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Lisa Smartt examines what our final words tell us about consciousness and the afterlife.

photo by: Skeptiko

On this episode of Skeptiko…

Alex Tsakiris: One of the things that surprised me is the playfulness of [these final words]…  “Hey, I’m going to Las Vegas. Hey, we need a fourth for the golf tournament.” What the heck is going on there, what does that say about this other realm [after death] and how we ought to feel about it?

Lisa Smartt: Um, it’s so true. One of the stories I loved was from Carol and it was the account of her last words of her father, who was a roofing contractor, and she said, “He would awaken and look at over at me and smile so big and he told me, ‘They have all these kitchenettes over there, there were miles and miles of them,’ and he would be helping build them all.” So there is a sense of almost joy and wonder and awe and not always, I mean I don’t want to sugar coat the experience of dying, because there are people who also… you know, their last words are, “Help me, help me,” and that’s real too.

Stay with us for Skeptiko…

Welcome to Skeptiko, where we explore controversial science and spirituality with leading researchers, thinkers and their critics. I’m your host Alex Tsakiris and today we have an interesting interview with Lisa Smartt, who is a linguist, has a Master’s Degree from Berkeley, has written this book, Words at the Threshold: What We Say as We’re Nearing Death. And for this book she collaborated with Raymond Moody, the famous Raymond Moody who started the whole near-death experience thing way back. And what they looked at were the words that people say when they’re about to die, in and around the time that they’re dying. So you might have heard of terminal lucidity, and maybe you’ve heard of stories of the profound things people say before they die, there are ton of these accounts, almost all of us have family stories of this kind.

So, she’s taken a disciplined, methodical look at what’s being said, and it’s just fascinating.  It has huge implications for near-death experience, but also obviously for science and this question of the afterlife and consciousness and particularly, what I’m interested in, you know, what is the nature of these extended consciousness realms? I think she raises some questions about that as well.

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Today we welcome Lisa Smartt to Skeptiko. Lisa’s a linguist whose experiences with her dying father led her to this fascinating investigation into the unique communication that often happens when people are near-death. She’s just written a new book about this titled, Words at the Threshold: What We Say as We’re Nearing Death. Lisa, welcome to Skeptiko and thanks so much for joining me.

Lisa Smartt: Oh, thanks for having me; it’s great to be here.

Alex Tsakiris: Well this is exciting, it’s kind of new stuff, it’s going to be very much in the vein of other stuff we’ve talked about, but the twist on it is that you’re a linguist, which I’ve got to say, when I first heard that I go, “Yeah, I know what a linguist is,” and then I thought and I go, “No, I don’t, I don’t know what a linguist is.” What is a linguist?

Lisa Smartt: You know, I think a linguist is someone who’s been trained in and is curious about the science of language. So many of us go ahead and we speak with people, but we don’t think much about the patterns of language and often time too, we don’t think about language that might frighten us or baffle us. We just, if we hear nonsense; for example, someone says something that makes no sense to us, often times we just disregard it, but I was trained as a linguist that every bit of language is fascinating and worthy of study.

So, part of what I brought to this research is my training in analyzing language, in terms of patterns and themes and approaching all language with a sense of curiosity and wonder as a scientist would with any natural phenomena.

Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, it’s really an interesting angle, because when you think about it and you really talk about it in that way, you kind of see where this language thing touches so many areas of science that we don’t really think about, but then when you think deeper you go, “Oh yeah, that is kind of curious.” I mean, whether it’s psychological or medical, educational, there’s so many different ways, and then you’ve turned your lens to this near-death communication, communication that happens right before death. It’s a fascinating, fascinating way to look at it.

So there’s a ton of ways we could approach this, you know, we could look at it from… and you hit all of these in the book; the book is quite comprehensive.

Lisa Smartt: Right.

Alex Tsakiris: So, we can look at it from the standpoint of evidence of an afterlife, we can look at it from grieving and what it means about the grief process, how it ties into near-death experience, or we can break down the details of this communication, like you do in your book. But there’re also some great, great little stories in the book, and I thought we might start with the story of your dad. I mean, he sounds like quite a character.

Lisa Smartt: He was a character and you know, you had mentioned earlier about how this study of language overlaps and connects with so many other aspect of study, and when I first heard changes in my father’s language at end of life, I had never imagined that I would be someone who would then be talking about the afterlife. I mean, as a linguist, it was something I never anticipated.

