Knocking on Heaven’s Door

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Since Raymond Moody first categorised the phenomenon in Life after Life (1975), near-death experiences (NDEs) have become a staple of mass-market publishing. In one common variant, the protagonist (male in all of the examples considered here) finds himself floating above an operating table, looking down on his unconscious body as a medical team struggles to save him. Then he moves on upward, often through a dark tunnel, before emerging


Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

‘Melancholy’: nowadays, the very word has a whiff of lavender, like ‘farthing’ or ‘antimacassar’ or ‘fainting couch’ or ‘the wilts and the vapours’. And yet, as all bookish connoisseurs of gloom will be aware, this apparently antiquarian subject has become remarkably fashionable over the last few decades: think of Julia Kristeva’s Black Sun, or W […]

Fade to Black

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

It is not easy to say which is the cruellest of the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, but in times of high and rising life expectancy most people would think of Alzheimer’s disease as being among the worst. It is a disease that probably agonises the sufferer’s close relatives more than sufferers […]

Ominous Auras

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Colin Grant begins his story of epilepsy by explaining that he was drawn to write about the subject because of his brother, Christopher, an epilepsy sufferer. As it happens, Grant is a trained doctor as well as a writer and broadcaster, so he brings a core of expert knowledge and skill as a communicator to […]

Negative Capability

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Most people who get involved in debates about religion assume that having strong beliefs is a Good Thing. For secular humanists, religion is a tissue of errors no reasonable person should entertain for a moment. For at least some believers, religion is a body of received truths one must accept or reject. Both sides take […]

Plastic Fantastic

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The American brain scientist Eric Kandel won a Nobel Prize in 2000 for his life’s work on a rather unpromising item of marine life – a sea-slug called Aplysia, which possesses unusually large nerve cells (or neurons), visible to the naked eye. Kandel hoped to observe the learning response in a small group of cells […]

Bounded in a Nutshell

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

There is an Oxford story featuring Maurice Bowra, the outlandish bachelor who was Warden of Wadham College half a century ago. On a stretch of the River Cherwell, known as Parsons’ Pleasure, male dons used to skinny dip. One day a group of women punted off course into this area, prompting the men to place […]

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A Final Sparkle

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Euphonious titles for books about death seem to be inexhaustible. You could be forgiven for thinking that Shakespeare and Keats wrote about nothing else. In this sense, Melanie King is right to claim that death is not a taboo. Yet it requires only a short time in the silent company of the recently bereaved or […]

Out of the Attic

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

‘What a weak barrier is truth when it stands in the way of any hypothesis’, observed Mary Wollstonecraft in the 1790s, irritated by Rousseau’s claim that women were coquettes by nature. Her remark could stand as epigraph to Lisa Appignanesi’s Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 to […]

Coping With Loss

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Most people have to experience the loss of a loved one: a parent, partner, or even a child. The grief that results includes the extreme sadness that such a loss can trigger, but there can also be painful and intrusive thoughts, hallucinations, and an inability to function properly. None of these processes is fully understood, […]

Will We Live Forever?

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Put alongside mice or elephants, human beings live as much as four times longer than they should, given their size and pace of life. There is, it seems, a correlation in the wild between body size, metabolic rate and lifespan. A mouse scurries about the undergrowth and, if not eaten, can expect to survive for […]

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