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Why Do Some People’s Minds Become Much Clearer Near Death?

Arjuna Das and neurosurgeon Michael Egnor discuss the evidence for terminal lucidity at Theology Unleashed “where Eastern theology meets Western skepticism.”

Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor did a recent podcast with Arjuna Das at Theology Unleashed, “where Eastern theology meets Western skepticism.”

In the previous segment, they discussed the way in which the brain actually constrains the mind (rather than creating it). In this segment, they look at how the human mind often becomes much more sharp and clear near death.

Here is a partial transcript and notes for the 1 hour 26 minute mark to the 1 hour 32 minute mark:

Arjuna Das: You’re either doing science or you’re defending your dogma. (01:25:59)

Michael Egnor: Exactly. John Searle, a philosopher of mind, who is an atheist and not a dualist has a tremendous distaste for materialism. And he commented one time, ”When you look at the materialist theories of the mind, they are so crazy that the only thing you can reasonably conclude from them is that materialists have an absolute ideological commitment, and they will say anything to defend it.” (01:26:05)

Note: John Searle (b. 1932) is a well-known philosopher of mind. He is best known for the Chinese Room argument. “It has become one of the best-known arguments in recent philosophy. Searle imagines himself alone in a room following a computer program for responding to Chinese characters slipped under the door. Searle understands nothing of Chinese, and yet, by following the program for manipulating symbols and numerals just as a computer does, he sends appropriate strings of Chinese characters back out under the door, and this leads those outside to mistakenly suppose there is a Chinese speaker in the room.” – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy The argument explained why computers do not think; they merely compute.

Arjuna Das: We’ve got a question. Has there ever been a case of a deaf person having an NDE and reporting verbal conversation later?

Michael Egnor: It’s a very good question. I don’t know. I’m not an expert on NDEs. I have heard that there are blind people who have NDEs where they see things that are veridical [later corroborated by evidence], so that can be checked. That I’ve heard. I’m not sure about deaf people. (01:27:06)

Arjuna Das: That would be the same thing. There’s also terminal lucidity, where somebody who, they could be deaf, they could be unable to speak, they could be unable to move, and then in the last couple hours, or shortly before they leave their body. ”Shortly”, because that’s the Hare Krishna jargon, shortly before they die they have terminal lucidity. They become lucid though, they can sit up out of the bed and have fully lucid conversations before departing. (01:27:08)

Note: Terminal lucidity is the sudden surge of conscious awareness that some people experience near death.

See: Do people suddenly gain clarity about life just before dying? Some cognitively challenged or dementia patients become lucid for the first time in years just before dying. No medical cause is currently known.

It’s not just a curiosity. Researchers consider that understanding how dementia can suddenly reverse itself in this way may help us treat dementia when it first begins to appear.

Michael Egnor: Terminal lucidity is very common. It is very well known among palliative care specialists who deal with dying people. It is very well known amongst people who are working in hospices. I’ve had colleagues seen it. I’ve not personally seen it in patients, I saw it in my mother-in-law, actually, which I can talk about. But again, my patients usually have profound brain damage. And many of them, in the last moments of life, are paralyzed and couldn’t express themselves anyway. (01:27:36)

I have a colleague named Stephen Post, who’s a medical ethicist here at Stony Brook, who has just, actually, written a beautiful book about the ethics and metaphysics of dying. And he has a chapter on terminal lucidity…

My mother-in-law, when she passed away, she passed away at home from cancer. And several hours before she died, it was in the middle of the night, she asked that the TV turned off. (01:28:15)

And she clearly was seeing something that was very beautiful and that was enthralling her. And there was a dramatic change in her affect, and she clearly had a foot in another world. And members of my family who were there were really struck by that. I had a lot of colleagues report that kind of thing in patients in the last minutes or hour or two of life. (01:28:51)

Note: Stephen Post has written a number of relevant books, including and The Moral Challenge of Alzheimer Disease (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2nd edition, 2000)) Dignity for Deeply Forgetful People: How Caregivers Can Meet the Challenges of Alzheimer’s Disease (Johns Hopkins University Press, May 31, 2022)

Arjuna Das: Do they have any good explanations for how suddenly somebody could be lucid? (01:29:21)