What happened with my father is, he was a PhD psychologist, very rationalist-based, you know. Someone who believed that this was it, and he used to joke and call him himself a gastronomical Jew, which to him meant that his idea of God was corned beef sandwich and coleslaw on the side with a cream soda, that he didn’t believe [in] anything, anything beyond this.

So, one of the things that happened as my father was dying, the last three weeks, he started talking about seeing angels and that just completely blew me away, because he had never spoken that way before. He didn’t have any kind of ‘supernatural’ or other worldly beliefs, so that was part of what began my interest in writing down everything he said.

Alex Tsakiris: Awesome and that’s brilliant and you made a brilliant point there that I want to make sure we highlight. You say in the book, “The investigation is not formal or rigorous. That is, it doesn’t control for medications or illness. I offer a details explanation informed by hospice professionals, blah, blah, blah.”

You know, back to the thing about Raymond, it’s funny you tell that story, because it does fit in with my experiences, when you reflect on it, there is a deep wisdom that he has there. I’ve been looking at this near-death experience thing for a long time and one of the common knocks on it from the medical community — who just really doesn’t want to deal with any of this stuff at all — is they say, “Oh well look, you can’t rely on that, I mean, this person was drowning, I mean this person had a completely different experience, they were in a coma. This person had cardiac arrest. This person had anesthesia,” and then you say, “Yeah that’s the point, how did they all have the same experience if they had completely different physiological medical conditions?”

That’s what I think you’ve done here, when you say, “The investigation is not formal or rigorous.” Well in one way maybe that’s true in the way that you said. But in another way, because of the way you did it, it again, brings to the front this question of, well then how would you explain this person, like you said, you’re grounded and this comes through in the book. We’re going to talk a little bit in a minute about the methodology for compiling all of these accounts, which is pretty amazing and there’s like fifteen hundred of them in the book, but then they speak — in terms of the patterns you found — speak then [of] transcending illness, transcending age, transcending all these variables that someone could throw at it and say, “Oh well yeah, that’s just dementia.” “Oh really, well in this case there’s a completely different medical background.” “Oh well, that’s probably medications.” “Oh really, here’s a younger person that…” Do you know what I mean? It really does that.

Lisa Smartt: Yes and again, I was surprised because when I first began I looked at Raymond, sort of from the corner of my eye like, “Really? Really Doc?” And he was like, “Let’s just give it a try and see what happens.” And as you said, he was right and it was from his experience with near-death experiences; that led him to encourage me to move in that way.

Alex Tsakiris: So Lisa, tell folks a little bit of how you went about compiling all these accounts.

Lisa Smartt: You know, I first approached the hospice and they were very protective. The scientist in me, I first had this image of like, “I’m going to go bedside with digital recorders and get the words of the dying.” Well, I learned very, very quickly that first, that’s such a sacred and private time; the hospice understandably really did not want someone —  a stranger — not being affiliated with the university and [not] being under the guidance of what’s called an IRB that controls ethical scientific research. You know, they didn’t just want some person coming in and doing that, and I got to fully understand how inappropriate that would have been for so many reasons, and I’ll say more about that later.

But, what I did do is I spoke to families and loved ones and asked if they’d be willing to transcribe their loved one’s words. They could pick and choose which ones I would get, because for those very private conversations, of course people want to keep those private, right?

So people did share those, and then I was bedside for some of them. I had chaplains and hospice workers and nurses share things with me. I spoke to professionals, other professionals in the field of linguistics and psychology and neuroscience. So I really did a range of types of information gathering, and then I have the Final Words Project and we have a submission form where people can go ahead and submit their accounts, and then I followed it up with phone calls, just to make sure that people were credible and I just wanted to make sure the data I was getting was coming from credible sources.

Alex Tsakiris: Tell folks a little bit more about the online submission and how that played into it, because that’s still up and going, right?

Lisa Smartt: Yes, absolutely, and I want to keep collecting data for as long as I can. Just basically it’s a form where you give your consent and we do ask questions about meds and it’s just simple, you share what you want to share, what you feel comfortable sharing; I don’t share it with anybody, you make a choice whether you want to put your name or not, and I just gather some wonderful stories. Last week, I got a story from someone who talked about her loved one who was right at the edge of dying and was going through a difficult period right before passing. She started talking about the momma train, she wanted to get on the momma train and this woman started sharing with her, “Let’s go on the momma train, let’s go on the momma train,” and just entered into her loved one’s world.

