Lucidity, Luminosity and Liminality: Alexander Batthyany and the Paradox of Return

Threshold ‘Shifts’?

This article started life as a book review before I realised the implications of what I was reviewing. Hence what you are reading is both review and reflection. It is also extension: ending, as it does, with some suggestions as to how the RERC might contribute usefully to a most exciting recent development in the long-standing and ongoing quest to better understand religious, spiritual and anomalous experiencing.

It all started when a regular visitor to my website referred me to Alexander Batthyány’s recently-published book Threshold: Terminal Lucidity and the Border of Life and Death.[1] The keyword here – as it will be throughout this article – is ‘lucidity’ and Batthyány uses it primarily to refer to those curious cases in which severely cognitively-impaired persons temporarily regain aspects of cognitive functioning long lost and thought gone forever. The impairments can be many and varied – advanced-stage Alzheimer’s, meningitis, brain tumours, strokes, psychiatric disorders, and other conditions – but the sudden, apparently recovered lucidity can be as striking as it is surprising. Batthyány provides numerous illustrations in the form of testimony-extracts, of which the following is typical:

‘My mother had advanced Alzheimer’s. She no longer recognised us, and she didn’t even seem to care who these “strangers” were visiting her once or twice a week. On the day before her passing, however, everything was different. Not only did she recognise us – she wanted to know what had happened in the course of the past year for every one of us, delighting in good news and shed[ding] the odd tear over bad news (just as this affectionate motherly woman had done before her dementia). Her comments were as wise and caring as ever. When she heard that my younger daughter had recently broken off her engagement and descended into a deep depression, she asked her to stay with her for a while afterward, because she wanted to talk to her in private. My daughter never told me what she discussed with my mother, but it was a turning point for her. When we took our leave, we didn’t know what to expect next: Was she miraculously healed of her dementia?’

Alas, she was not, for the testimony ends sadly: ‘She died the same night.’[2]

And hence the ‘terminal’ in the term ‘Terminal Lucidity.’ Indeed, this seems something of a constant in such cases: the death of the subject hours -occasionally days – after the episode.

It might be assumed that there have been numerous studies of these remarkable, rallying, turnarounds: even if such apparent rallyings do not seem to last. Surprisingly, the opposite is the case. As Batthyány notes, this is a young research field. The first peer-reviewed journal articles exploring the phenomenon only appeared in 2009 and, apart from Batthyány’s own study, no other full-length exploration of the phenomenon has appeared to date in the English language. The nearest analogues are the studies of End-of-Life Experiences (ELEs) from Peter Fenwick and others and the myriad studies of the Near-Death Experience (NDE) that have appeared over the last half-century or so.

Exploring Terminal Lucidity

We will return to Near-Death Experiences in a moment. For now, it will be instructive to note some of Alexander Batthyány’s other observations. Firstly, terminal lucidity appears to be cross-cultural, with his own research group having collected contemporary reports from the US, Russia, India, South Korea, Japan, New Zealand, Nigeria and China. Secondly, the phenomenon has been reported historically. Early on in his study, for example, Batthyány cites case reports from the mid-nineteenth century onwards which bear remarkable similarities to those cases collected by his own study group. Thirdly, instances of Terminal Lucidity only occur in a small minority of cases: some 6% of soon-to-die persons according to the first prospective study of the phenomenon published in 2009.[3] Fourthly – and something dwelt on at length by  Batthyány – taken at face value, such extraordinary cases appear to pose profound questions for materialists committed to related variations of the view that mental states are reduceable to brain states. For such should not be possible. Put simply: in a brain ravaged and massively organically impaired by advanced-stage Alzheimer’s, for example, how can an earlier – sometimes much earlier – intact and completely lucid sense of self, together with that self’s relationship to others and the world, suddenly (and apparently inexplicably) return? As Batthyány himself puts it: it is not possible to unboil an egg. A severely diseased and decimated brain cannot ‘repair’ itself like this. Yet such an apparent return of the self is reported: by very many relatives and friends of sufferers who – at least temporarily – dared to believe that their loved ones had ’come back.’

Terminal Lucidity and Near-Death Experiences

By the closing stages of the book the focus has shifted, somewhat. For the author shows himself well aware that improved and entirely unexpected lucidity occurs in other testimonies too: not least those related by Near-Death Experiencers who during their experiences frequently report both enhanced mental function and increased visual acuity. Again: how can such be possible in brains buffeted by the onset of physical processes that would be expected to occur during – and leading up to – episodes of clinical death? By way of answer, Batthyány quotes NDE researcher Bruce Greyson: extreme cases in various fields call into question received and usually widely-accepted scientific models. Hence, in the ordinary run of things we are justified in concluding that mental states are dependent on brain states. Only at the end of life ‘when the brain stops functioning’ are we confronted by situations where persons report ‘the formula breaking down.’ At such times we see another reality: the seeming independence of mind from brain. In cases of Near-Death Experiences and Terminal Lucidity alike. Indeed, Batthyány perceives a certain mutual reinforcement occurring within and between both sets of ‘boundary’ phenomena.[4]

