Terminal Lucidity Reveals Mysteries about Consciousness

The ‘glow before they go’. ‘The calm before the storm’. ‘The last hurrah’.  These are colloquial phrases used by hospice nurses who have all witnessed the same inexplicable phenomenon: patients with severe terminal illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, dementia, schizophrenia, cancer; even patients in comas, who suddenly sit up in bed and begin speaking clearly and lucidly to shocked family members. Patients will often laugh and joke, share memories and speak with family and friends, often with complete knowledge of their surroundings and circumstances. In some cases, a patient has displayed this incredible lucidity even if neurologically disabled from birth. The reversal is so sudden and profound that families often think a miracle cure is returning their loved one to health, but the nurses know better. In just minutes to hours, the patient will make their final transition and pass into death.

On the AllNurses forum, hospice nurses report this as a common occurrence (I’ve corrected grammatical errors but not the content of the post):

“Very common. Seen it a zillion times, patient in bad shape, get in report, patient doing better, awake, eating, etc, and we know that the end is near.” -KaroSnowQueen

“Definitely…..[I] see it more often than not. I’ve seen temps go back to normal, I’ve seen sudden progress on non-healing wounds, I’ve seen hunger in anorexic patients and I’ve seen alertness in lethargic/obtunded patients. To this day, I find it a phenomena and never cease to be amazed.” -Leslie

“I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen this phenomenon. The most recent was a couple of weeks ago, when a comatose patient I’d cared for several times suddenly woke up, looked at his wife and family gathered round, smiled and said a few words. They thought it was a miracle. I tried gently to discourage this thinking, but to no avail, and they were genuinely shocked when he slipped back into the coma and died an hour later.” -VivaLasViejas

This mysterious connection between lucidity and impending death lends its name to the scientific term for the phenomenon: Terminal Lucidity.

Terminal Lucidity: The (re-)emergence of normal or unusually enhanced mental abilities in dull, unconscious, or mentally ill patients shortly before death, including considerable elevation of mood and spiritual affectation, or the ability to speak in a previously unusual spiritualized and elated manner. -Dr. Michael Nahm, ‘Lucidity at Death’ from The Journal of Near-Death Studies

This inextricable connection to death also lands terminal lucidity in the realm of spiritual experiences, along with the equally inexplicable deathbed visions – now called ‘end of life dreams and visions’. Terminal lucidity, deathbed visions and near-death experiences can all occur when brains are severely compromised – something that should also compromise lucidity according to materialist theories of brain-based consciousness.  And yet, we have case after case detailing instances where ultra-real conscious experiences are experienced by people who have no seeming biological or medical right to them. Brains examined after the death of patients who experienced terminal lucidity show no physical improvement or change in the condition of the brain that can explain the observation.

Despite terminal lucidity offering much to scientific inquiry, it has been little studied aside from observances in medical literature, most from case histories dating back two centuries.  The first case history study was performed by Drs. Michael Nahm, Bruce Greyson, Emily Williams Kelly, and Erlendur Heraldsson in 2011. Poring through old medical histories and literature, many from Europe, 84 case histories suggestive of terminal lucidity were unearthed and published.

Thankfully, some newer research is underway. Dr. Alexander Batthyany, a Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of Vienna has decided to undertake a more robust study of terminal lucidity, the first of its kind. Although the results of the study have not (to my knowledge) been published by the time of this writing, Dr. Batthyany’s colleague presented some preliminary results of his study at the IANDS conference in 2014 which can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/Et0AwKSWwsw

Although there are very few statistics available on the frequency of TL, Dr. Batthyany’s preliminary data seems to show an occurrence of approximately 10%. From the prior case history study done, Nahm et. al reported that approximately 84% of people who experience terminal lucidity will pass away within a week, with almost half (42%) dying the same day that the event occurred. These statistics are certainly subject to change pending the results of Dr. Batthyany’s research.

The late philosopher Paul Edwards published an article entitled “Alzheimer’s Argument Against the Soul” in 1995  using the example of a Mrs. D, a kindly and generous woman prior to the onset of the disease. Her brain was so severely degraded by the disease that in later years, she began aggressively assaulting other patients in the hospital.  Edwards believed that Mrs. D’s drastic change in personality was strong evidence that the brain must create the mind.  As her brain function declined, a similar decline in lucidity and rational thought was the result. Therefore, the brain, he suggested, must create the mind within it and thus be dependent on its proper functioning.

