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

  1. Jayson Flatt says:

    Terry- I agree..short and sweet good point

  2. Jacob Matysek says:

    Terry – I think in here some took the view the energy was converted (q where does it go)…. but in all honestly we are atill learning about certain fascists of sub particles… so there exists uncertainty even at science in the realms of mass less sub particles ie higgs fields… higs bosons… still per the laws of conservation… These particles exists at the tiniest fractions of a sec… so are extremely difficult to detect but may shes more light into this area of science :).

  3. The Polymath says:

    @James Robertson – Read, “Scanners Live in Vain,” by Cordwainer Smith. I believe you will find it fascinating that it was written in the 50’s.

    I’d personally presume that given there are more than three billion people with access to the internet, each commenter on this page is not at the same level of education, thus creating much fluctuation between perspectives of what can and cannot be, therefore, even given an imagination one can make some factual claims, and on the other hand, even given some factual information one can make some theoretical claims. Let’s all get along. However, on the side of “black and white-seeing” physicists, psychologists would say ambiguity is the discomfort from knowing there is something you don’t know that you wish you did, and I for one would rather fill in whatever blanks necessary with any-n-everything rather than be in discomfort…I mean…right…??? So, whatever “opinions” and “facts” are argued, it should only be fair to say that what can be empirically tested now and today should outweigh any theoretical, or even statistical, evidence otherwise.

    That being said, I want to give MY 2 cents too! =:D

    Included in majority of the comments is a mentioning of BURNING A BODY, and what happens to it when it goes through this process. This can actually be easily understood by looking at Antoine Lavoisier’s (1743-1794) burning log experiment. In this experiment, the log is weighed before and after it is burned. Obviously, the ashes of the log weigh less than before it was burned; the obvious question being, “where did the weight go?” The obvious (at least in physics) answer is, “it went from solids to gases.” The weight of the gases being released into the air by the flames as a log burns will equally match the a log’s weight “loss.” Hence, a body burned is simply going from solids to gases. (Ahem, heat…)

    I saw someone mention dark energy and just wanted to share this link: http://profmattstrassler.com/articles-and-posts/particle-physics-basics/mass-energy-matter-etc/matter-and-energy-a-false-dichotomy/ And actually, relating to this link, “energy” is a little ambiguous itself. Take potential energy for example: until it’s converted into some other form of energy (heat, sound, etc) it’s not really what we think of energy in everyday, simple terms. Rather, it’s an abstract thing, so….that should confuse things just enough more to cause everyone to flip their lid and cry, “Enough science, enough!” ;)~

    My only really personal thought on all this is the fascinating theory of infinity: mathematically possible, theoretically mind boggling. What I find second most interesting about infinity is that it goes both ways – backward and forwards. That means that time never really started, nor will it ever end. What I find most interesting of all about infinity is that theoretically it should apply to time and SPACE! Why is this fascinating? Not because of the obvious fact that if you move forward (or outwards) in space, and keep moving for infinity, it makes a very, VERY large space, but for the less-obvious fact that if you move backwards (or inwards), then theoretically there is no end to how small things can be. In this concept, I imagine relative to the size of atoms, there are subatomic particles the size of blue suns! In this respect, energy is in my opinion something that can and never will be fully understood, however, the least factual comfort you can give yourself about death is energy’s law of conservation. Otherwise, literally just tell yourself that what happens in the movie, “Chappie,” is possible and will happen in your lifetime, and you will feel a whole lot better.

  4. Rachel says:

    I know you said not to read this is if you’re grieving, (i’m 12, my dad recently died and all that stuff) but my family is Christian and I’m pretty much questioning everything in life. I saw the warning and wondered if i would continue to sob for another hour or two because of my fear of death but after reading the article, i actually felt… like death would be, like… peaceful. This was more comforting to me than a ‘heaven’ that lasts for ETERNITY while you forever hear angels play harps and you pretty much let go of anything that made you human or you stay there all happy ignoring that there are people, maybe close friends of yours, burning and being tortured in Hell. It didn’t seem like a paradise to me. Lately I’ve been thinking reincarnation would be nice. But HOLY SHIT the part about time never starting or ending gave me an existential crisis- here we go, more death anxiety. Maybe my anxiety about death will never be resolved.

  5. Queen Diamond says:

    The question was avoided, you never did clearly answer where the energy went. Like a car crash? The body just runs out/ shuts down like a robot? The energy? AGAIN, does it “vaporize”? A clear answer please. Or is this some sort of government secret, after all we never did learn this in school. When we did talk about cells and energy we were told the scientific explanation to life and the broad biblical explanation. Obviously one is going to keep us scared and give power to be controlled, and the other would bring up more questions in a chaotic form because no one would have power over anyone for what the biblical explanation is used as a border to keep us from thinking about it because it would be a truly “sinful” thing to do.

  6. The Polymath says:

    @Rachel – Not that it may resolve your anxiety about death, but consider the following:

    I’ve questioned religion a lot as well; however, in my conscience I’ve ALWAYS concluded several things.

    1. Metaphysics and natural physics, and ANY physics that deals with reality as we see-hear-feel-taste-and-smell does not ultimately reveal an answer of how to accept mortality. It may reveal answers of life itself, i.e. how it began, why it began, and how to manipulate it, but how to ‘deal with it all’ is not really included in this spectrum of enlightenment. — This said, a second conclusion implies..

    2. If essential happiness and contentment will not come from omniscience then why not believe the ‘impossible?’ If you’re not going to be happy or content otherwise then what harm does it do to have a little faith?

