English language learners, especially people new to our way of learning, often ask what kind of English listening practice do I recommend listening to. The answer I nearly always give is to listen to something that interests you, something you would listen to in your own native language. Engaging and wanting to listen and hear the conversation is one of the biggest boosts you can give to your English listening practice. As you can guess, I’m back from my short Swiss holiday and it’s back to the business of great English language content. Today’s podcast is a juicy topic and should definitely make you stop and think!
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There are a lot of “big” questions in our lives; What makes us happy? What is love? Where do we come from? What is our purpose? And you may not think it just now, but up there at the top of the "life big question list" is, What happens when I die?
Most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about death. We are too young for it to seem relevant, or old enough that it scares us into not wanting to think about it. Unfortunately, death is one of the few guaranteed outcomes in our lives and it’s probably worth thinking about. For many people, religion and their beliefs help deal with the unknown. But what comfort is there for everyone else? Well, scientists are collecting some interesting and hopeful evidence that there is something beyond death. That should give some comfort to everyone, and I imagine the believers will smile and say, “I told you so...”.
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Hi there. Today I'm going to talk about a news article that I read on the American website, NPR. And then I'm gonna talk more broadly about the topic and it's a big, big subject today. I'll give you a bit of my opinion as well. In fact, we're gonna be talking about something where there is a huge range of opinion and belief. 'Beliefs', I said! So we're even talking about the difference in belief in terms of spirituality, spirituality versus atheism - that's today's podcast. Don't tell me, I don't give you variety, when you are doing your English language learning!
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Okay. So this NPR news item? The link, if you want to read it yourself, is attached in the transcript. So it talks about a man called Randy Schiefer in the US, and in March, 2020, Randy Shiefer had a severe bout of COVID 19.
He was seriously ill and was rushed into a hospital and put onto a ventilator. That's the machine that helps you breathe. Not a good sign, if you've got COVID, going on to a ventilator. He was also put into a coma, C O M A, and that's a state where someone isn't conscious. Sometimes it happens by itself, sometimes doctors put you into a coma because that's believed to be better for your brain. And if you're in a coma, you need medical support to keep you alive. So Randy Schiefer was in the coma for a whole month before recovering from COVID 19 as a result of plasma treatment. 'Plasma', P L A S M A is the main component of your blood and the treatment worked and Randy Shiefer recovered.
Once he could speak, he started to talk about what he'd experienced. In short, he described what's commonly known in English as a 'near death experience' - an NDE. It's even got an acronym, it's so commonly talked about! So these are experiences that people have when their conscious mind isn't working.
This may be due to a 'heart attack', a cardiac arrest that is. It could be anaesthesia. It could be a problem with your brain, or it could be medically induced coma. Basically, you aren't aware, you aren't conscious, but somehow or other people in these states have experiences.
Many people are skeptical about this. 'Skeptical', S K E P T I C A L. Or the noun? You could be 'a skeptic', S K E P T I C. That means someone who doesn't believe it. However, there are some very striking similarities between the accounts of people who have had NDEs or near death experiences.
The skeptics tend to be people who are 'materialists'. That means that they only believe in the physical universe, the things that you can see and touch, that are physical and objectively provable. It often overlaps with atheism, the belief that there is no god. Atheism and materialism go hand-in-hand. And usually scientists are people who're atheists and materialists - or very often. It's hard to prove near death experiences precisely because of what they are precisely because they are nonphysical. But it's interesting to look at the experiences. I'm what you call an 'open-minded agnostic'. If you're an 'agnostic', A G N O S T I C, that means in terms of religion or spirituality, you don't know, you keep an open mind.
So I'm one of those! I have my own spiritual beliefs and I'm interested in other people's experiences. And I think open-mindedness is really important. So this interests me.
One of the things I find very compelling is people seem to make big changes in their lives after these experiences. And as a psychotherapist, I know how difficult it is sometimes to help people to change. So that makes it more compelling for me. More believable, perhaps.
Anyway, back to Randy Schiefer. He began to talk about his near death experience when he was still recovering from COVID. He told his daughter about how he found himself - and this is so typical - 'travelling through a tunnel towards a beautiful, bright light'. People make jokes about these kinds of things, don't they? He spoke of himself as having feelings of calm and serenity. Then he arrived in a beautiful room with coloured glass windows and light streaming through. And he was told he shouldn't be there. This is also a common theme that other people emerge during these experiences and tell you to 'go back', 'not yet'. ' It's not your time. You shouldn't be here'.
