our BIG BANG theory is not the entire universe becoming more complex from the original sigularity 13 or so billion years ago to the stars and galaxies and life we see today?
    Perhaps life is some sort of negative quantum fluctuation of entropy,yet clearly the dating process shows there is definitely a conscious control of procreation and it is not random. Life very well may be the conscious efforts of an unseen entity that has the ability to manipulate quantum fluctuations and is not the result of the natural laws of physics. In witch case what happens upon our death depends on the rules that govern the quantum effect,so far to our scientists it appears random,I beg to differ.
    “life, don’t talk to me about life.Here i am with the brain the size of a planet and even I don’t know”- marvin.

  7. Theories,beliefs and faith are all very well Roberta,but the simple truth is that we don’t know the answer to your question.If we knew there was a better place awaiting us after death we would all be queuing up outside the door of Dignitas.If indeed there is an omnipotent entity then it doesn’t interfere with life in any way,it is purely random.I say this from experiential knowledge.We can see Entropy at work in our everyday lives,we don’t need scientific proof.So if he/they leaves it to randomness,which seems to be the case,he/they just include a few constants that are irreversible in this great game of life.

  8. SpiritM says:

    @James Dunkerton
    “Firstly may I say that there is no purpose or meaning to life,do animals have a purpose or meaning except to be eaten by us”

    The purpose of our lives is to maintain the continuity of our species, add to the already known knowledge and provide that as a solid base to our next generation. Every species does this only. While doing all this nature keep on takes our test, if we pass well and fine else the species or the individual(s) is/are eliminated. This is why many of the species are extinct now.

    I believe consciousness is a process not a thing. It is the process that links our memories, our thoughts, emotions and feelings to give us a subjective experience of objective reality. This process exists as a result of our brain (neurons) and the entire nervous system. In short consciousness has physical basis for it’s existence but is not physical in itself and it cease to exists when we die.

    I do not believe in religious and spiritual propaganda of “Universal Consciousness”

    Thoughts and emotions originates in our unconscious mind. As of now scientist can capture our thoughts up to 8 sec before they become conscious in our conscious mind. I think they capture our thoughts in terms of brain regions activity.

    Thanks :)

  9. it means that matter only changes not what made the matter important

  10. Jay says:

    I recall reading many years ago, during a experiment in a vacuum, scientist discovered a atom had emerged out of nowhere, considering space is essentially a vacuum by my understanding, it’s entirely possible the results of this experiment happened with the Big Bang but on a much larger scale, at the same time quantum physics started looking for logical explanations and this is where they started liking at parallel dimensions, current science can not explain everything and would be fool hardy of anyone to assume it can, not all equations and formulations have been found otherwise we would be much more advanced than we are now.

  11. I couldn’t agree with you more Jay.Atoms don’t need nutrition,they don’t die,they are not alive.We are made of atoms and yet we need nutrition and we die.This must be the paradox to end all paradoxes!!
    But to be fair,physicists have come a long way and I have no doubt they will go even further eventually.Whatever the future holds for mankind is simply mind-boggling and the performance of mystifying and exciting atoms is still an exciting study in it’s infancy at the moment.So,suffice it to say,life and the cosmos are still the biggest mysteries of all.

  12. David emery says:

    Hey guys,
    The universe, this planet, evolution is governed by energy.
    Our bodies are pure energy and when we die the energy can not be destroyed but moves into another place, this is what keeps the universe going.

  13. Thomas Aikenhead says:

    David emery, I couldn’t agree more. However, energy can somewhat be destroyed by fire. I stumbled across this while looking for a “natural burial” due to keeping my atoms potentiating through the world long after I am gone. If cremated, that unique “energy” within atoms, DNA, cells, whatever, is then dissipated into the air and broken apart for good. Whereas in a natural burial, the body decomposes and is used as fuel for nature (animals, plants, dirt, etc). I still have a ton of questions about how that would work as well, but for now that seems like the only way to keep one’s “energy” in nature.

  14. anon says:

    So the electricity in a dead body just leaves as heat?

  15. The Physicist The Physicist says:

    The electricity in a living body turns into heat. In a dead body those processes responsible for the creation of electricity no longer function or aren’t being supplied with the nutrients they need to create voltage differences.

  16. Yes,I agree with the physicists,nutrients are the source of energy,so no nutrients,no energy and no life!!Cancer patients don’t die because of their pathosis,they die of starvation because their bodies are disfunctional and can’t source the nutrients from the food.