Dr. Batthyany uses Edward’s example of Mrs. D to ask a different question in the light of the evidence from Terminal Lucidity: What if, “much like the moon eclipses the sun, the brain eclipses the self?”  Is it possible that the severely damaged brain of an Alzheimer’s patient constrains the consciousness; perverts and distorts the personality but does not inherently damage the mind behind it?  Much like a broken radio provides only snippets of garbled speech, the radio signal behind it remains clear and undamaged. Perhaps in this brief period prior to death, consciousness begins to disengage from the brain, allowing the true self to shine through. Could this also explain the phenomenon of deathbed visions, where the dying patient is said to be able to see visions of deceased loved ones?

Terminal lucidity, along with near-death experiences, may be evidence that the mind is, in fact, separate and not wholly dependent on the brain for its function. On the other hand, without any interest from the neurological and medical community, scientific proof is desperately remote. The truth is, the medical establishment is still operating on the premise of materialism and all current mainstream theories of consciousness stem from the hypothesis that consciousness originates and is dependent on the brain.  It is worth mentioning that there is no scientific proof for this position either, and a theory of consciousness has stubbornly remained ‘The Hard Problem’, a term coined by philosopher David Chalmers in 1994.  The ultra-real conscious experiences described by near-death experiencers as well as documented occurrence of terminal lucidity may indicate that materialistic brain-based theories of consciousness are too simplistic.

As Dr. Michael Nahm states in his study Terminal Lucidity in People with Mental Illness and Other Mental Disability: An Overview and Implications for Possible Explanatory Models published in the Journal of Near Death Studies:

In sum, there seems to be no simple 1:1 relationship between brain matter and the human mind. The whole affair is more complex. Taken together, there are indications that at least some features of the mind can function independently from firing neurons. Thus, proposing explanatory models for TL based on the second, non-materialistic assumption appears not so far-fetched as it may seem at first glance. At least, it should be regarded as a scientifically valid hypothesis that can be explored in future investigations.

Allow me to introduce you to the most famous case of terminal lucidity, the story of Anna (Kathe) Ehmer, known as ‘Kathe’ to the doctors who cared for her until her death at 26 years old.

The year is 1922.  In Schwalmstadt, Germany, two men of notoriety are working at an institution for the mentally ill.  The first, Friedrich Happich, assumed leadership of the institution and the second, Wilhelm Wittneben, was the chief psychiatrist.  Both were respected highly in their fields and their opinions were highly sought and trusted.  Both bore witness to the strange and miraculous case of Kathe Ehmer and were so moved by the experience that they spoke of it often for the rest of their lives.

Käthe was born in 1895.  When her parents discovered their daughter was severely disabled, six-year old Kathe was brought to the Hephata institution where, within its walls, she would spend the rest of her short life. Dr. Happich, who treated Kathe during her time at the institution, describes her personality and disability:

Käthe was among the patients with the most severe mental disabilities who
have ever lived in our institution. From birth on, she was seriously retarded.
She had never learned to speak a single word. She stared for hours on a
particular spot, then she fidgeted for hours without a break. She gorged her
food, fouled herself day and night, uttered an animal-like sound, and slept. In
all the time she lived with us, we have never seen that she had taken notice of
her environment even for a second. We had to amputate one of her legs, she
wasted away.

Kathe also suffered repeated episodes of meningitis which damaged her brain considerably, as well as tuberculosis; the cause of the aforementioned amputation and the disease which eventually took her life. Kathe was by all accounts infantile, and yet, as she lay dying, Kathe did something absolutely astounding: she began to sing.

What Kathe sang, in perfect German, was a funeral hymn for her own impending death. I have found the haunting music that Kathe sang, and I encourage you to listen to Kathe’s hymn in the video below as you read the rest of the story as witnessed by Happich and Wittneben.  Imagine if you can – the voice of this wretched soul echoing through the halls as she prepared herself for death. Imagine the astonished doctors and nurses who never once saw Kathe as anything but imbecilic, infantile and completely helpless. Kathe never left the confines of the institution, had no control of her faculties, could not speak, and was never considered worthy of education. Yet as she lay dying, Kathe sang this haunting hymn, Wo Findet De Seele  or in English, ”The Home of the Soul’.

