Terminal lucidity, seen time and time again, is a term used to describe the unexpected return of mental clarity and responsiveness shortly before death in those who were previously incoherent.
One of the most amazing cases on record is the story of Anna Katharina Ehmer (1895–1922), a severely disabled woman who lived in a mental institution. She was unable to talk or take care of herself. Ehmer reportedly never spoke a word her entire life but, according to reports, this changed on her deathbed when she shocked doctors by singing songs for 30 minutes before her death.
University of Virginia Researchers Bruce Greyson, MD, and Michael Nahm, PhD explore Ehmer’s case as well as other accounts of terminal lucidity in a paper published in Omega— Journal of Death and Dying. The asylum, located in central Germany, housed many patients with severe mental disabilities.
The head pastor, Friedrich Happich, was asked to join Dr. Wilhelm Wittneben at Ehmer’s bedside. When the two men entered the room, they were shocked by what they witnessed. “When we entered the room together, we did not believe our eyes or ears,” wrote Happich. “Kathe, 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.”
Both Happich and Wittneben wrote similar accounts of what happened. In fact, they pointed out that Ehmer had never given them any indication that she was even remotely aware of her environment. “From birth on, she was seriously retarded,” according to Happich. “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 animallike sound, and slept.”
According to skeptics who have reviewed this case, the fact that Ehmer did not speak her entire life does not prove that she couldn’t speak at all. Perhaps, they speculate, she chose not to speak. I tend to agree with skeptics on that note since it is difficult to authenticate these reports from almost a century ago. However, the idea that such a story would be identically fabricated by two respected individuals doesn’t make any sense.
Also, this account of terminal lucidity taken in conjunction with those that have since been reported only gives it more credibility. People with Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia with severely impaired mental workings have suddenly regained intellectual clarity shortly before death.
The majority of neuroscientists have, up until now, asserted that once the brain is damaged, normal mental reasoning and perception becomes impossible. But new research is suggesting that this is not necessarily always the case.
Professor Alexander Batthyany, PhD, is conducting a large-scale study on terminal lucidity in those stricken with Alzheimer’s disease. Professor Batthyany teaches courses in the behavioral sciences and philosophy at the University of Vienna in Austria. At the time of this writing, the study is still on-going. Thus far, his preliminary findings suggest that normal cognition can occur despite a severely damaged brain. His research has found, however, that this only occurs when a person is near death.
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Conventional science, in fact, has no explanation for this. Professor Batthyany has called these deathbed phenomena “close to a miracle,” however, he admits “I am not sure whether miracle is a good word, but it is deeply mystifying given what we know about the relationship between mental function and brain integrity.”
When questioned about why he decided to undertake such a study, he answered, “Why do I study this? How could I not? The day I heard about this phenomenon, I was surprised that so few people look into it. In the beginning, I was slightly skeptical whether I would find cases. Now, I have so many that I wonder how I will be able to cope with all the data which need to be analyzed…. There is a growing database which seems to point to a far more complex picture of the relation between brain, mind and self than we tend to assume.”
Professor Batthyany has conducted several other research projects and his impressive work has been cited in numerous books and publications. In yet another paper he authored, “Complex Visual Imagery and Cognition During Near-Death Experiences,” he studied cases of enhanced conscious awareness and visual imagery during near-death experiences.
The results of this study were published in the Journal of Near-Death Studies in 2015, where he writes “Together with case studies of terminal lucidity and mindsight, our findings of enhanced mentation and visual imagery during severe physiological crises appear to therefore indicate that, at least near death, the relationship between cognition, perception, and their neuronal correlates might be more complex than traditionally thought.”
As an example, Alzheimer’s disease kills nerve cells and tissue throughout the brain. Over time, those affected by the disease lose almost all of their normal brain functions beginning with memory loss. Although someone stricken with Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, or any other mental disorder may suddenly become coherent on their deathbed there are no observable changes in the brain. In other words, the nerve cells in the damaged brain don’t suddenly become alive and allow communication to take place.