Michael Egnor: Well, the body constrains the mind. And there can be a point at which, when the body is sufficiently compromised, that it constrains the mind less, and the mind is able to express itself more clearly. There’s a lot that can’t be explained in materialist terms, and that’s the way I’d explain it. The mind is being freed. (01:29:35)

Arjuna Das: I would say the person’s being given some final reprieve, they’re given a moment to have a final conversation or wrap things up before they depart. (01:30:02)

Michael Egnor: Sure. Although I think a lot of terminal lucidity doesn’t necessarily entail an accounting with earthly issues. That is, sometimes people with terminal lucidity just seem to see the next world. And frankly, they often are quite happy to go there. They’re tired of this world. (01:30:29)

Arjuna Das: There was a lady in one of the spiritual, holy places for Hare Krishnas, who was leaving her body. And she would describe that she would leave her body or go in and see the temple. So, she’d report back the color of the clothing that the deities were wearing while she was bed bound, dying of cancer. (01:30:35)

Note: Das is here referring to the clothing in which the statues of deities are arrayed in Hare Krishna temples. The lady was probably saying that she actually saw the statues while in a state of terminal lucidity.

Michael Egnor: It’s a very real thing. And again, what is so striking about the materialists’ approach to these things is that when materialists try to deal with these issues, it’s obvious that there’s no effort to be objective. There’s no effort to take these fundamental, phenomena seriously. The effort is to simply deny their existence… And they don’t say anything. (01:30:57)

Arjuna Das: (01:31:26):That’s like apologetics for materialism.

Michael Egnor: And not to get too theological, but I think the reality, of course, is that materialists are almost invariably atheists. I think that the denial of God’s existence is the motivation for all of this stuff… Materialism is their metaphysics. Their commitment is to the denial of God’s existence, and they will do anything possible to defend that commitment, even if it involves complete nonsense. (01:31:55)

Arjuna Das: Yeah. If you’re talking about prior probabilities, if you’ve now debunked physical [ones], there’s a spiritual dimension or something beyond the physical, then denying God’s existence becomes much more difficult. (01:32:06)

Here are transcripts and notes for the first hour and twenty-five minutes, starting from the beginning:

Why neurosurgeon Mike Egnor stopped being a materialist atheist. He found that materialism is just not working out in science. Most propositions in basic science are based on mathematics and mathematics is not a material thing.

How science points to meaning in life. The earliest philosopher of science, Aristotle, pioneered a way of understanding it. Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor talks about the four causes of the events in our world, from the material to the mind.

How we can know mental states are real? Mental states are always “about” something; physical states are not “about” anything. Michael Egnor argues that doing science as a physicalist (a materialist) is like driving a car with the parking brake on; it’s a major impediment to science.

What’s the best option for understanding the mind and the brain? Theories that attempt to show that the mind does not really exist clearly don’t work and never did. Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor reviews the mind-brain theories for East Meets West: Theology Unleashed. He think dualism makes the best sense of the evidence.

How did Descartes come to make such a mess of dualism? Mathematician René Descartes strictly separated mind and matter in a way that left the mind very vulnerable. After Descartes started the idea that only minds have experiences, materialist philosophers dispensed with mind, then puzzled over how matter has experiences.

How philosopher John Locke turned reality into theatre His “little theater in the mind” concept means that you can’t even know that nature exists. It may just be a movie that’s being played in front of your eyes.
Aristotle and Aquinas’s traditional philosophical approach, Michael Egnor argues, offers more assurance that we can truly perceive reality.

The brain can be split but the mind can’t. Neuroscientist Roger Sperry found that splitting the brain in half does not split consciousness in half. It just gives you a rather interesting, but very subtle set of perceptual disabilities.
Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor has split patients’ brains, while treating serious epilepsy, and the results are not at all what a materialist might expect.

How the split brain emphasizes the reality of the mind. Fascinating research following up Roger Sperry’s work — which showed that the mind is not split when the brain is — has confirmed and extended his findings. One investigator, whose work followed up and confirmed Roger Sperry’s, called her split brain findings “perceptual disconnection with conscious unity.”

The brain does not create the mind; it constrains it. Near-death experiences in which people report seeing things that are later verified give some sense of how the mind works in relation to the brain. A cynical neurosurgeon colleague told Michael Egnor that he could not account for how a child patient’s NDE account described the operation accurately.

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Why Do Some People’s Minds Become Much Clearer Near Death?