Overall, Batthyány’s thesis is young, bold and fresh, but not without its problems. How do you quantify lucidity? How skilled are people at judging their own cognitive states, particularly in those liminal conditions where massive organic changes might be expected to occur such as at or near the point of death? Does the evidence from Near-Death Experiences really ‘tip the balance’ in favour of the reality of Terminal Lucidity (and vice versa)? And what about those 94% of cases where Terminal Lucidity fails to occur in any recognisable or appreciable way? In the closing chapters the author both acknowledges and attempts to respond to at least some of these issues, which remind me of some of the issues raised over the last several decades by NDE research. Indeed, it is also to the author’s credit that he is prepared to make connections between his own field of research interest and that of near-death studies. The questions remain, however, as worthy of further and deeper exploration: both as regards Terminal Lucidity and as regards related, anomalistic, phenomena.

Paradoxical Lucidity

Readers familiar with the small but extant body of literature surrounding Terminal Lucidity might be wondering about its relationship to Paradoxical Lucidity, for both terms are used within the field, often seemingly interchangeably. Before reading Batthyány’s book I had thought that they both referred to essentially the same thing but in places the author is careful to distinguish between them, the difference being that Paradoxical Lucidity refers to an episode of unexpectedly enhanced mental functioning in ‘non-terminal’ situations where death is not approaching or imminent. For me, as a researcher with a long-standing interest in the content of the RERC archive, this suggests an exciting challenge and opportunity: for within that archive Paradoxical Lucidity is certainly reported. A most vivid example of it, contained within an anthology of RERC accounts compiled by Meg Maxwell and Verena Tschudin several years ago, was reported by a Wireless Operator as having occurred after a battle in the Western Desert during World War Two. The relevant extract for our purposes here is as follows:

‘For the first time since before the battle I was lying on the ground, rather than in a slit trench or inside a tank or armoured car. The dust of battle, which had obscured the sky, had quite gone, and the stars were enormous and magnificent. A slight breeze came from the warm sea nearby and the air seemed to be slightly perfumed, from what source I could not imagine.

Suddenly – and it really was quite sudden – my train of thought accelerated and vastly improved in quality (I am trying to choose my words carefully to describe what happened). New and convincing ideas came into my mind in a steady torrent, flaws in my existing ideas were illuminated and as I made mental corrections to them the diminishing gaps in the logical sequence were filled by neat, brand-new lining concepts which made a beautiful logical pattern.

I was immediately aware that this was important to me as nothing had been before. The impact was so powerful that for a split second I felt something akin to fear, but this I rejected quickly because, simultaneously, I was enjoying an almost, nay actually, physical thrill of delight. Yes, I think delight is the right word.

What I want to stress most (and this taxes my powers of description) is that a small, everyday, critical part of my brain was standing apart, observing with astonishment what was going on in the rest of my thinking apparatus. How long the experience lasted I hesitate to estimate, but it was probably not more than ten minutes – perhaps less.’[5]

I quote from this remarkable account at length for a number of reasons. Despite the apparent ineffability of aspects of his experience, the subject nonetheless does a remarkable job of describing an event in which the quality of his thinking was massively – albeit temporarily – transformed: for the better. But there is no suggestion that he was near death at the time – or, indeed, that he was injured or otherwise physically impaired in any way. In fact, deeper analysis reveals that his testimony was submitted to the archive some twenty-seven years after his experience occurred. According to the distinction made in Alexander Batthyány’s book, therefore, the peculiar event he describes so well fits firmly under the heading of Paradoxical, rather than Terminal, Lucidity.

Given the rich range of testimonies to religious, spiritual, and anomalistic phenomena that it contains, it is highly likely that the RERC archive contains many other such, or comparable, accounts of unusually enhanced lucidity. And the gap that can often be seen to exist within the archive between the actual occurrence of the experience and the submission to the RERC of the description of the experience – as in the above account – only serves to increase the possibility that these may be classified as paradoxically lucid, rather than terminally so. An opportunity therefore exists for the RERC to contribute to cutting edge research within a fresh and exciting field: for studies of Paradoxical Lucidity are currently more rare even than their Terminal ‘cousins.’ Perhaps the many still unexplored treasures that the RERC archive contains may enable us to deepen our understanding of these strange encounters with surprising and unexpected lucidity: encounters which may yet have much to tell us about that even more mysterious ‘country’ –  that of the self.


  1. Alexander Batthyany, Threshold: Terminal Lucidity and the Border of Life and Death (2023) New York, Saint Martin’s Publishing Group
  • ibid, pp. 52 – 3
  • ibid, p. 68
  • ibid, p. 155
  • Meg Maxwell and Verena Tschudin, Seeing The Invisible: Modern Religious and Other Transcendent Experiences (1990) London, Penguin, pp. 57 – 8.

This article first appeared in De Numine, Issue 76, Spring 2024, pp. 16 – 18