The brain doesn’t suddenly fill up with new neurons. The brain remains exactly how it was prior to the terminal lucidity taking place. This means that conventional science is incomplete and additional research certainly needs to be conducted. In addition, according to “Terminal Lucidity: A Review and a Case Collection,” published by researchers at the University of Iceland and the University of Virginia, “Several of these accounts suggest that during terminal lucidity, memory and cognitive abilities may function by neurologic processes different from those of the normal brain. We expect that significant contributions to better understanding the processes involved in memory and cognition processing might be gained through in-death studies of terminal lucidity.”
One of the more recent remarkable cases is reported by Dr. Scott Haig, a New York–based orthopedic surgeon. In a 2007 article written for TIME magazine, entitled “The Brain: The Power of Hope,” Dr. Haig chronicled the case of a patient named David who died from lung cancer. Dr. Haig stated that David’s body was so filled with cancer that it spread to his brain. In fact, he noted, there was barely any brain left at all, leaving him both speechless and motionless.
“The cerebral machine that talked and wondered, winked and sang, the machine that remembered jokes and birthdays and where the big fish hid on hot days, was nearly gone, replaced by lumps of haphazardly growing gray stuff,” wrote Dr. Haig. “Gone with that machine seemed David as well. No expression, no response to anything we did to him. As far as I could tell, he was just not there.”
The day after David passed way, Dr. Haig was approached by a nurse who had cared for David on his deathbed. According to Dr. Haig, the nurse told him, “He woke up…just after you left—and said goodbye. Like I’m talkin’ to you right here. Like a miracle. He talked to them and patted them and smiled for about five minutes. Then he went out again, and he passed in the hour.”
At first, Dr. Haig did not know what to think, but two weeks later he had his answer when he ran into David’s wife (Carol) who happened to be a nurse at the same hospital. When asked if what he had heard was true, Carol nodded and said, “Oh, yes, he sure did.”
He had no reason not to believe her, but states what awoke David that day was not his damaged brain, but his mind. The two, he believes, are separate. “His brain had already been destroyed,” he stated. “Tumor metastases don’t simply occupy space and press on things leaving a whole brain. Where that gray stuff grows, the brain is just not there.”
So, if his brain was “just not there,” and David was still able to wake up and converse with his family, wouldn’t that seem to indicate that consciousness is outside of the brain?
In conclusion, Dr. Haig writes, “Many think the mind is only in there—existing somehow in the physical relationship of the brain’s physical elements. The physical, say these materialists, is all there is. I fix bones with hardware. As physical as this might be, I cannot be a materialist. I cannot ignore the internal evidence of my own mind…it would be cowardly to ignore those occasional appearances of the spirits of others—of minds uncloaked, in naked virtue, like David’s goodbye.”
No, we cannot ignore the evidence. Just because we may not understand how something is possible doesn’t mean that it’s nonsense. It doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. In western Bolivia, stands a famous ancient archaeological site known as Puma Punku. The site contains examples of engineering that are far beyond present-day understanding. Stones weighing several tons are meticulously placed and have no chisel marks.
The stones, it was discovered, came from two different locations miles apart. How is it possible without modern transportation and machinery? Also, close examination of these huge stone blocks reveals that they were interlocked in three dimensions, which makes them strong enough to withstand earthquakes and other volcanic activity. How this was even possible remains a mystery but, again, this does not change the fact that it happened. The incredible monuments are there. We may not understand how but they are real. Visitors can witness them firsthand.
Likewise, we may not understand how these deathbed visits and other spiritual phenomena are possible, but they are there. They are happening. And they are real.
Josie Varga is dedicated and passionate about her research into metaphysics and the afterlife. A popular blogger and motivational speaker, she strives to teach others why happiness is all a matter of how we think. The author of several books, she is currently working on a television pilot based on her book Visits from Heaven. She also has a popular group on Facebook for people to share their spiritual experiences and find comfort in knowing that they are not alone. Josie lives in Westfield, New Jersey.