 

Dr. Happich:

One day I was called by one of our physicians, who is respected both as a scientist and a psychiatrist.

He said: “Come immediately to Käthe, she is dying!”

When we entered the room together, we did not believe our eyes and ears. Käthe, who had never spoken a single word, being entirely mentally disabled from birth on, sang dying songs to herself. 

Specifically, she sang over and over again “Where does the soul find its home, its peace? Peace, peace, heavenly peace!”

For half an hour she sang. Her face, up to then so stultified, was transfigured and spiritualized. Then, she quietly passed away. Like myself and the nurse who had cared for her, the physician had tears in his eyes.

We witnessed the dying of this girl with deepest emotions. Her death posed many questions to us. Obviously, Käthe had only superficially not participated in all that happened in her surroundings. In reality, she had apparently internalized much of it. Because, where did she know the text and the melody of this song from, if not from her surroundings? Moreover, she had comprehended the contents of this song and used it appropriately in the most critical hour of her life. This appeared like a miracle to us.

Even bigger, however, was the miracle that Käthe, up to now entirely mute, could suddenly recite the text of the song clearly and intelligibly. Dr. W. [Wittneben] stated over and over again: “From a medical perspective, I am confronted with a mystery. Käthe has suffered so many severe infections of meningitis, that due to the anatomical changes in the cortical brain tissue, it is not comprehensible how the dying woman could suddenly sing so clearly and intelligibly.”
(Stritter, 1930, pp. 176ff)

Read the entire Kathe Ehmer study available here: https://med.virginia.edu/perceptual-studies/wp-content/uploads/sites/267/2015/11/NDE72terminal-lucidity-Omega.pdf

Terminal Lucidity, along with many other spiritually transformative experiences show that a true understanding of consciousness is integral to answering the question of life after death.  Each time we explore cases where consciousness is shown to possibly persist beyond the functioning of the physical brain, we move closer toward possibly discovering that when we do depart this life, our true self is not lost to the grave.

Terminal Lucidity can offer both medical science and spirituality much to be learned, but its important not to lose the personal impact these events have on families, caregivers, nurses and doctors who witness these miraculous events. Like the sun passing through the clouds, these brief moments of lucidity give the dying and their families priceless moments to reconnect, to offer and give forgiveness, blessings, love, and the chance to say goodbye. An article from the Epoch Times captured this quote from a caregiver that conveys the kind of lasting impact that witnessing such an event can have:

“Before this happened, I had become fairly cynical about the human vegetables I cared for. Now, I understand that I am caring for nurslings of immortality. Had you seen what I saw, you would understand that dementia can affect the soul, but it will not destroy it.  I only wish I had known this sooner”

 


Have you ever witnessed a sudden return to clarity and lucidity at the bedside of a dying friend or family member?  Please feel free to share your story in the comments.

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8 thoughts on “Terminal Lucidity Reveals Mysteries about Consciousness

  1. The Vedanta,the last part of the Veda’s, (meaning ‘knowledge’ is the basic concept underlying Hinduism) could be an answer. We are non fundamental, an illusory construct of the all pervading universal consciousness present in us as awareness (I am aware that I am aware) this awareness is our true essence but the body/mind construct has no ownership of it, Mary,Jane,Bill or Fred ‘exist’ because of and inside the field of awareness. Awareness knows itself and is off itself it can only see itself ie. the world, through the finite mind that it has brought into or dreamt into existence. Non-duality, a tree is awareness experiencing itself as a tree, the same for grass,water,a cat, a dog or a human. Awareness observes without judgement,it is the presence or the silent watcher that can be felt during meditation, it isn’t sullied or affected in any way by experience, like the screen on which a film (your life) is being shown, it remains pristine,it was never born nor does it die, after death of the finite mind it returns to the source, universal consciousness.

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    1. Thank you, David. I’ve been really interested in learning more about Hindu spiritual philosophy, I have yet to read the Vedas, but I know that the wisdom contained in it is profound. The awareness experiencing itself as various physical experiences is not dissimilar from certain spiritual ideas I’m familiar with, for example the concept that we are all parts of one continuous god energy, just a smaller and more confined perspective of it. Very fascinating – thanks again, I’m going to explore this ancient knowledge.
      Jenn

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      1. Hi Jen,
        almost all of the spiritual teachers on youtube (Rupert Spira and Eckhart Tolle to name only two) teach non-duality with the Vedas as the basis. I find this concept rather sad,it shows that the body/mind complex with which we are so intimate is just an illusion, awareness is portrayed as our true essence but it isn’t Jen or David,it is the impersonal universal consciousness using the dream of our mind to view itself.