Anyway, that’s just sort of an example, an account I got last week. I get several accounts every week now and I’m honored to get them from people when I do, and I really appreciate them of course.

Alex Tsakiris: So, let’s pick up on the momma train kind of thing, because this gets into the bulk of your research and the thing that people find, I think, challenging and fascinating. At the same time, I mean, we all know this stuff is real because we all have either direct experience or, you know, at least somebody in our family has been around somebody who’s died and has said things that seem profound. They may be metaphorical or they may seem nonsensical, but at some point they seem profound. Give us a sense for the kind of communication that people are having.

Lisa Smartt: Well just to wrap up a little bit about my dad. As I mentioned before, you hear a lot of talking about a journey, you know, “The yellow bus, the yellow bus, the yellow bus is full of angels, the yellow bus,” or talking about the train coming or needing a passport to go to another country — so a lot of metaphors around travel. My father said, “Let’s get the oxygen tank, I have to get to Las Vegas.” He loved to gamble, so that was his travel metaphor.

But, you see metaphors, you also see a lot of repetition that occurs, “Beautiful, so beautiful. It’s all in one piece, it’s all in one piece, it’s all in one piece. What you see in different pieces, it’s all in one piece.”

So, you see a lot of repetitive language, you also see something that I call sustained narratives, where someone will start a story, let’s say two weeks out, they begin talking about, “The train is breaking down,” or “The boxing champ is walking into my room,” or “There’s a woman in blue who just came by.” They’ll start a story, but it evolves over the days or weeks that they’re dying, and it’s remarkable to me that someone might start a story about the train that’s having trouble leaving the station, maybe December 1st, and then December 15th, well now the train is pulling up to the station and then December 20th they’re talking about coming up to the platform and the people waiting for them. So you’ll hear these remarkable stories evolve, even though someone’s brain is technically dying, it’s remarkable that a story can be sustained over time.

So you see that, you see non-referential language, which I mentioned to you a little bit, where my father [said], “I’ve never done this before.” It’s when it’s not clear what the reference is, so you’ll hear things like, “It’s not what you think,” or “It’s lovely,” or “It’s all a hoax,” which was Roger Ebert’s.

Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, “It’s all an elaborate hoax.”

Lisa Smartt: An amazing final… “Too bad, too bad, I can’t tell you of this.” You also hear something called… that I call prepositional shift, where people talk about their place in space and time in unusual ways. “I’ve got to go down there, I have to go down,” or “I’m on top now, I’m moving on top,” “I’m crossing up, I’m crossing up.”

You also see something I call hybrid nonsense, where one part of the sentence refers to something going on in this world, in this reality, but then something refers to something we don’t see, for example, “Please massage my feet honey, so I can get down into the rabbit hole.” So there’s no real rabbit hole, but there are real feet, right? “Get my camera, I need to take a picture of this.” “They’ve left the ladders, but the ladders are too short to go up there,” so someone was referring to the ladders outside their window, but they needed the ladders to ‘get up there’.

Alex Tsakiris: It really is literally like they are in two worlds, like they are stepping into one world, it would appear, and they’re reporting on that the best they can, and then they’re stepping back in this world. I mean, that’s one of the ways to interpret it, right?

Lisa Smartt: Absolutely, and many hospice nurses whom I spoke with, spoke of it that way, and they said, “The difference between hallucinations, when people are taking drugs, is that they don’t have that ability to move in and out between the two worlds.”

So, one of the things I heard reported a lot is, people would be having conversations with the unseen relatives that may have died before. For example, one woman described how her father was saying, “Oh it’s Earl, Earl,” and that was the father who had passed on, and then the mother was going back talking to this unseen father and yet then she would say to the daughter, “Oh, I’m feeling much better, Earl is with me.” So she had consciousness, an awareness that her daughter was there, however in cases where people have hallucinations related to drugs, the hospice nurses told me there wasn’t that same sense of being able to move in and out.

Alex Tsakiris: You mentioned the near-death experience and I kept reading it and going, “Wow, this is a whole area that opens up a lot of new research topics for near-death experience researches,” one being that a lot of these are near-death experiences.

Lisa Smartt: Right.

