For five episodes of the docuseries Limitless, Chris Hemsworth chases perpetual youth through a series of physical and mental challenges designed to improve his longevity.
Then the Nat Geo series takes a sharp turn. In the last episode, Hemsworth is living alongside ping-pong playing octogenarians in a retirement home, wearing a suit that simulates the physical ravages of aging and contemplating his death and the death of his loved ones. And it’s all thanks to palliative care doctor BJ Miller, M.D.
The retirement home, Sunset Pines, is a ruse; a Hollywood-style set where the residents and staff are actors. But Miller’s simulated aging challenges are very real, and along with the lessons from death doula Alua Arthur, are designed to reveal important lessons to Hemsworth about overcoming the fear of death, letting go of regret, and finding out what’s most important in life.
It’s heavy, but powerful and surprisingly inspiring stuff.
So who is BJ Miller, and how has his career—and his own brush with death—shaped the way others view dying? Here’s everything we know.
A Near Death Experience Led Him to His Calling
Miller lost both his legs and one arm after he was electrocuted—with 11,000 volts of electricity—while climbing on top of a parked computer train during his sophomore year of college.
“I don’t really have many memories of the night itself—just sort of spotty ones,” Miller told NPR. “I can very easily imagine what I was thinking.”
After three months in the burn unit, it took “many, many weeks and well into me being conscious,” to realize he was close to death.
His experiences as an amputee paved the way for his work with disability rights and eventually led him to become a hospice and palliative care doctor.
“Medicine lit up as a—theoretically, as a way where I could use these experiences and pay them forward in some way or draw from them, not overcome them, and put them behind me,” Miller said. “So I said, oh, medicine makes good sense. Let’s give it a try. And so I did.”
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He Views Suffering as a “Multi-Headed Beast”
While healing from his extensive injuries, Miller saw how “powerful pain relief is” regarding opioids and “how much caution it requires.” But his work in palliative medicine doesn’t just treat pain—it also treats suffering.
“Suffering is a multi-headed beast,” Miller told NPR. “There’s a lot of different ways to define it. You know, Cicely Saunders, sort of the grandmother of hospice work, she called it total pain—that it had a physical component, a psychological and emotional component, a spiritual component.”
Miller knows it’s not easy to end suffering, but by “leaning into it, by working with it, by being changed by it, by learning from it,” it helps you “see things a little differently,” he says.
More From 'Limitless'
He Thinks the U.S. Healthcare System is Lacking When it Comes to Death
Miller co-founded Mettle Health to provide support and guidance for people and their families facing health challenges. The goal: help them to better control their situation and improve their quality of life.
While the healthcare system is great at diagnosing and treating illness, Miller acknowledges that it lacks the ability to help people live with illness or loss.
“That’s exactly why we started Mettle Health,” he said in a video. “We are here to support people, individuals, families, friends to live well with illness, to cope in the face of loss.”
His TED Talk on Dying Has Racked Up 25 Million Views
Miller’s 2015 TED Talk, “What Really Matters at the End of Life,” has amassed over 15 million views on TED and 10 million views and counting on YouTube, a combined 25 million. The gist; how we think about death and honor life.
“So much of [just being] comes down to loving our time by way of the senses. By way of the body, the very thing doing the living and the dying,” Miller says. “As long as we have our senses, even just one, we have the possibility of accessing what makes us feel human, connected.”
Miller wants everyone to create space for dying so “rather than just getting out of the way, aging and dying can become a process of crescendo to the end.”
He Has Advice For Your Post-Life Digital Footprint
Your social media and other online accounts outlive your physical presence and its “practically impossible to not have some digital footprint in this world,” and for whatever reason, “death isn’t built into those systems,” Miller told Big Think.
Take your birthday for example. If a social media platform sends out an automated reminder to your loved ones, “it can be really chilling for a family member to receive an automated message from someone who’s died,” he says.
Miller’s advice for closing out your digital life: make a list of your accounts (like social media, cell phone bills, and credit cards) and passwords to save your family the trouble of gathering that information after you’re gone.