        I see us like tyres on a car, the car (universal conciousness,Brahman,God,whatever) uses us,the tyres,to roll around the world,when we are worn out (die) we are discarded and replaced by another hamster. The whole point I suppose is to discard the identification with the mind and accept ‘I am God’. During the process of death (if it is relatively long) the mind recognizes it is finite and non-fundamental and slips away into awareness letting it with its ultimate knowledge take over, hence the terminal lucidity. Apparently Jesus was an enlightened man and also taught non-duality but was misunderstood,”Seeing they see not, hearing they hear not,they do not understand”. An example of his non-dual comments,”Split a piece of wood and I am there (we are all there because we are all one) lift a stone and I am there”. ”The kingdom of heaven is within you”(awareness). In the old testament I believe it say’s ”Be silent and know that I am God” meditation is performed in silence without conscious thought, as Eckhart Tolle said, ”Silence is the language of God,all words are a poor translation.”

        The Vedas and Upanishads came into existence around 4,000 years ago and were I think fine tuned before being written down it is a concept that has much in common with Buddhism (I live in Thailand and am friends with the abbot of our temple) much of Buddhism could have come from the Vedas (the Buddha was a well educated prince and would have been aware of them) The Vedas is not a religion but a concept of knowledge but it is only a concept with a lot of psychological good sense, could possibly have originated from animism. Sorry, I do go on, I didn’t intend to write a book.

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  2. Thank you for yet another beautifully written and thought provoking article!
    I followed your link to the AllNurses forum and after reading all of the posts, got thinking about TL in a broader sense. One post in particular wrote that such frequent experiences had led to the belief that TL was ‘God’s way of giving people a chance to say goodbye’.
    Well my husband died suddenly – so was never considered terminally ill – however me and my children are all very much aware that the last 6 months we had with him were the happiest ever! He had many meaningful (and perhaps slightly uncharacteristic), healing conversations with us; we all agree that it was as if “something somewhere knew what was about to happen”. Even the night before he died I joked with him about what music I’d play at his funeral (his death was accidental, incidently), and indeed I played what he wished for (he hadn’t left a will, so this conversation was amazingly helpful).
    I also know of a similar thing that happened to a friend of mine with her own father who died unexpectedly.
    It certainly adds a further dimension to this topic…

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    1. Thank you, Claire! Thank you also for sharing your story – I completely agree. It’s the same with end-of-life dreams and visions. They obviously exist to bring comfort, and its hard not to think there must be a benevolence behind it, otherwise why would things like terminal lucidity and ELDVs exist, if not for the family left behind? I don’t see any evolutionary purpose to any of it – especially if TL doesn’t in any way prevent death. When people die unexpectedly, I often wonder if some part of them knows.. we’ve recently had a death in our family and although I didn’t see the person before he passed away, my mother remarked that he was in an unusually good mood and gave her a long hug, something uncharacteristic for this person. He died the next day. I’m very sorry about the loss of your husband, but I’m glad that you can cherish the time you had with him. Although nothing compares to the pain, at the very least, you were able to share the quality time together and create great memories before he departed this life. This world is so full of suffering – I’d like to think there is some loving being out there who gives us blessings such as this, even during times of great loss and grief.
      Thanks for writing – indeed, as you said, TL may just be one aspect of a larger phenomenon.
      Jenn

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  3. Another great article, Jenn! There’s so much overwhelming evidence that the brain/body while allowing us to operate in this environment, cuts us off from perception of the spiritual realm and the knowledge of who we really are. This evidence is a critical piece of the puzzle.

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    1. Thank you, Judie! I love that quote too – I think it really captures how these kinds of experiences can change a person’s perspective dramatically, even in situations where the caregiver has no emotional connection to the patient. Too many of our elderly are treated like children or worse, and this hopefully is a reminder that we are all beautiful souls and deserve both dignity and respect, regardless of what we look or act like on the outside.

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