Alex Tsakiris: A lot of these, you cannot escape that, from what we know of near-death experiences, and we’ve compiled a lot of them at this point, and we’ve done a lot of analysis of it and a lot of it stops in this kind of medical realm of, “What state is the brain in?” And, “Were they able to perceive the sock on the doctor…?” But all those near-death experiences, a good percentage of them, also transcend into this other realm and then they bring back these accounts. Well that’s exactly what’s going on here and it took me a while to catch onto that, but hey, these people are saying, some of them are saying, “I went to the other side and I brought back this.” I love this quote, one person says, “And of course our world, the one we’re living in now, is three dimensional, but the next one definitely isn’t.” I mean, this is a near-death experience right? They’ve gone over to the other side, they’ve gotten some knowledge, they’ve brought it back and they’re communicating it. What does that say for near-death experience research?

Lisa Smartt: Exactly, you know, one of the things that I noticed when I interviewed near-death experiencers, to get a bigger picture of final words — and Raymond talks about this as well — with near-death experiencers, they all say that their experience is ineffable, this is universal, that there are no words for what they went through. So what they need to do often is lean on metaphors to try and explain what happened to them.

Anita Moorjani, in her book, she spoke about how metaphor is the only way that she could explain what it was like to have an afterlife experience, and she talked about a complicated warehouse. It was like going to a warehouse with a searchlight and so forth. So we hear that a lot of near-death experiencers have to turn to metaphor to try to describe their experience.

So there we are, we’ve got metaphor, we’ve got the ineffable, like the ‘this’ we hear in the language of the dying, that non-referential, or the ‘it is’. And then we hear from near-death experiencers, as I mentioned earlier, that the language is often paradoxical like, “I never felt as alive as when I was dead,” for example. We hear from people that have had near-death experiences say, “It’s telepathic,” like the communication is like heart to heart or mind to mind, but there’s no spoken language and you see traces that that might be happening as people are approaching the threshold. So, I think there’s a tremendous amount of overlap between the two, indeed.  

Alex Tsakiris: You know, one thing that just keeps popping up for me again and again — and I don’t know how you wrestle with this, but it’s what I like to call the “How can this be?” question, because obviously your research in the book — it’s awesome, inspiring for a lot of people, it’s going to be extremely healing for people who have gone through a grieving process, and like I said, I think it also is ground breaking; it opens up a lot of new areas of research.

Lisa Smartt: Thank you.

Alex Tsakiris: But the thing that keeps coming back to me, it really isn’t surprising in a sense; I mean we have all heard these stories.

Lisa Smartt: Yeah.

Alex Tsakiris: The big rub comes between, when we then look to our medical establishment: they’re not interested in this. We look to science and academia: they’re not only not interested in it, but they seem to be aggressively hostile to it. I mean, I can’t imagine what would happen to you if you went back to your UC Berkeley friends and told them, “Oh by the way, all that stuff we learned about the relationship between the brain and language and all that stuff, well it’s really, really incomplete because we all have this telepathic link and talking to spirits.” There is this big divide that we kind of manage, but it is problematic too for people who want to approach it from a more logical, rational kind of way isn’t it?

Lisa Smartt: Yeah and to me it seems so unnecessary. I mean, I don’t understand why this divide exists, because I had thought about possibly going back to my doctorate to do this research and as I researched possible schools, I couldn’t find a place that really received my curiosity.

Alex Tsakiris: Oh forget it.

Lisa Smartt: Yeah, but I’m stunned because I don’t think of myself as being a particularly… I don’t know, I think of myself as being relatively grounded and this doesn’t seem like that… I don’t know, these are questions that just seem to open doors, and one of the things I love that Raymond talk about is scepticism — which goes back to the Ancient Greeks — was really more about the ability to keep reformulating your questions as you get more information, and it’s really a shame because I know that they’ll be other people, or I imagine that they’ll be other people who will do research after my research here, which is just a first step, that might contradict things that I say, it might expand upon things that I say, but that excites me because that’s in the spirit of true inquiry, right? It’s really a shame to me that there is so much dogmatism, on both sides, you know. On spirituality, everyone has an element of it, and it’s just a shame because there’s nothing more exciting than true inquiry, for me, and that’s what brought me to the Final Words Project and doing what I’m doing and having this conversation with you right now.

Alex Tsakiris: You know Lisa, what do you think was the most surprising part of the communication, what really surprised you? I’ll tell you what it was for me in a minute, but I want to hear yours.

Lisa Smartt: I think the most startling… there were a couple. One was the terminal lucidity, where someone could be completely unresponsive and then a few days before dying, come out of a coma or a complete unresponsiveness and say words of reconciliation or love or guidance. I think the most dramatic case was this gentleman who I knew. He was very credible [and] told me his mother had Alzheimer’s; he couldn’t communicate with her for several years, and then she went into a coma and a few days before she died, she emerged out of the coma and turned to him and said, “All the files you need to make sense of my financial situation are in the third drawer down in the study drawer.”