  17. Maz says:

    This is a very interesting discussion I stumbled on by chance. I would like to comment, perhaps question would be more accurate.

    If energy is neither created nor destroyed, doesn’t this beg the assumption that all the energy in the universe is all there is, or ever was? Perhaps all the energy of previous universes, if there were any, came together in the proposed singularity, which at present does not fully reconcile with theories around quantum mechanics.

    When we die, that energy turns to heat by being cremated. In burial some energy may be reused as in eaten or manure. Some energy becomes heat from breaking down that dissipates. A suns reaction gives off heat. Some is used to heat planets with no life and just does nothing. On earth some is reused.

    If it were true that energy cannot be created or destroyed then all this energy can’t just dissipate, it has to be reused, ie go back into the system, somehow.

    This may mean that the energy released at death is no more or less than the energy released from any sun as it burns. The heat can’t just dissipate into nothing, because then the energy in the universe would be finite.

    For me, (that has little to no knowledge of physics or science quals), in the end we are left with only three possibilities: Either the energy in the universe is finite and will one day run out, or, energy is being added to the system somehow, or, all energy is being pumped back into the system somehow.

  18. Jason Flatt says:

    I love this conversation and the way that it is going. I can see by reading everyones comments tht this is not an conversation for religious nuts or the faint at heart. To add my 2 cents in I would say this….. I don’t truthfully know what happens and I have a few hypothesis’s that make sense but in the end none of it makes sense. Maybe because My brain is not advanced enough to understand. I just know what I believe and thats a matter of faith. But even my belief system wavers from time to time from new discoveries. My 1st defense for the afterlife used to be NDE’s. But scientifically that can be explained to a certain extent as well. Like the tunnel vision, losing your peripheral vision as the brain shuts down so on so forth. I guess when dealing with this type of energy and the recycling of this type of energy as spoken about earlier, there are some pretty unexplainable things attached to this. 1st some people are able to be born but have specific recollections of their past life. I would say that this could be some sort of trickery…but to actually be as specific as some of these people as children are is quite breathtaking as well as unexplainable. I also think there are events that appear supernatural that are unexplainable as well. Spirits , ghosts, clairavoyants, things like this are unexplainable as well. Please continue this conversation as I enjoy reading your comments and feedback!!!

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  20. kezra says:

    I have faith and its all compatible discussion for me.

    Please could you learned gents and ladies share your thoughts on alternate parallels and fluctuations?

  21. Well this all very debatable,but nobody knows the answer for certain.No body can ever say that they have experienced death,otherwise they wouldn’t be alive to say it would they.There has never been one scintilla of evidence to support the paranormal or miracles.
    I think the brain is dependent on oxygen and nutrients,just like a light bulb is dependent on electricity.So no nutrients and no electricity they both go out,simple as that.they don’t go anywhere,they just go out.A light bulb stays warm after a while then it loses it’s heat energy to Entropy to the temperature around it,same with the brain,it loses it’s heat energy to Entropy.I’ts all quite simply really,in both cases the Entropy of the universe increases!

  22. Abdurrahman isah El-sudaisyna says:

    Energy can neither created nor destroyed. It simple means that it change from one formed to another,when a body is dead the siprite goes up to creator of the universe live the dead body to be buriel and discompose by adding nutrient to the soil for plant and animal growths. So it change from one form to another.

  23. Thomas Aikenhead says:

    Yeah, I was waiting for a comment like this one… There is absolutely no evidence for the supernatural, so lets keep this discussion based on science, physical processes, and what we can observe/test please.

  24. David Rousculp says:

    I have been a funeral director for 30 years. I have studied this for a long time. I continue to be surprised as I peel this onion. M Theory tends to have my attention in many cases. I have seen things that many have not and I have no documented proof. I have heard things that clearly came from something. My approach is always scientific and calculated but thrown out the window time and again. I like that sometimes but other times it is frustrating. If the answer comes after death I believe one will say oh, this isn’t anything like I thought it would be. Good luck in your search for answers.

  25. kezra says:

    So… can anyone expand on quantum fluctuations? I am a layman when it come to physics my field being Paleoanthropology so please keep it simple but you shouldn’t have to dumb down too much I hope!

