Definitions of Death Video

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  • 0:01 What Is Death?
  • 0:58 Brain & Cortical Death
  • 3:41 Clinical Death
  • 4:54 Psychic Death
  • 5:38 Social Death
  • 6:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

This lesson examines the medical definition and other broad definitions of death. Ideas like cortical, brain and clinical death are explored. We also take a look at psychic and social death.

What Is Death?

In everyday language, we don't have to worry about being super specific when it comes to certain topics. Laypeople need to be specific about ice cream because mint chocolate is very different from vanilla. But there are other topics, like the topic of death, that laypeople don't need to be especially specific about.

Here is typically where I give you the definition of what we are looking at in the lesson, that being death. But unfortunately, a single definition for it is kind of a layperson thing. Instead, we are going to explore several different types, and they are:

  • Brain death
  • Cortical death
  • Clinical death
  • Psychic death
  • Social death

A quick note: every person will define death a little differently. I am not here to change how you view the difference between life and death. This is merely presenting the different ideas, be they medical or spiritual.

Brain and Cortical Death

Brain death is the irreversible loss of all brain functions. Every so often, a case will pop up in the media where someone is being kept alive on ventilators and artificial pumps of some kind. You may also hear the term brain death thrown around because there is a legal and medical basis for it. Brain death is decided when there is basically no chance of the person recovering to any degree.

When we deal with brain death, we are talking about a brain that can no longer function in its usual capacity. The brain is responsible for running the body, and although we can keep the body running by artificial means, the person's mind, personality and everything else we use to define a person by their thoughts and feelings is gone.

I also want to discuss cortical death because it is defined as a persistent, vegetative state in which there is a non-responsiveness to internal or external cues. This is likely caused by severe brain damage or lesions. Here, the person's heart, kidneys and lungs are functioning to some degree, but their brain is so damaged that there isn't anything left. Like a horrible science experiment, the body continues on when there isn't anyone controlling it.

In a vegetative state, a person may appear to wake up, but there is no consciousness there. They may smile, or move slightly or track with their eyes a bit, but that's the limit. They never speak, respond to instructions or seem to be conscious. The definition of death becomes blurry here as the person is never likely to wake up, but some parts of the body continue to function. A quick note, a coma is when someone appears asleep and does not react to any external stimuli.

As you can see from brain death and cortical death, the main things that they have in common are:

  1. Damage to the brain
  2. Non-responsiveness

What is different is that in cortical death, some lower brain functions remain, giving the illusion of life. With brain death, there is little to no functioning at a cognitive or somatic (body) level. Brain damage is often very important when it comes to determining death, because brains don't regrow neurons. Damage can be mitigated to some degree (see neuroplasticity lessons for more information), but are never truly fixed. We can't say that all this is permanent, but in most cases, this is a one-way trip. The non-responsiveness is permanent, and patients are often kept alive by artificial means, such as feeding tubes and ventilators.

Clinical Death

Clinical death is the stopping of all major organ functions, such as the heart, lungs and brain. Clinical death is the foundation of the previously mentioned brain death but not cortical death, in that clinical death defines how we know someone is dead, while brain and cortical death describe the particular aspects of the death. With clinical death, the heart isn't pumping, the systems aren't working and the main control center is down.

There are particular criteria that must be met to qualify as clinically dead. These have been defined so precisely due to the age of organ transplants. If you aren't 100% dead, then it is more of an organ stealing than a donating. The major criteria are:

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