Peace in the Face of Death: Endorphins Calm the Nerves

Peace in the Face of Death: Endorphins Calm the Nerves

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“Cowards die many times before their deaths;

The valiant never taste of death but once

 of all the wonders that I yet have heard

 It seems to me most strange that men should fear:

Seeing that death a necessary end,

Will come when it will come.”


Shakespeare makes Julius Caesar say these words to Calpurnia before leaving for the Senate when she expresses fear for his safety. However, with the exception of a handful, people have dreaded death since the dawn of history. Thrust into this ‘bank and shoal of time without choice or awareness from an unknown void as an infant, the ” dread of something after death, that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns’ makes man bear the ills he has rather than fly to others he does not know of. 

However, of all forms of life on earth, man alone is fortunate in possessing in abundance two remarkable faculties, intelligence and imagination, which have enabled him to manipulate the environment for his own benefit.

While his intelligence has led him to unearth the secrets of nature and invent marvellous devices that have revolutionized his quality of life, imagination makes him the only creature which can plan and enjoy any kind of experience.

But unfortunately, man’s very strength is his greatest weakness. The constant awareness that his life-span is limited and is always in the danger of being terminated abruptly casts a pall of gloom over his existence. This brings us to one of the greatest puzzles in medical science as to how mortally wounded soldiers experience no fear or panic, and continue to fight till death, how young children despite being fatally stabbed by psychopaths show no sign of fear or agony on their faces, but only tranquillity and peace before they die. Medical history is replete with such accounts.

Peace in the Face of Death: Endorphins Calm the Nerves

In 1844 the great explorer Livingstone had been trying to protect some natives from a lion when it seized him by his arm. The lion was shot dead but not before it had inflicted grave injuries. Livingstone had been shaken by the lion’s jaws, like a mouse by a cat, but he had only felt a sort of dreaminess and euphoria—not terror or pain. Similarly, Mon­taigne, when pushed down from a horse and anticipating his death, experienced no fear or panic but only tranquillity and it was only much later that he felt any kind of pain. This phenomenon is noticed in hospitals also in the case of some patients suffering from terminal cancer patients when they are very near death.

It is, therefore, possible that just when a person is in danger of imminent death, the body itself produces an ‘opiate-like’ substance that acts like an anaesthetic—appropriately named Endorphin. Endon in Greek means ‘within’, gennao means ‘I produce’; and Morpheus is the Roman God of Sleep and Dreams. Thus endogenous morphines have given rise to the word ‘Endorphin’.

In response to stress, Endorphins originate in the hypothalamus and pituitary glands and an area called the periaqueductal grey matter, and along with Acth—a hormone that activates the adrenal gland, bind themselves onto receptors on the surface of certain nerve cells. They raise the pain threshold and act only when there is ‘trauma’, not otherwise.

Peace in the Face of Death- Endorphins Calm the Nerves

There is reason to believe that the same process is at work in the case of acupuncture. It would seem that vibrating or rotating needles at some specific points on the human body stimulates the secretion and outpouring of endorphins. How else can one explain complicated surgical procedures being performed without anaesthesia in many parts of China?.

A rise in the levels of endorphins has actually been documented not only in certain medical institutions in China but also in some laborato­ries in the West. However, the precise neurological route by which signals travel and stimulate the brain to produce endorphins has not yet been identified.

Peace in the Face of Death- Endorphins Calm the Nerves

There is as yet no explanation for this phenomenon but these sub­stances (endorphin) seem to have evolved as a physiological survival mechanism to protect mammals and other animals from terror and pain during the earth’s early history when threatening events had been occurring frequently due to predators or natural calamities.

While our knowledge of endorphins is still in its infancy, there is credible speculation that, in some mysterious manner, factors such as these seem to be at work (not just the rush of adrenaline) introducing calmness and equanimity in the last stages of patients suffering from a terminal illness, so as to not only make them accept the inevitable end but, also in some cases invite death.

As only Keats could have said:

I have been half in love with easeful death 

Called him soft names in many a mused rhyme 

To take into the air my quiet breath;

Now more than ever seems it rich to die 

To cease upon the midnight with no pain.


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