Digital art, the light at the end of the tunnerl. Scientists are now seriously considering the possibility that death does not mark an end to consciousness.
Randy Schiefer saw in his vision, a beautiful city, and experienced 'feelings of love, calm and acceptance'. Then as he started to climb a white staircase, he was suddenly whisked back, pulled back. And he regained consciousness in his hospital bed. The experience was only short, but in common with many of these experiences, it was a 'profound' one.
That's P R O F O U N D. It means 'deep' and 'deeply affecting'. These experiences have a lasting effect on the person who has them, very often. They change careers. They live life differently from how they were before.
And like many people, Randy Schiefer became a different person in the light of this experience. It's that consistent change to a person's character that makes it more believable for me. If it was fake or false or just a dream or the effect of not enough oxygen, I think the experience would fade in time and it's not likely that the person would change their life on the back of it.
But Randy Shiefer became much more open. He talked about his father's death for the first time and he changed quite a lot of things in his life. In fact, the change in him was so profound that his daughter Lisa, wished at times that she could have her old dad back. However, she's grown used to the 'new' dad now and sees positive in the changes.
The NPR article also talks about Dr Bruce Greyson, Professor Emeritus in Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences at the University of Virginia. And this man has been collecting accounts and studying these experiences for about 50 years. Wow! Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioural Scientist. He's not unintelligent or fanciful is he then? He talks about how 10 to 20% of people who have a 'cardiac arrest - 'that's C A R D I A C - means 'of the heart'. And 'arrest', A R R E S T means that the heart stops. So a 'heart attack', in other words. 10 to 20% of people who experience this have a near death experience.
That's interesting. The experiences are always full of strong emotion. Sometimes they include a 'life review'. You go back and you are shown things that have happened to you in your life. And again, he says that often after these experiences, people completely change their direction in life and lose their fear of death. 'Death doesn't feel like the end'.
What's also interesting and Dr Bruce Greyson has collected examples of this, that often people have knowledge of things that were happening in the room while they were unconscious, that they couldn't possibly have known about. And often the surgeons validate, they back up this experience, these observations. Again, it's not definitive proof, but it's quite compelling!
So it may surprise you that someone who is a 'heavyweight' of science, someone like Dr Bruce Greyson, actually concerns himself with this stuff. And it might surprise you that he spent so much of his career looking at something like near death experiences. NDEs are often seen as the product of 'unscientific, not very intelligent or fanciful minds', but actually there have been quite a number of serious scientists, who've done research in this area. I have the book 'Consciousness Beyond Life' by Pim van Lommel. He's another heavyweight scientist, a cardiologist in Holland for 26 years. And yes, you've guessed it - he became interested in near death experiences because so many of his heart patients were relating a similar thing to him.
He conducted a large scale study, which was actually published in the world-renowned medical journal, The Lancet, collecting commonalities in these experiences. Raymond Moody. He's another psychiatrist who collected accounts and who has written extensively on this topic. Kenneth Ring, Professor Emeritus in Psychology at the University of Connecticut.
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And more recently Jeffrey Long, a medical doctor who specialises in Oncology - that's patients with cancer. He has also written extensively on this topic. Another one is Dr Eben Alexander. He is a neuroscientist who was convinced by his own near death experience when he contracted meningitis. And he talks about his experience and how his brain cannot possibly have been conscious when he had this experience. And he talks about his experiences while he was unconscious. I find it interesting that these are 'men of hard science', who would've been 'scientific materialists' before these experiences. And they've become convinced and made changes in the direction in their lives because of it. Many of them have devoted their lives to studying near death experiences.
And actually it's not just the time devoted to studying this, but it's the fact that they've actually staked their professional reputations on it. Something like this can be quite damaging to a serious scientist. That's not stopped them.
Now I've not had a near death experience, but I have had other experiences which lead me to believe that there is something beyond the material world. There is more to human experience than what we can see, what we can prove, what can be demonstrated scientifically. But I'm open minded.
Which are you? Are you a skeptic? Are you a materialist? Are you someone like me who is open minded? Or are you someone who's actually had a near death experience or, you know someone who has, and you're convinced by it? Let us know. We'd love to hear from you, whichever it is.
Let's make the podcast interesting while you're doing your English language learning. No reason for an English language learning podcast to be boring is there?
Enough for now? Have a lovely day. Speak to you again soon. Goodbye.
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