Denying death: How our brains process our inescapable end

Written by Science

Recent research has shown that the brain protects us from existential fear by only associating death with other people, meaning that we cannot fully comprehend our own mortality.

The brain develops a comprehensive prediction system that encompasses many aspects of our lives, but the brain somehow seems to block such predictions when related to death.

The study shows that the brain refuses to link the self with death to ensure we are grounded in the present and not the future. This is because the body is programmed to ensure we stay alive, and awareness of impeding death would oppose the body’s primary functions; lead author of the study Yair Dor-Ziderman argues that “the moment you have this ability to look into your own future, you realise that at some point you’re going to die and there’s nothing you can do about it. That goes against the grain of our whole biology, which is helping us to stay alive.”

The findings emerge from a study by a team at Bar Ilan University in Israel, in which 24 volunteers had their brain activity monitored using magnetoencephalography while watching one face flash on screen. In some trials, the volunteer’s own face was used, while in others the volunteers were presented with the face of a stranger. Each face was accompanied by a word written above, half of which were related to death, such as “funeral”, “grave” and “burial”. The final image that flashed, however, was a different face to the one previously used, causing the brain to flicker with surprise because this image went against the brain’s prediction. This showed that the participants’ brain had paired the idea of demise with one particular face, and so they registered surprise when death was suddenly connected with a new face. However, upon viewing their own face alongside a death-related word, the volunteers’ brains shut down their prediction system, and no surprise signal was registered.

Avi Goldstein, a senior author on the paper, said: “This suggests that we shield ourselves from existential threats, or consciously thinking about the idea that we are going to die, by shutting down predictions about the self”, which Dor-Ziderman further by saying: “We cannot rationally deny that we will die, but we think of it more as something that happens to other people.”

The authors argued that previously brains were more attuned to death because humans encountered it much more frequently and at much closer corners, whereas now our society has supposedly become “death-phobic” by confining the dying to hospitals and hospices. Zor-Diderman argues that this shielding from direct exposure has led death to be associated with much more mystery and ultimately fear than in the past.

Research by Arnaud Wisman, a psychologist at the University of Kent, suggests that nowadays many people are trapped in a so-called “escape treadmill”, in which the element of modern daily life – long working hours, social arrangements and a reliance on technology – mean that people are simply “too busy” to think about death.

What do these findings mean? Ideology surrounding death and the after-life vary greatly between religions and cultures, and despite evolution it seems evident that spiritual and cultural concepts of death can overrule than of the brain. While the research confirms how neurologically our brains block us from contemplating “the idea of ending, of nothing, of complete annihilation”, death will still always hold an aura of intrigue and mystery for many.

Last modified: 2nd November 2019

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