Gray Matters

Questions Your Brain Could Answer After You Die

What if our brains could still be useful after we die? They could answer complicated questions… Even solve a murder mystery. It sounds crazy, but Moran Cerf, a professor of neuroscience at the Kellogg School of Management, says it’s more realistic than you think.

Read an edited transcript below, or listen to the full interview on the First Contact podcast.

Turns out that when you’re dead, your brain still has juice in it…

Moran Cerf: Something that is being explored right now is the question of what we can do with a brain of a person who died. So, we think of death as the final step of a person. They are no longer there. But it turns out that when you’re dead, your brain still has juice in it, and the neurons can still work for a few minutes to a few hours.

And the question that scientists are asking is, can you essentially ask a person’s brain questions after the person is not there? You know, like you kill someone because you think they’re the killer. And then in the few minutes after they’re dead, you ask them, “Did you kill this person?” And you get the true answer because there’s no more boundaries. You can access the brain.

Laurie Segall: What? No, that’s crazy. Could that actually happen?

Moran Cerf: So I think that right now we do a very, very limited version of that, in that we take the tissue from the brains of animals who we call it sacrifice, but actually kill, put that in a microscope and still inject currents into this tissue and it still does things for us. If you know exactly where to inject the current, such as, it will activate a process that is exactly like the process that happens in the brain. You can essentially read the output and know what’s going on. So think of the following simple but useful example: to look at a picture and tell if there’s a cat or not in this picture is something that humans are perfect at. And machines are getting really, really good at, but they still work much harder. If you take a baby and you tell it, “Tell me if there’s a cat or not here.” It would know how to point to the cat or not. So we’re terrific at that and machines are terrible at that. So, at the very least, you can take a person who died at noon, and for the few minutes while their brain is still alive until the case, just show pictures of images and ask it to tell if there’s a cat or not. And you can now classify images using dead people’s brains and there’s people dying in the millions every day. So, you can just use the brains of people who died to do chores for you while they’re not there to say, “Okay, I’m done with that.”