The following is excerpted from Words at the Threshold by Lisa Smartt, published by New World Library.
So imagine for a moment: What kind of language might you use to describe the experience of dying?
Not only is it an experience for which the listener has no compelling reference point, but also it is completely strange and new to the person who is dying. It is, in every way, completely without a frame of reference for most of us. Consider, as well, both the possibility that dying is an incomprehensible this, as my father described it to his secretary a few days before dying (“This is very interesting, Alice”), and the possibility that if there is another dimension or an afterlife, it too would elude all the literal meanings we have known in this world. Perhaps just by crossing into these new dimensions, we engage new parts of our brains and, as a result, our language.
Those who have had near-death experiences say it is impossible to find the words to explain their experience. Their experience is ineffable.
When we look at the continuum of language from literal to nonsensical, something fascinating emerges: These different kinds of language are associated with different parts of the brain, according to recent brain-scan research. Literal language, the kind you use to describe a chair, engages regions in the left hemisphere, which have traditionally been associated with the language of literal, shared reality. But figurative language, such as the simile “My love is like a red, red rose,” engages both the left and right hemispheres in the brain. In an article published in Scientific American the author explains, “Previous brain-imaging research has shown that interpreting metaphors requires a variety of areas on both sides of the brain, compared with literal language, which is processed in known language areas in the left hemisphere.” However, a nonsense sentence, such as “My love is thorning the spiraling plotz,” engages the right hemisphere’s regions associated with mystical experiences and music, as we will see later in much greater detail.
Is it possible, then, that as we approach death we have experiences that are more difficult to express with the usual range of language, so there is an increase in metaphoric and puzzling constructions? Or is it that as we die, regions of the left hemisphere associated with literal, sensory language become degraded? And that, as a result, there is greater reliance on language that involves right-hemispheric functions in those days before death? Or are both ideas true? Are we wired to have experiences at the end of life that fall outside of literal language, and do these experiences have the effect of somehow arresting or interfering with our left-hemispheric functions, so that degradation of the literal-language functions leads to more symbolic and non-sense-ical experiences?
Raymond Moody suggests that when “the mind shifts from an intelligible dimension to a less comprehensible dimension, it generates nonsense; a literal account would just be wrong. The mind is forced to talk nonsense transitioning between dimensions.” Moody uses the word nonsense to refer to language that does not make literal sense to those who hear it. However, he also indicates that almost every language is unintelligible “nonsense” to those who do not know the language and its spoken and written linguistic patterns: for example, Chinese is nonsense to those who do not speak it. As we learn more about the continuum of language that appears in our final days, it becomes increasingly meaningful to us and sounds less like nonsense.
The Language of the Near-Death Experience
Raymond Moody’s understanding of the unique properties of unintelligible language was, in part, what led him to coin the term near-death experience. Before becoming a medical doctor, he earned a doctorate in philosophy and focused much of his graduate study on unintelligibility and nonsense. When he began to hear unusual stories from patients who had died and were then revived, he became intrigued.
The stories he heard from his patients followed patterns very similar to those of nonsense stories he had studied as a philosophy student. Much like the characters in Alice in Wonderland, his patients were saying things that seemed to challenge the usual notions of space and time; and like Lewis Carroll’s characters, Moody’s patients often spoke in puzzling paradoxes. Some of the things he heard from patients who had died and come back to life were sentences like these:
“There was time, but no time.”
“I felt more alive when I was dead than when I was living.”
“I understood everything everyone said, but not a word was spoken.”
“I left my body and traveled through the galaxies, all while I was lying motionless in bed.”
“It felt like it took a minute, but it also felt like a thousand years.”
All of these sentences are paradoxical. How is it possible that something felt like a journey through the galaxies when, indeed, the patient lay motionless in bed, or felt like a minute but also a thousand years? These were intriguing statements, and as he heard paradoxical descriptions from his patients, he became increasingly curious about them. How could it be that a patient who came back to life reported never feeling as alive as when he was dead?
Over the course of years, as Moody wrote down accounts of these changes in the language and experiences of his patients, a pattern emerged that he identified as the near-death experience. Through his patients’ “nonsensical stories,” he pinpointed a unique set of experiences shared by some who had died and come back to life. Moody was particularly drawn to their narratives because their stories clearly described some kind of journey even though there had actually been no real movement from point A to point B, as we understand motion in three-dimensional reality. The stories that emerged were technically nonsense travel narratives. That is, in terms of the literal reality we know, the stories were nonsensical. The “journeys” these patients described having taken during their near-death experiences violate almost everything we know about our three-dimensional and five-sense world.
A closer look at these patterns of language associated with near-death experiences reveals a foundation for understanding the language of dying.