  26. rohan says:

    Recently I had a debate with my friend on the topic DOES GHOST EXIST. I had a point that every thing that exist has mass and ghost doesn’t have mass so they doesn’t exist. On which he commented that its a energy and every body releases energy after deaths so is it true that energy are souls which every living being releases after death?

  27. Jason Flatt says:

    Rohan…With all due respect that is NOT a valid argument. Ghosts don’t have mass? 1st off physicists and mathematicians are not qualified to comment on facts only opinions on this matter as they are not paranormal scientist and this is outside their spectrum of specialty. They may only express opinions like the rest of us. They cannot even explain wormholes or multi dimensions and their explanations of time space continuum are nothing more than theories. How is it ghost whom which a multitude of people from different places, cultures, languages, and time periods have witnessed this phenomenon for the not to be some truth to it. This also negates mass hysteria. Next if an atom takes up mass or oxygen as well, how is it any one can make the claim that ghosts do not have mass? Please explain.

  28. rohan says:

    Vyt the presence of ghost is like sumthing that goes beyond my thinking also I have been visiting many sights in which one of the sight displayed that the ghosts dosen’t have mass and so it does not exist.Then why can’t we sence it is it like a person must have a different kind of ability that is helpful to sence it?
    And am sorry if I have mistaken some where because i’m not a scientist of a guy that have a lot of knowledge coz i’m still learning and going to clear my 12th standard

  29. Stan says:

    Without picking sides here as many of the points/observations are very thought provoking, I will only add this fact: Either (1) human consciousness somehow continues on in some form and way after the body stops living; or (2) It doesn’t. Two possibilities period. Really when you think about it those aren’t bad odds for those of us who want to believe in life after death….

  30. Michael T says:

    Hi Thomas – Great debate site! I am not sure it matters what happens to our energy or other parts of our body after we die. Science (quantum theory) leads me to believe that we are living in a perceived reality. If this is correct, what we think and do throughout our lives is not realy different than when we are dreaming. Great book in PDF form on the internet (free) is Butterflies Are Free To Fly. After reading through it (several times), my ideas regarding reality have changed and I now know what the meaning of life is all about. Cheers.

  31. Jaime says:

    I am not a educated person I was just curious about the cycle of life after watching my daughters Guinea pig slowly die. We are making him comfortable. I noticed his warmth and energy was slowly disappearing so if his energy is leaving him and energy can not die I was wondering where it was going. After reading this I realize that his energy is already starting the decomposing stage. But after that stage is finished and he becomes dust where does that chemical energy go or does it become energy for the parasites that aid in the decomposition.

  32. stu says:

    Energy or a persons life force (Illusion) ceases to exist when the living thing dies. There is no room in our 3-Dimensional world or time-space for this energy to continue on its merry little way. Gravitation / gravity may support the idea that there are no other hidden realities to further prove the energy theory.

    However, maybe if we lived in the 10th dimension.

    Please note this is just an opinion and no truth intended.

  33. Jason Flatt says:

    So what this gentleman is basically saying in a nutshell is when you die…that’s it you just die and cease to exist. I would say that I could possible agree with you but there are some things that would have to be explained before I could concur. 1st and foremost..how could you explain ghosts or spirits that have been scientifically proven but never acknowledged. For instance EVP phenomenon or things of that nature. Another thing would be past life memories. There have been multiple theories to how this exists but how can a child at 6 years old remember a past life in detail all the way until their death from 1000 miles away that has been proven to be pretty common. As well as we could say with people who have seen ghosts they are delusional but I’m sure coming from that situation they would indeed disagree with you and so would some of the investigators that have had to deal with these things. Truthfully I don’t know what happens I can only speak of what I believe. But there is more evidence to disprove life ceases to exist than there is to the contrary.

  34. Mike Knight says:

    Also what about the supposed energy equivalent of somewhere in excess of a thousand 1-megaton hydrogen bombs that our bodies contain beyond the matter level? I read that in a few articles about Star Trek transporters, and how they would be a disaster dematerializing a person into energy form.