Alex Tsakiris: Talk about lucidity!

Lisa Smartt: Talk about lucidity, and then soon after [she] passed on. Something like that, I mean, how does one put that in the scheme of things? I don’t know.

Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, yeah.

Lisa Smartt: That was one of several surprising things, but that was one definitely.

Alex Tsakiris: That’s a great one.

Lisa Smartt: What about you, I’m curious to hear what surprised you?

Alex Tsakiris: One of the things that surprised me, and you’ve kind of touched on it, is the playfulness of it sometimes.

Lisa Smartt: Yes.

Alex Tsakiris: Because the near-death experience, again we kind of break it down and talk about it either medically or then people talk about it in this kind of hyped up, spiritual sense, you know, of this great, immense connection with spirit and love and, hey that’s in your accounts too, but the other thing that comes through in your accounts is, like you were saying, just the playfulness. “Hey, I’m going to Las Vegas. Hey, we need a fourth for the golf tournament,” or “The magician…” What the heck is going on there, what does that say about this other realm and how, maybe we ought to feel about it?

Lisa Smartt: Um, it’s so true. One of the stories I loved was from Carol and it was the account of her last words of her father, who was a roofing contractor, and she said, “He would awaken and look at over at me and smile so big and he told me, ‘They have all these kitchenettes over there, there were miles and miles of them,’ and he would be helping build them all.” So there is a sense of almost joy and wonder and awe and not always… I mean I don’t want to sugar coat the experience of dying because there are people who also, you know, their last words are, “Help me, help me,” and that’s real too.

Alex Tsakiris: Right.

Lisa Smartt: Right, so I don’t want to make this sound sugar coated, but there really is a movement towards awe and movement and innocence of humor and light-heartedness. So, it is true and it’s something that personally has touched me, because I was one of those people that — before I got on an airplane — I would be, you know, breaking out in sweat and I was terrified and I don’t feel that way anymore. I mean, I don’t feel afraid of dying the way I used to feel afraid, and that was one of the biggest gifts of my father’s passing and doing this research.

Alex Tsakiris: And perhaps it’s not a leap to say that seems to be one of the messages of this communication, is to comfort us, comfort the people that they’re closest to; a lot of times that’s pretty direct.

Lisa Smartt: Absolutely yeah, people say things. This is another case of someone coming out of a coma and turning to their loved one and saying, “Tell everyone I’m okay and I love them.” Wow! So there are remarkable stories and I think obviously my small collection here of data is, I really feel, is really just the beginning, there’s so much more for us to find out.

Alex Tsakiris: There is. Final topic that you also bring up, which is a huge area in and of itself is after-death communication.

Lisa Smartt: Yes.

Alex Tsakiris: Because again, every time you want to pin this down and again, you’ve taken it as a linguist and broken down the communication and then throw all that out of the window, because the person dies and the communication goes on, so now you can take the brain now completely out of it; you can take all the physical aspects, the sensory input, take all of that out of it, and you have some just amazing numbers, which I guess I knew, but you kind of put them together there in a way, amazing numbers on after-death communication. I mean this is, to say it’s common is like a gross understatement.

Lisa Smartt: Right, this actually comes from Julia Assante’s work, but 42% to 72% of people describe having communication of some kind with the dead and then it’s higher even, even into, I think, the higher 80% for widows or widowers and also the parents of deceased children [who] often have very strong bonds with those who have passed on. We’re hearing more and more stories, for example, Matthew McKay who did this book, Seeking Jordan, about his murdered son and this gentleman also was a psychologist, PhD, very rationally based and had an experience that changed his whole ideas about the afterlife and communication.

I did not think I was going to go into the after-death communication, but there were so many people who, after they had shared their final word story, would also say, “Oh my goodness, I’ve got to tell you, after my loved one died my doorbell started ringing the night that that person died,” or wouldn’t stop ringing or alarms started going off or light bulbs exploded. I had several accounts of people getting text messages. One gentleman described to me that the taxi company that his wife would often take to his place of work, texted him just as she was dying, that they had just sent a taxi out to his place of employment.

So, people have synchronicities with nature, rainbows appearing. It completely surprised me to hear how many of these stories exist, and from people, again, that you would think of as being skeptical or very grounded folks, having these kinds of experiences. So, I thought they were really remarkable.

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