READING THE MINDS OF THE DEAD: AFTERLIFE BELIEFS MAY HAVE SOCIAL, BIOLOGICAL BASIS
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — A new study by a University of Arkansas psychologist proposes that beliefs about the afterlife may amount to more than a cultural construct. They may in fact have a biological basis — arising from the human brain’s unique ability to comprehend the mental states of other people.
In an article published in the November issue of The Journal of Cognition and Culture, assistant professor of psychology Jesse Bering outlines a study in which he demonstrated that even individuals who claim to believe that all consciousness ceases at death were inclined to say that certain psychological states persist. He calls this contradiction the Simulation Constraint Hypothesis of Death Representation.
"It comes down to the fact that we’re unable to imagine the absence of certain psychological states," Bering said. "People make biological inferences about death — they know that once you’re dead, you don’t need to eat anymore. They also know that once you’re dead, your brain stops working. But because they’ve never experienced a complete lack of thought, they find it difficult to make that inferential leap — that once the brain stops, thought stops too."
According to Bering, human beings represent the only species to have developed a "theory of mind" — the comprehension that, not only oneself, but other individuals have mental and emotional states that drive their behavior. This ability to think about the consciousness of other people enables human beings to engage in complex social interactions. But almost as a side effect, theory of mind also enables people to consider the consequences of death, not only for themselves and other survivors but for the individual who died.
Because human beings can think about the consciousness of others, they inevitably come to question whether consciousness persists after death. Therefore, Bering suggests that while afterlife beliefs may be culturally-driven in their variety and nature, their origin lies in our unique biology.
"The vast majority of cultures, if not all of them, have developed some theory about what happens to personal consciousness after death. Even in our own culture, 82 percent of Americans believe in some form of personal continuation after death," Bering said. "There are superficial differences in religious beliefs between cultures, but those all arise out of the same question. Beliefs in an afterlife — or at least thoughts about life after death — are both universal and natural."
To examine the connection between theory of mind and afterlife beliefs, Bering conducted interviews and collected information from 84 individuals. Rather than studying why people form afterlife beliefs, Bering wanted to know how they do so — whether similarities exist in the way people represent a deceased person’s mind, regardless of differences in their belief systems.
Each participant in the study read a one-page story, which described a character’s emotions, physical sensations and state of mind and which ended with the character’s sudden death. Having read the story, each participant was asked a series of questions pertaining to the deceased character’s current mental status. Bering designed these questions to address five psychological categories.
Psychobiological questions asked if the character still registered physical sensations such as hunger, thirst or exhaustion. Perceptual questions asked if the character’s senses still operated — whether the character could see paramedics trying to resuscitate him, whether he could hear the sirens. Epistemic questions addressed whether the character could still think, remember, believe. Emotional questions inquired about the character’s capacity to feel such things as love, anger or sadness after death. And intentional questions asked if the deceased still harbored wants and desires.
In addition, Bering asked a set of questions about the character’s biological functions — whether the deceased still needed to eat, drink, go to the bathroom and so on.
Following these interviews, participants filled out the Death Anxiety Scale — a tool to measure their intellectual and emotional reactions to death. They then completed a questionnaire that sorted them into six categories according to their afterlife beliefs. These categories included extinctivists (complete cessation of consciousness at death), agnostics, reincarnationists, immortalists (consciousness survives after death and exists forever), eclectics (combination of reincarnationist and immortalist beliefs) and other (consciousness persists after death but in unknown form).
Results from the interviews and questionnaires indeed showed a similarity in the way participants perceived mental states of the deceased. Regardless of their afterlife beliefs, individuals were much more likely to report that psychological — rather than biological — states persisted and that those most likely to persist after death were the epistemic and emotional states.
Further, Bering found that some of the individuals who claimed to be extinctivist and agnostic nonetheless endowed the deceased character with thoughts or emotions. And even those who insisted that no consciousness persisted after death took longer to answer that thought and emotion had ceased altogether.
"Extinctivists and agnostics were more likely than other participants to say that epistemic and emotional states ceased after death, but the latency of their responses was telling. It took them twice as long to deny that these states continued compared to their denial of other states," Bering said.
Whereas exhaustion, sensation and desire are capable of subsiding, emotions and thoughts pervade our consciousness, Bering explained. As a result, people find it difficult to imagine the absence of these states. The influence of these states is so strong, in fact, that even people who have convinced themselves that consciousness ends with death must reason out that emotion and thought necessarily end too.
"What I think happens is that they have to override their natural proclivity to put themselves in the shoes of the person who died," Bering said. "Even agnostics and extinctivists naturally think about what death is like and whether the deceased know that they’ve died."
In other words, because human beings are biologically equipped to think about the minds of others, we naturally tend to think of the minds of dead people in the same way we think of our own.
"I’m not saying that belief in an afterlife is genetically determined or pre-wired in us," Bering said. "I’m saying it develops in tandem with the naturally-endowed cognitive system that allows us to interact with and relate to other people."
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