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?”
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?”
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.