Cognitive Daily

Kids in America grow up in a society that overwhelmingly believes in life after death. At the same time, these same kids grow up learning more and more about the nature of living organisms, and what makes something living or dead. At some point, these two belief systems inevitably collide: pure religious faith suggests that the soul lives on after death, but pure science suggests that consciousness can only exist in a living brain.

Assuming these kids don’t read Pharyngula (in which case all hope of an eternal soul would likely be quickly and rudely snuffed), which of these knowledge systems will win out?

Jesse Bering and David Bjorklund designed an innovative experiment to try to answer that question. They showed a puppet show to three different age groups: kindergartners (age 3-6), elementary-schoolers (age 10-12), and adults (college students age 18-20). The puppet show depicts an alligator eating a mouse, and afterward, each participant was asked a set of questions about the now-dead mouse.

The questions were designed to examine six different aspects of death: biological (“Will he ever need to eat food again?”), psychobiological (“Is he still thirsty?”), perceptual (“Can he see where he is?”), desire (“Does he still want to go home?”), emotional (“Does he still love his mom?”), and epistemic (“Does he know that he’s not alive?”). The experimenter was careful to make sure that all participants understood that the mouse was truly dead — that he didn’t somehow escape or remain alive inside the alligator. Several of the questions were prompted by the story of the puppet show (the mouse is lonely and lost in the forest; he’s hungry and thirsty, and thinking about how much he loves his mom and is angry with his brother. Then he hears a rustling in the bushes, and … now the alligator’s caught himself a tasty snack!). The experimenter was careful not to scare the children, and didn’t actually directly mention death, instead saying “Baby Mouse is not alive anymore.” None of the children, who were as young as three, appeared at all disturbed by the puppet show or the questions.

So, how did the different age groups fare? The experimenters coded their responses based on whether they indicated continuity (i.e. life functions continue on after death) or discontinuity (i.e. all life functions end at death). Each response was followed with a question to confirm the respondent’s intention, for example:

Exp: “Now that the mouse is not alive anymore, is he thinking about the alligator?”
Child: “No.”
Exp: “How come?”
Child: “Because he doesn’t have a brain that’s attached and working.”

This interaction was coded as an example of discontinuity, since the child knows that the mouse’s brain isn’t functioning. On the other hand, consider this line of questioning:

Exp: “Now that the mouse is not alive anymore, can he see this tree?”
Child: “No.”
Exp: “Why not?”
Child: “He’s inside of an alligator’s body and can’t see anything but his mouth.”

This was coded as an example of continuity, because it appears the child still believes that dead mice can see.

Here’s what the final, compiled results looked like:


Overall, the progression was toward discontinuity — the scientific or naturalistic understanding of death – as the participants got older, but the results were murkier when each individual type of question was considered. For biological and psychobiological questions, adults were indistinguishable from late elementary kids, but adults and older kids were significantly more likely to give responses indicating discontinuity than kindergartners. But on the epistemic questions, adults’ responses were statistically indistinguishable even from the kindergartners. Only 40 percent of adults, for example, did not believe that the baby mouse still believed he was smarter than his brother after he died.

Bering and Bjorklund argue that these data suggest it is likely that beliefs in an afterlife are not acquired through social learning. If they were, then we would expect less discontinuity, particularly at the emotional and epistemic levels, as children aged — just as older children and adults do acquire stronger beliefs about biological and psychobiological explanations of death. In a separate experiment, where more questions of this nature were asked, older elementary children showed significantly more discontinuity on both emotional and epistemic questions. The ultimate question this line of argument raises, perhaps, is whether higher levels of education about the biological and psychological implications of death would ever be able to supersede all belief in the afterlife.

Bering, J.M. & Bjorklund, D.F. (2004). The natural emergence of reasoning about the afterlife as a developmental regularity. Developmental Psychology 40(2), 217-233.


  1. #1 razib
    January 26, 2006

    you guys read boyer or atran’s work in this area? they basically suggest that religious ideas are often the byproduct of the action of various cognitive domains acting in concert when some of those domains are overly sensitive (e.g. agency detection). most people don’t reason their way to god or the afterlife, a la aquinuas, they feel their way.

  2. #2 Dave Munger
    January 26, 2006

    Razib —

    I’ve never read the originals, only summaries in books like Pinker’s How the Mind Works. Still, fascinating stuff. For those interested in a somewhat more detailed summary, Pinker has placed a speech on the subject online.

  3. #3 razib
    January 26, 2006

    here is a precis of atran’s thinking. i’ve read a lot in this area (like dan sperber i’m an atheist who is puzzled by religion as a naturalistic phenomenon). here is a recent post where i review a book that is out of this ‘naturalistic paradigm’ which attempts to inject cognitive psychology into other fields like anthropology.

  4. #4 Mihai
    January 26, 2006

    It would be really interesting to repeate the experiments in a society that is no as religious as the American one.