  35. alan says:

    never trust a physicist who says “Electrical energy is nothing special” especially as their opening statement……. sheez talk about small minded perceptions

  36. Kevin says:

    Great discussion! First of all I have to reply to one of the comments I read that this is a simple matter. For millennia humans have been wondering about there position/purpose/role in the reality we share and find one another. What is being discussed here is the most important and fundamental question we can imagine as individuals and as a species who happen to have traveled down a ‘privaledged’ evolutionary road to ‘conciousness’. Unfortunately for us (humans) and all life on earth at least, extinction is the norm. I think the problem we all have as people is our minds yearning for some special reason we are here. What has been discovered in the last few centuries indicates that life, let alone humans are anything but special given the incomprehensible size and timescale of the universe as we can observe from our vantage point. As much as I don’t want to accept how ‘unimportant’ we are given such immense scales as the universe, it’s important to realize for the advancement of our species’ understanding of the universe that everything isn’t revolving around ‘us’. Meaning the universe doesn’t give a damn if we exist in human form or any other form of energy. We literally have no effect on the universe at large. I do agree with the theory that pure fundamental energy is neither created nor destroyed entirely from existence. This is a far cry though from saying some kind of ‘soul’ (however that’s defined) moves on to some other dimension. Our energy may exist for ever. We just won’t have any idea where or how that energy will continue. The real stunning idea I can’t get over is will our species even survive long enough to even get remotely close to finding the answers to our most meaningful questions? History says no (given five? Massive extinctions). Throw in a little religion and politics… Now that’s a recipe for disaster!

    These are not ‘simple’ questions by any stretch of the imagination. Truth must always be pursued. The best way we have found is through using the methods of science.

  37. jamie says:

    I would like to add i have experienced out of body when i had a cardiac arrest and i had died for close to 20 minutes. I feel that my experience would have happened having had it explained to me just before i had died when my brain was shutting down hence the illusion of bright lights and seeing my dead body i was just creating this image in my head or at least my brain was moments prior (it felt longer than moment but i have had it explained to me). Even though i had improved senses and everything i just think that is a normal part of death because everything happens so fast and your body has no idea what to do so i felt it may just have gave bursts of energy to all my senses before i had died so my senses seemed so much brighter.

    As real as my experience felt after talking to my doctor, family members and also reading up on it what i experienced was a natural and can happen before death and i believe now it was a process of the brain because my body had such down and my imagination somehow kicked in before. Even though my experience felt longer than the 1 minute or so it would of most likely lasted i just think that is the same when you dream as their isn’t real a time scale, some feel longer some feel shorter.

    All i had experienced is what i have been told can happen during death and because that was probably in my mind at some deep sub conscious my brain and imagination kicked in and created this illusion to make it seem a reality. I think maybe it’s a comfort thing your brain giving you your last experience before you die for good.

  38. Rb1992 says:

    Firstly, this is the view of an extremely narrow minded physicist.

    Energy has the capacity and capability to create a new divide in everything we know (which isn’t a lot), the levels of unexplainable creation caused from something simple like a clap or fire are incredible, comparably to what we see, rather than understand.

    Back to life and what we question:This is fundamentally caused by the misconception; Death is the end of life.

    Death is just as important to life as birth, the opposite of life is not death, but instead ‘not living’.

    If we did not have the inevitability of death, we would be lost in a form of uselessness. We use death as an instruction for life, we were not born to live for ever, nor take the ‘time'(life independent) in to consideration and as a fact of ruling.

    Also, we should not analyse death, we do this is due to evolving into a species that no longer need to survive, but simply glide through life.

    There are things we cannot understand or comprehend, nor need to.

    Ask yourself, if we found out how it all begun or where our existence/energy goes after death, would we change our lifestyle? Or would it impact the way we live?

    No. Except for man made ideology (religion)

  39. alan says:

    I don’t think the comments on this thread or the post itself really demonstrate any understanding of the complexities of reality. Instead they bump into belief systems mixed in with a bit of basic science and merge that together into a comfortable conclusion. But really none of the things I’ve read here give reality the respect it deserves… lets start with time… what is that how does that work? Oh you can’t explain time but you can explain death? OK lets look at distance and space… what is that and how does that work? Oh you can’t explain distance and space but you can explain death? Remember ALL science is based on an UNPROVEN assumption… once that UNPROVEN assumption is agreed then the proof of things around it begins… quickly we forget it all started with an UNPROVEN ASSUMPTION.

  40. Joe V says:

    Two things we know: Energy can neither be created or destroyed, and the expansion of the universe is acellerating . Take this to the next logical step (at least for me.) There are more people in the world; more people dying means more energy being released into the universe, henseforth an accellerated expansion of the universe. A physicist would explain it in terms of “Dark Matter;” a theoligist might believe it’s the soul leaving the body.

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