One of the strangest stories of death you’ll ever hear is the tale of Anna Katharina Ehmer, a wildly deranged, developmentally delayed German woman who was raised in a mental institution. Anna was locked in a permanent mute state, her brain ravaged by meningitis. Yet at the moment of her passing, this presumably deaf-mute woman somehow transformed into a songbird. She serenaded Death. Before that moment, Anna had never once spoken in her entire life.
The doctors and hospital staff who witnessed Anna’s concertina for Death were rendered speechless themselves; some sobbed in bewilderment; others felt they’d witnessed a miracle of the soul. In particular, here’s how one of her doctors, Friedrich Happich, recalled the moment:
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 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.
It wasn’t until 2008 — some 75 years later — that modern science finally invented a term for what happened to Anna Katharina Ehmer: “terminal lucidity.” German biologist Michael Nahm coined the term. Thanks to a recent appointment at the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health, in Freiburg, Germany, he studies the phenomenon of these startling, spontaneous exhibitions of impossible physical and mental feats at the hour of one’s death. And for years he’s hosted a website where he offers select writings and journal papers from his research. (Here’s a short example of his work with terminal lucidity.)
In essence, terminal lucidity is a mysterious flash of life and vitality that occurs in people just before they die. It’s most remarkable in people who have dementia, Alzheimer’s, meningitis, brain damage, strokes or were in a coma. There’s no known medical explanation for where this sudden surge of vitality and functionality comes from. In large part because as suddenly as it comes, within a few hours or even a day or two, it fades and the person dies, taking any answers with them.
Nahm often explicitly works with the challenging theory that our brain-body connection isn’t what produces our experience of consciousness. Not exclusively. Nahm thinks there are preliminary signs our minds somehow transcend our bodies, brains, even the physical realm altogether.
“When you see terminal lucidity in the context of all the other end-of-life experiences or near-death phenomena, they all seem to point to the fact that human consciousness is not tied to a one-to-one relation to the brain physiology,” he explains. “I find that very, very interesting. This can tell us many important things about the nature of our consciousness.”
“I think if you take everything into account it looks very much like a transition,” he continues. “The question is: Can it be biochemically explained? I do have my doubts that it can be explained biochemically. So, yes, I definitely think of death as a transition no matter how you regard it. I wouldn’t expect if I die to spend my time permanently in absolute clarity and bliss. Even if the afterlife continues, it’ll certainly also have different stages. Or maybe developments. Also, stages of more blurred consciousness. The afterlife, if it exists, will be very complex and very difficult to understand. The question is: What is the soul, if it exists? Does it persist as an individual? Is it able to dissolve into the Great Whatever? Can it rejoin the Great Consciousness that exists in the background of reality of all existence? Can it pop up again and reincarnate?”
Even if terminal lucidity fails to reveal evidence of souls separating at the moment of death, studying the phenomenon may still provide us with a more accurate understanding of how our body-brain-mind connection works. We still don’t know how our “sensation of mind” emerges from the mass of neural cells we call a brain. In fact, although many legitimate scientists are working to understand consciousness, it still eludes us. Perhaps terminal lucidity offers clues to locating where and how a mind manifests from nerve activity.
Does that mean a terminal lucidity researcher, like Nahm, is able to garner support among expert brain scientists, notable physicians and other interested biologists? (Obviously, Nahm has his critics and is faced with challenges of how to prove such a radical theory.)
“For myself, I never experienced any problems regarding my other duties or my career,” Nahm says in a matter-of-fact tone. “Regarding terminal lucidity and my occupation with that field, it’s very much a question of how you formulate the measures. So, even though, here and there, I said, ‘Yes, well, perhaps the mind is operating independently of the brain.’ In my publications, I have, first of all, tried to raise the interest of mainstream researchers into studying the phenomenon. Because I still think what we need first is more research on that. So far, mainly we have anecdotes.”
Nahm is also encouraged by the fact that he’s already has attracted an ally. “There’s one professor from the University in Vienna — he’s started a very large study on terminal lucidity. He wants to send out thousands of questionnaires to nurses and physicians, and he’s already sent out 900 — specifically here in Central Europe.”
“I’m in contact with him,” Nahm adds. “He has very interesting cases and interesting descriptive statistics. They make it possible to harden the fact that ‘yes, terminal lucidity does happen; it happens today; and it does happen most often close to death.’ This is what his data tells us. So he wants to expand on that and gather more data, to collect data from different countries.”
Professor Alexander Batthyány is a man who seemingly follows curiosity wherever it leads him. Even into death. This habit has given his life its shape. It’s why he’s a world-renowned researcher of terminal lucidity. For instance, he became the endowed Viktor Frankl Chair of Philosophy, Psychology, at the University of Liechtenstein, and holds a position at the Department of Cognitive science at University of Vienna, all because he once chose to attend a Viktor Frankl lecture. What he heard the famous researcher say made him curious. “One day, I heard Viktor Frankl lecture on death and dying, which I found very moving, and I knew that it would influence my life,” Batthyány, Nahm’s young ally, tells me via phone.