    Just for opinion sake, here’s how I see it:

    How can you truly teach any ‘thing’ anything without allowing them the experience? In my opinion, you can’t. For example, you can tell something or someone how to swim, show them how to do it, draw diagrams, program it in their head, ANYTHING, but it’s pretty clear that they won’t be able to swim until they get in the water and resist drowning. Maybe better put, Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn,” and Albert Einstein said, “I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” So… How else could an omnipresent architect “involve” us in learning to be human or “create the conditions” for us to truly understand if not through experience and faith alone? If this architect simply created us to be perfect then the logical question I would have is what IS perfect and at which point in existence would be a good place for us to start???

    Point being..

    Let’s say an architect did build this universe and create all; we should then presume it was an omnipresence, particularly all-knowing regarding physics, and with this said this architect should then have made a never-ending loop of logic to deter any ‘thing’ from questioning its existence is ‘real.’ For example, if suddenly, today in the year 2015, some physically impossible occurrences began regularly happening and all of what we know to be ‘real’ was found to be unexplainable then global pandemonium would FINALLY occur. In other words, if I just popped my head through your screen at this very moment, winked an eye at you, and went back into the computer, and then did the same for every person on a computer at this very moment, I’m pretty sure the world would change. In what way the world would change is the point though. With no explanation possible we would have nothing but an omnipresent architect to believe in. We would suddenly have a purpose, e.g. whatever purpose this architect put us here for! Hence, our beliefs would change, our directives in life would change, HOW WE EVOLVED AND OUR NATURAL EXISTENCE would change, and all relevantly not because of faith, but because of evidence.


    Consider then how one such omnipresence would resolve a TRUE testament of faith. (By leaving NO EVIDENCE OF HIS EXISTENCE, why of course!) And here’s the interesting part: an attempt to explain something with no evidence, especially a physical impossibility, is sure to seem theatrical, i.e. your attempted explanation to the authorities that a person’s face just popped out of your computer screen will surely sound just as impossible (and crazy..) as half-naked cupids playing harps in some other dimension!

    If you haven’t caught on by now, what I’m saying is that while some argue faith to be an impossible explanation for all that is ambiguous, I find that with an explanation for everything there is no such thing as faith. We will never learn how to truly be faithful if everything is proven. Instead, our faith will depend on something – on physics, on evidence, on seeing the light at the end of the tunnel – and in this case united faith, which can very well be another form of consciousness, will never become us. Another great quote from the very intelligent Albert Einstein is, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it;” we can never transcend without a new understanding.

    Rachel – Here’s one more from Albert Einstein: “The human mind is unable to conceive of the four dimensions, so how can it conceive of (the) God before whom a thousand years and a thousand dimensions are as one?”

    Have a good day!

  7. The Polymath says:

    @Queen Diamond – I think a clear explanation of where the “energy” goes may lie in this link: http://profmattstrassler.com/articles-and-posts/particle-physics-basics/mass-energy-matter-etc/matter-and-energy-a-false-dichotomy/

    You should not forget that “energy” is just a word for something, as are all words. What the word “energy” refers to may not actually be some “thing,” and therefore cannot come or go, so the question “where does it go,” may not be applicable.

    Think of it this way: when you die, where do your IDEAS go??? 😉

  8. John Fornaro says:

    I stumbled across this thread while doing some research on my hypothesis that Life has no mass and no charge, because at the moment of death, there is no measurable difference of mass and charge to be found in the Universe.

    I believe that the correct short answer to the question is that the mass and energy of the universe does not change when we die, and that life is a massless and chargless phenomena that we experience in this universe. The body decomposes and the living go on living.

    I have a few objections to the article/answer above, which I number for editorial convenience:

    The question today, 10-24-15 ARSH is:

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

    The orginal question per the ‘Physicist’ on 11-8-15 ARSH was:

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

    (1) I’m not seeing any differences between the two questions!

    The Physicist: “Electrical energy is nothing special.”

    (2) I did not notice the questioner asking if electrical energy is “special”. From an editorial and rhetorical standpoint, I prefer fewer words to more, unless the additional words add to an argument or support a proof.

    The Physicist: “The term ‘electrical energy’ is actually a little vague.”

    (3) The questoner asked about “energy”, which includes electrical energy, and the action potential is an electrical energy phenomena. Electrical energy is not vague at all.

    The Physicist: “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.”

    (4) The question is “really about” the change of energy that accompanies the change from being alive to being dead.

    (5) Humor aside, there is a fundamental difference between life and death. There is no “seeming” to be either one.

    (6) The legal definition of life and death is only tangentially connected to the scientific definition of life and death.

    The Physicist: “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.”

    (7) Life is a special energy which cannot be measured by or even defined by science.

    Enjoy Life!

  9. I am writing a book about “Skull Art.” Your views on energy were enlightening, Thank you.

  10. Karen Selby says:

    Rachel – Please go to Micah Anderson Update and Prayer page. He actually died and went to heaven and then was revived. Please read it it is so helpful. There are a lot of different kinds of energy and there has been a lot of energy gone into his life.

  11. Delia Smith says:

    But if energy is neither created nor destroyed and just transformed then why don’t scientists believe in God? If energy is conserved then the belief in God seems to conform. If a person dies and energy transforms into billions of separate atoms yet those atoms are waiting to be transformed and connected in a billion years, then death is not the end of life. It may be the end of breathing etc but it is never the end of life because the possibility of life has already confirmed. If the possibility is confirmed then the probability of existence is included in the infinite nature of the universe and will never cease to exist. Therefore, there is no such thing as true death. If God is possible then the “existence of God” has a probability of existence. If the universe is infinite then wouldn’t it be more probable that God exists versus not? The mere proposal of God should be affirmation of the existence.

  12. leslie johnson says:

    I recently lost a friend a very very free spirit and he tole me even before he knew he was dying that “you can’t kill energy” that is all I know about Kenny GB

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