RGS Academic Journal 2022 - 2023

068 069 A Moment of Awakening: Lucidity Before Death Junayd Khan What is Lucidity Before Death? Lucidity before death refers to the end-of-life phenomenon where patients diagnosed with irreversible psychiatric and neurologic disorders regain ‘their mental clarity, strength and memory’ shortly before death. It has been reported by countless caregivers, family members and medical professionals. It has been described as a moment of clarity and peace for the dying person. While this may sound like a fragment of fiction, a plethora of astounding accounts have forced doctors to reconsider this as undeniable fact. What is the evidence for lucidity before death? This mystical phenomenon was widely accepted during the 18th and 19th century. For example, the famous 19th century artist William Munk once stated that lucidity before death had ‘impressed and surprised mankind since the earliest ages’. Surprisingly, the phenomenon seems to be almost non-existent in the medical literature of the 20th century, suggesting perhaps an unwillingness by physicians to acknowledge its existence. This was up until 2009, when a German biologist by the name of Dr Michael Nahm published a survey of relevant cases. Dr Nahm coined the phrase ‘Terminale Geistesklarheit’, which translates to ‘Terminal Lucidity’. There have been numerous reports since his breakthrough. For example, Scott Haig, a clinical professor of orthopaedic surgery at Columbia University, once had a patient named David. David’s lung cancer had metastasised to his brain. As the cancer intensified, David slowly lost his ability to speak along with all response to his surroundings. A scan revealed that the cancer had eaten most of his brain. However, an hour before his death, he inexplicably awakened. David went on to miraculously communicate with his family before passing away. Dr Haig explained that it simply could not have been his brain that had caused this unexpected mental clarity, as his ‘brain had been completely destroyed’ by the tumour, which not only interfered with the chemical and electrical signals sent by the brain but ‘actually replaced tissue’. Another study published in 2020 reported 124 dementia patients who ‘experienced an episode of paradoxical lucidity’. In more than 80% of the cases, complete return of ‘memory, orientation and verbal ability’ were reported by observers. Terminal lucidity is now acknowledged in mainstream medicine due to the overwhelming extent of the evidence. For example, The National Institute on Aging has recently funded research into how terminal lucidity may allow for better treatment of Alzheimer’s and dementia. How does it occur? To truly understand why this is such a ground-breaking revelation, it is important to consider what modern science has informed us about how our brains function. The brain is commonly perceived as a complex organ that controls thought, memory, emotion, touch, breathing and every process that regulates our body. It is one of the most important organs within our body, second only to the heart. This raises the obvious question: how could humans possibly complete any of these complex processes without living brain cells? There have been many theories put forward about why lucidity before death occurs. These include the release of certain chemicals shortly before death which may increase mental alertness. Another theory is that the person’s brain may be trying to make sense of the experience of dying. These theories have not been proven, and while they may have some validity regarding patients whose brains are still capable of function, they simply cannot explain how terminal lucidity can occur in a patient whose brain cells are no longer present. Scientists and medical professionals are yet to uncover the cause of this seemingly supernatural phenomenon. One thing that is especially baffling for scientists and medical professionals to comprehend is the contents of what is said by patients experiencing terminal lucidity. This often includes recalling previously forgotten memories, inexplicable sensory experiences such as ‘seeing the light’ or hearing sounds and, most peculiarly of all, predicting the exact time of death. As Maggie Callanan, who has specialised in the care of the dying, and hospice nurse Patricia Kelley stated in their book Final Gifts, ‘Dying people know they are dying.’ An example of this is the account of a man who had lived as a sceptic and a rationalist throughout his life. He was heard proclaiming that he had ‘only three days left’. Three days later, he passed away. Another perplexing declaration which is commonly witnessed, is the use of symbolic language. For example, the terminally ill seem to frequently use travel metaphors for their inevitable passing. These metaphors appear to indicate their conviction of some sort of unknown continuation after death. In conclusion, it is hard to deny that lucidity before death alludes to a reality beyond the physical. As the evidence continues to grow, lucidity before death may have a profound effect on the world of psychology and mental health, with a greater focus on spiritual health, for example. The study of terminal lucidity is also hoped to allow scientists to develop better treatments for dementia and Alzheimer’s along with other psychiatric diseases. As more is uncovered about this fascinating phenomenon, it will propel doctors and psychologists to develop innovative treatments and explore new ways to improve our mental wellbeing and, by extension, our human experience.