“So I wrote a letter, a thank you note to him, saying basically, ‘I’m no one. Just a student, but I wanted to thank you.’ I didn’t expect a reply. But a week later, his wife called me and said, there’s a present to be picked up in a shop nearby, next to their flat. It was a couple of books which Frankl had very kindly signed, and so on.”
What exactly about Frankl’s work inspired him so deeply?
Before he answers, Batthyány is careful to point out that English isn’t his first language, then he explains in his flawless English, “Frankl’s view on the human person was that the core personhood isn’t identical to physiology, not even psychology. There’s something about the human person that’s unconditioned and unconditional. Frankl had the idea that there’s something indestructible and irreducible about human personhood.”
Beyond Frankl’s notion of the noetic person — the irreducible seed of personhood, one’s individual will to live, so to speak — Batthyány also noticed a biologically counterintuitive aspect of death that seemed to confirm Frankl’s theories of life, death and personhood. “What we observe with near-death experiences is that they’re enormously ordered, structured, clear thinking and very elaborate experiences. Which, evolutionarily speaking, they’re not very adaptive, yeah? Quite on the contrary. A near-death experience keeps a person much more peaceful than perhaps they should be when they’re defending against an aggressor like death.”
After Frankl, Batthyány was next inspired by the work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, regarding grief, death and dying. “Kübler-Ross somewhere wrote, as if to herself, this little note: ‘We observed that these patients with dementia and so on, they suddenly lighten up, or they become clear again shortly before this.’ But nobody picked it up,” Batthyány explains.
He, though, decided to pick up Kübler-Ross’ trail and follow the clues. This quickly led him to Nahm. First, however, he experienced terminal lucidity himself. “I had a personal encounter in my own family with a relative who had a number of strokes, not able to talk. There was no verbal ability,” Batthyány recalls. “Then, suddenly, it was there again for a very brief time — just enough to say farewell and goodbye. A few years later, I saw the paper with Michael Nahm and [Nahm’s sometimes co-author] Bruce Greyson on terminal lucidity. It was their pioneering work that gave me the starting signal.”
I ask Batthyány what definition of terminal lucidity he’s working with in his study. “It’s the unexpected return of mental clarity and often also the verbal ability and memory of a person who otherwise you wouldn’t expect to ever return,” he answers.
“Frankl proposed that you’ve got three dimensions, so to speak — the noetic one, the mind and the brain,” Batthyány continues. “That’s one thing I find stunning, amazing and quite mystifying. But first, before we come to a theory of this fine-grained structure of the human person or human being, far, far, far before that, there’s one decision to be made. That’s the question of what do we consist of? By us, I mean not so much the physiological body, but we as persons.”
This central query also determines how Batthyány frames his research. “The question is: Are we the person now speaking and the person now receiving and understanding? Are we a product of our brain? Or is there something to the mind that’s above and beyond the brain? It’s an extremely tough question. Cases like terminal lucidity seem to stare at you in the face, and shout, ‘No, you’re more than your brain,’ because obviously you’ve got a very non-supportive brain that wouldn’t generate clear, consistent, coherent and reactive communication.”
Does he think he’s found a pattern of concrete physical evidence of the separation of mind from body?
“It’s hard to discuss these things in an unbiased way, because people immediately think about religion, and maybe also wishful thinking. When I heard about these studies on terminal lucidity, about these reports, I just wanted to know. Therefore, we started a survey, to study, to see whether the phenomenon is real. Now, I do suspect it’s real. We need more evidence, but currently, much points toward the mind being more than a product of the brain. ”
For his current multinational European study of terminal lucidity, Batthyány has sent out a questionnaire that seeks anecdotal data from hospital staff and doctors. Beyond the obvious difficulties with this sort of research, there are layers of complexity. Due to the interpretive nature of the data, it’s hard to codify the science and study the phenomenon. For example, how much “mental return” qualifies as terminal lucidity?
That said, there has been one important finding to emerge from his data — terminal lucidity occurs for atheists and believers at the same rate. “I would’ve thought maybe religious people are more, you know, willing to see the unexpected. But the unexpected — if it does come — comes no matter who you are or what you believe,” Batthyány concludes with a satisfied lift in his voice.
So, if terminal lucidity isn’t a matter of what one believes, and if people are able to do things with their disease-destroyed brains that medicine says they shouldn’t be able to do a la Anna Katharina Ehmer, maybe the best question to ask is: Could there be an unexpected, yet universal, physical trigger for this? Have researchers investigated all the possible candidates for a physical mechanism that explains terminal lucidity? Human bodies are known to perform superhuman functions thanks to chemicals like adrenaline. Perhaps we’ve overlooked a dying compound.
To that end, I ask Batthyány if anyone has found a chemical signature, or a cellular marker, something left behind that shows evidence of this rush of life, a residue similar to how detectives test for the presence of gunpowder that proves a gun was fired. He thinks aloud: “One thing which makes me doubt that you’d find a common denominator or common cause is that preconditions aren’t common. You’re dealing with brain cancer, brain tumors, meningitis, stroke patients, different types of dementia, you’ve got whatever. In all of these, the diagnosis doesn’t make a difference when it comes to the phenomenon. But it would make a huge difference when it comes to a potential physiological cause of return of lucidity.”
