The following is an excerpt from ‘Words at the Threshold‘, Lisa Smartt’s bestselling book on what we say as we’re nearing death –Ed.
No Words For It
You are describing to a friend what a chair looks like. That’s simple, isn’t it?
How about explaining the sensation of being in love?
Can you easily convey the taste of a chocolate bar to someone who has never eaten chocolate?
Now, how would you describe a deeply spiritual moment to someone who has never had one?
Certain concepts are harder to put into words than others. If you are like most people, you will find the task of describing a chair to be relatively easy. You will use literal and intelligible language: for example, you might say it has four legs that are made of oak, a hard back, and a cushioned seat made of blue velvet. That’s easy enough. And the person you are speaking to will likely understand everything you are saying — there is little chance for misunderstanding. Your two perceptions of reality in this case overlap pretty closely.
Language can range from highly literal to figurative to unintelligible. While most human speech is literal or figurative, unintelligible or “nonsense” language sometimes occurs. We often use figurative language and even nonsensical language when we describe things that are difficult to express in literal language.
Let’s go back to explaining the sensation of being in love. Suddenly you might need to resort to language beyond the literal to explain it. You might say something like “The moment I met him, I felt as if I had known him for a million years.” Or “When we are together, I feel a peace I have never known before — like being in the mountains under a starry sky.”
Since we are not very accustomed to describing tastes, and in English we have a relatively narrow vocabulary for talking about
flavors, conversations about chocolate might be even more difficult than those about love. You might have to make comparisons and associations. “It tastes sweet and rich and creamy. Kind of a dark flavor…makes me think of wild jungles — but with all the sweetness of fruit. And there is something almost soothing about it as it melts on the tongue…”
And finally, if you have an extremely spiritual experience, there may be an even narrower band of language you can use to share this intensely subjective experience with another person. We have so few literal phrases that can describe intensely internal moments. That is why poets and mystics often turn to figurative and even nonsensical language to talk about things in life that are not sensory. It is not unusual for nonsensory mystical experience to be explored through non-sense-ical paradoxes such as “the whispering silence” or “the illuminated darkness.”
Literal language works well for those things that involve the five senses and are shared by all of us. However, when the experiences or concepts are more subjective and move beyond the purely sensory, finding the right words becomes increasingly difficult.
How to Describe the Experience of Dying?
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.
Lisa Smartt is the author of the bestselling Words at the Threshold (2017 New World Library) based on the findings of her Final Words Project (finalwordsproject.org), which she established with Dr. Raymond Moody. She has authored several other books including Diet for a Broken Heart, Lessons in Lullabies, Veil: Love Poems from across the Threshold, and Cante Bardo. Lisa is also a book coach and delights in being a midwife to new ideas and authors. Find out more about her book coaching here.