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Accounts of people with severe cognitive disabilities such as Alzheimer's, schizophrenia, and even severe brain tumors coming out of extreme disability to become lucid for a few moments or minutes before death are becoming more common. As they do, researchers struggle to explain how physical brains, often destroyed by disease, can manifest clear minded individuals in their last minutes of life.
Explanations for the phenomenon vary from spiritual to quasi-scientific, but most are merely best guesses and conjecture based on educated hunches. Some doctors, such as Scott Haig, account for the lucidity as the "mind, forcing its way through a broken brain.."
Haig, who wrote an account of a patient with severe brain metastasis being a virtual vegetable until just a few minutes before his death, fervently believes that the mind exists separately from the physical brain. His view of mind-brain separation is not unique and is articulated in a TIME Magazine article the doctor penned.
Researchers struggle to find scientific ways to study the phenomenon. A team effort at the University of Virginia and University of Iceland in 2012 resulted in the conclusion that the sudden lucidity of severely mentally handicapped persons just before death might be impossible.
Physical explanations such as the shrinking of brain tissue that often accompanies body weight loss in the chronically ill could be relieving stress on the brain, allowing it to recovery briefly. It's known that removing life support from some patients results in a sudden surge of electrical activity in the brain, though no one knows why.
The phenomenon of terminal lucidity, as it's called, is not new and has been observed in scientific literature for centuries. Recent research adds little to the knowledge base.
The cases of terminal lucidity, however, often make a life-long impression on the caregivers and families of the terminally ill who suddenly come back for a few moments of human contact before death. One caregiver said that it convinced her that she is "caring for nurslings of immortality."
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