  5. #5 Dave Munger
    January 27, 2006

    Mihai —

    I agree, however, I suspect this study was conducted in a relatively nonreligious group — the children were drawn from a university-affiliated school, and the adults were college students. It might also be interesting to conduct a similar study in a place where religion was more dominant, but education was still valued.

  6. #6 Tommy
    January 27, 2006


    The he hears a rustling in the bushes, and … now the alligator’s caught himself a tasty snack!


    I agree that there a lot of reasons to believe in an afterlife besides religion.

    Also if you ask more detailed questions i would expect a more rationalized answer. I don’t believe in god however sometimes it feels like a higher power is messing with my life.

  7. #7 Dave Munger
    January 27, 2006

    Tommy, I fixed the typo — thanks. I’m not sure what you mean by “asking more detailed questions,” though. What sort of question would you like to see asked?

  8. #8 Gordon Worley
    January 27, 2006

    This seems to reflect the folk psychology: children don’t start out understanding death; they have to learn about it, whether through personal experience (a pet or friend or family member dies) or second-hand (television, stories, movies, etc.). It would be interesting to compare these results to a society where there’s no modern understanding of biology, which might indicate whether we learn about death just by being exposed to it or through education about what science can tell us about death. My suspicion is that it takes science education. This would account for the trend in this study where people were more inclined to give naive answers when the question related to subjects where education does not usually supply explicit scientific answers (due to social pressures to leave those domains to religion).

  9. #9 So-Called "Austin Mayor"
    January 27, 2006

    This study raises a number of puzzling questions — Was the mouse actually smarter than his brother? What was the nature of Baby Mouse’ love for his mother? After Baby Mouse was no longer alive, would he go on as a baby in the afterlife or would he age until adulthood?

    I look forward to more additional research.

  10. #10 mindbodybuzz
    January 27, 2006

    “The ultimate question this line of argument raises, perhaps, is whether higher levels of education about the biological and psychological implications of death would ever be able to supersede all belief in the afterlife.”

    – – –

    Any genuine “higher levels of education” would necessarily support faith in and evidence for the afterlife. So any education that could “supersede all belief in the afterlife” could hardly warrant the term “higher level”.

    “Exp: “Now that the mouse is not alive anymore, is he thinking about the alligator?”
    Child: “No.”
    Exp: “How come?”
    Child: “Because he doesn’t have a brain that’s attached and working.”

    OK, so how would you know if the deceased is thinking about a topic? How would you know if anyone, living or dead, is thinking about a topic?
    Who or what is “he” anyway and what does it mean that he “has” a brain that’s working?

    Though perhaps not able to verbalize it in detail, at least some children would not yet have it hammered out of them the recognition that it isn’t necessary to “have” a brain in order to “think”, and that they themselves are as continuous as “Baby Mouse” whether the mouse is in the alligator or not.

  11. #11 Matthew Cromer
    January 28, 2006

    It is clear that materialists do in fact believe in magic.

    I want to know what the magic is that transforms neural activity of sufficient complexity into my awareness.

    If one instead recognizes that the material world is part of the contents of a universal awareness, then the mind-body “problem” is solved. Awareness is primary, the material world becomes the most fundamental and primary constituent of Awareness. “Crazy”? Even materialists believe in a transcendent omnipotent power beyond space and time, they call this power the “laws of nature”. Even Hawkings talks about physicists knowing the mind of God — he is more right than he knows.

  12. #12 eugene_X
    January 28, 2006

    What are the implications for the fact that a mouse was used as a stand-in for a human? I assume that was done because depicting a puppet play in which a human died might be much more upsetting for small children, and might make it more difficult to get honest appraisals of the situation. But most Christian traditions teach that humans have a soul and an afterlife, wheras animals do not. If belief in an afterlife is not a socially aquired idea, then whether the “dead” subject of the questions was a mouse rather than a person probably would not matter much, but in a more heavily religious group of subjects (it was pointed out above that these groups were not from a heavily Christian population), with instilled ideas that had been received from catechistic teachings about the soul and the afterlife, the answers might have been much different depending on the species of the subject, no?

  13. #13 Dave Munger
    January 28, 2006


    That’s a great point. I believe the reason the mouse was used is because the researchers were concerned that parents wouldn’t let their kids participate in an experiment where someone was killed. Bering has conducted a similar experiment with adults where they were asked about humans. The results were similar to the results in this study, so Bering and Bjorklund argue that these results are valid. I’m not sure that logic really applies.

    The problem is, it would be difficult to get a random sampling of kids to run the human death experiment on, so the researchers face a dilemma — conduct a more realistic experiment with a non-representative sample, or a less realistic experiment with a more representative sample. It might be worthwhile to try to conduct both, making an effort to sensitively treat the subject of human death.

  14. #14 Gretchen
    January 29, 2006

    Thanks for this post.