He adds an example to help it all make sense. “If you compare an Alzheimer’s brain with another dementia brain, they look very, very, very different. It’s too early to say something very definite, but we have enough data to say that it seems unlikely that you’ll find one common cause for return to lucidity. Because, once again, the various conditions are far too different from each other.”
As we rule out physical causation, we’re left with few explanations other than the radical Cartesian notion of Dualism. Descartes argued that your mind (or, if you prefer, your consciousness) exists separately from your physical body. There’s another word for the consciousness that transcends the physical realm, too: the soul. How comfortable are modern scientists with the idea that, ultimately, they’re on the hunt for a holy spirit? “If you’re a scientist, you ask yourself, ‘What does it mean? Is this a dying brain experience, or is it an awakening sort of experience?’ We don’t know,” Batthyány says, striking both a philosophical and poetic stance.
“Unfortunately, the whole topic of the soul — if there is such a thing — is going to stay within the area of religion,” he continues. “But I’m not quite sure it belongs there. Because the further we go into the frontiers of human consciousness and human life, the better it would be if we just looked at it, and said, ‘This is unlikely, given what we do know about the dependence of the mind on the brain, but there’s a somewhat unlikely, or maybe unfamiliar, hypothesis that something might survive physical death.’”
Of course, Batthyány adds, “If you say this in a scientific conference, people will roll their eyes. They will say, ‘This isn’t science, this is religion.’ But why should it be? Why shouldn’t it be a proper research topic? A near-death experience is one area where science was forced to look at an issue that it typically didn’t.”
Struck by an unexpected memory, Batthyány momentarily stumbles into a rational minefield. “I just remembered one of my mentors, John Beloff. He was a well-known professor of psychology. But he was also doing work in parapsychology. He was, as far as I know, a strict atheist. And yet, he tended to believe that there was survival of death. This is a rational position. Survivalism, it’s called. It’s a very rare position, but it’s a very legitimate position.
“The idea is, and I mean, I’m speculating now, but essentially, he asks, ‘If God isn’t right now in this world, very obviously, then why should He be in the next world? I mean, there’s no logic. It doesn’t follow, right? So one should separate those questions — the religious question and the Survivalism question.”
What, though, does Batthyány believe? Does he believe in souls, or consciousness that persists into death?
“The answer is I don’t know. I’m not sure. The only thing I can say is the more you look into — not necessarily the evidence, but into the stories of the ones who witness terminal lucidity — it’s hard not to believe them. But frankly, I don’t know. I really don’t know.”
And so, a man of science through-and-through, he thinks about it as much as he can as he searches for verifiable answers. “Since I was 15, and even now, 30 years later, I’ve always wanted to understand death and dying. I’ve never wanted to have it out of sight. My teacher Mr. Frankl was once asked by a reporter, ‘When do you think about death?’ His answer was, ‘As often as I can.’ It’s something I really keep in mind, too.”
“When you respect death, you will respect life,” he continues. “And you will see that you shouldn’t take too much for granted. Every one of us, me included, we always think there will be a tomorrow. But one day, there will be no tomorrow, and there will be no next year, and no next month. So to make ourselves familiar with it, that’s not a bad idea, yeah? Personally, I think we can learn a lot by exposing ourselves to the idea of our mortality.”
There are, of course, a million more questions to ask about terminal lucidity, but the chief one we’ve yet to broach: How do people know they’re about to die? What tells them? A dream? A visitation? A feeling?
“How they knew, I don’t know,” Batthyány says. “But I do know that they knew they were dying because it’s a recurring topic. Very, very many of the people who have terminal lucidity use the time to say farewell. I’ve never encountered one case where a person made plans for the next weekend. They say thank you to the nurse, thank you to the relatives or they make gifts. Then very often, very soon after, slip into unconsciousness and die. They do know they’re dying. They make it very clear. How they know, I have no idea.”
Because the unexplained is always best understood via anecdote, I will leave you with the story of another patient at the hospital where Anna Katharina Ehmer spent the majority of her life. The patient’s name was George, and he also had mental difficulties, though not nearly as severe. For instance, he failed to remember the names of his doctors and the staff. But the boy could speak — he was hospitalized at age 6 — and he liked to memorize songs, even if he failed to understand what exactly the words meant.
When George was 20, however, he fell sick and spent a day singing death songs to himself in his hospital bed. Odd. But perhaps he’d heard them sung in the hospital before. That’d be appropriate. The next day, though, as soon as George woke up, his first words were to announce to the hospital staff that he was “going to heaven” later that day. One of the hospital staff asked George if maybe he’d like to sing some songs the way he had the day before. George agreed, singing one from his repertoire of death songs. But this time, when he reached a lyric that described the approach of death, George paused, shook the hands of the hospital staff, lay back in bed and died.