    The thing I find most important about Bering’s work is that he establishes at least a convincing argument for our inability to “shut off” the mechanisms which ascribe intentionality to people (and sometimes animals) even after their death, thus convincing me that, contrary to some of the claims made by Pascal Boyer, a person without a body is not necessarily counter-intuitive, in the sense of being a category violation. This is important because category violations as a basis for supernatural belief are a fundamental part of Boyer’s whole theory of religion.

    The problem is, however, is that nobody has established the cognitive difference between A) dead agents, B) ghosts/sprits, and C) gods. Dead agents and gods, for example, are both bodiless people, but there are quite a lot of differences between them other than that. So it may be the case that gods are category violations (and hence supernatural concepts according to Boyer) for reasons other than that their immaterial nature…but this is purely speculative at the moment.

    The main question that interests me when reading Bering is whether souls are supernatural concepts. That is, whether it is intuitive for us to believe in some immaterial agent in people who are still alive. There’s a lot of evidence for the case that people are innately dualistic, but it’s hard to tell at this point exactly what attributes of the soul are intuitive. I think Bering’s work in sorting out the perceptual, the biological, the emotional, etc. could provided a lot of help in addressing this issue.

  15. #15 Sameer Singh
    January 29, 2006

    In a more fundamentally religious sample, I have a feeling the kids might have a better grasp of death (i.e. acknowledge discontinuity) in that sample than the adults (who might’ve started believing in life continuity after death due to external agents)..

    it would be interesting is such a result is achieved, showing that adults might get more irrational due to religious influence..

  16. #16 Brad Hoge
    January 30, 2006

    As an evolutionary scientist, though not a specialist in evolutionary phychology by any means, this type of experiment has always intrigued me. It seems that one of the greatest ironies of the human mind is that the very nature that requires us to devise religion to comfort our fear of the unknown is the same instinct that requires us to deny truths discovered that threaten our illusions. We are quite capable of rationalizing responses differently in different contexts. If this experiment was conducted in a science class or in a religous setting, the results would differ, but the honesty of the responses, even from the same participants, would not. This dichotomy of reasoning is what is most interesting to me.

  17. #17 Matthew Cromer
    January 30, 2006


    That is of course the same tendency that causes you to be certain that mind is equal brain and ignore all evidence to the contrary, including scientific studies like these:

    We “believe” things, these beliefs become blind-spots, and then we ignore facts which contradict those assumptions. Therefore if anyone else presents a different possibility, whether it is that bacteria cause ulcers or mind is not solely a product of brain activity, we tune them out, ignore them, consider them crazy, etc.

    Scientists are not uniquely immune from this human tendency.

  18. #18 Ben
    January 30, 2006

    Anyone remember the S.S. Minnow from Gilligan’s Island? Well the breach in the side of the Minnow is tiny compared to the mounstrous hole that lies in the heart of this study. Most religious belief systems speak specifically to the belief in a human afterlife. The substitution of a mouse renders the study damn near meaningless.

    Of course, we get the same excuses we always get with this slop: Though there were some limitations, blah, blah, blah, and we were limited by circumstances, blah, blah, blah, we believe this is a good start and we hope it will encourage further studies, blah, blah, blah, but this won’t stop us from saying things like, “Our research indicates” or “Initial findings suggest”!

    Maybe instead of finding new ways of talking out of both sides of their mouths, these guys should devote some time and energy to creating a study without a giant fundamental flaw in it.

  19. #19 Dave Munger
    January 30, 2006


    Before you make such sweeping generalizations in your comments, perhaps you should read the remainder of the comments thread.

  20. #20 owen
    February 6, 2006

    I have something to add to topics raised by Razib and Dave Munger at the beginning of this comment section.
    The notion that people are biologically (either through genetics or brain circuits) inclined to religious beliefs is separated by several levels of activity from the religious feeling/thinking itself. A more direct model or explanation may be more helpful in understanding what brains are doing when they are imagining supernatural causes and actors.
    What I offer here is the suggestion that Lakoff’s metaphor-based cognitive analysis neatly explains religious thinking as follows: throughout childhood, human beings learn to associate happenings with intentions and causal actors.
    Example: I was mad and hit my sister, and she was hurt and cried… This is the way we learn to make sense of things, in terms of intentions and causal actions and reactions. Experiences and observations that are more complex are naturally pondered within this same framework, even when no causal actors can be found, and by consequence assessing what these fictional actors are intending is difficult, mysterious and therefore contentious. It is thus that we invent gods, spirits, demons, angels, ghosts etc. All these imaginary actors are metaphors to explain things that we cannot otherwise conceptualize.

  21. #21 Seward
    September 11, 2006

    I am the grateful recipient of a liver transplant with surgery just six months ago. I am quite healthy despite elevated liver enzyme levels due to hepatitis C, which will have to be treated. I am observing a growing awareness of another consciousness in my body and spirit and dreams which, of course, is welcome but unexpected. This causes me to question things like what is happening on the level of DNA and consciousness after death and subsequent incarnation (literally). My donor was clinically dead but has in part survived. I can feel it.

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