Cognitive Daily

[originally posted January 26, 2006]

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:

i-635bc65cb12342a4a7637c9aa1586dbc-after.gif

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Eugene Ray
    July 19, 2007

    Excuse me,but there is no such thing as a pure science, science is as dogmatic as religion, they just employ different rigid methods to establish the truth, and therefore prone to errors and falsifications.

    “it is likely that beliefs in an afterlife are not acquired through social learning.”
    Well, that’s obvious. Why would you need social learning when you have a personal experience? Dreaming is like dying. You close your eyes and then you are gone. What happens to you you don’t know. Unless you go through very complex self-education and actually can consciously go into you dreams (which is possible) but then again, more questions arise, and more experiences suggest on existence outside of “existence”. Mythology is full dream themes. And I’m not even touching psychedelic trip or out-of-body-experience phenomena.

    Also, isn’t distinguishing between kids who are actually were exposed to the death of an animal, some relative, or just saw a dead body, for example, and others would be important in a study like this? pure science, right :)

  2. #2 acm
    July 19, 2007

    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.

    well, given that you can’t even get all neuroscientists and psychologists to agree that reductionism is a complete explanation of the mind (meaning that they don’t all agree that brain function is all that there is to mind), I doubt you could ever get an agreed end-point concerning whether some mental function or self-awareness could outlast the end of brain function. and that’s before you invoke philosophy or a concept of “soul” . . .

  3. #3 roseindigo
    July 19, 2007

    I do believe that most human beings, because they are the only life form that KNOWS it will die, need to keep the hope alive that there is more than just physical death. Otherwise nothing makes any sense, and life sinks into a sort of depressive nihilism.

    Science rules the physical world, and I’m happy to give it that. If science says DEAD is DEAD, then that’s fine with me, because it describes something physical in a material world where everything dies sooner or later, and humans are no exception.

    But science doesn’t necessarily rule over the spiritual world, of which we know NIL in spite of all religions having tried to explain it. And people can choose to believe in nothing but “physical existence” and can also choose to believe in a “spiritual existence”. There is no way to prove the latter; it’s an intuitive belief you either have or you don’t.

  4. #4 amy
    July 19, 2007

    by the way, does animal have consciousness? it seems that the researchers did not try to scare the kids by using a puppet show of animals but does this have any influences on the respondents?

  5. #5 roseindigo
    July 19, 2007

    I was present when when my mother died, and I was present when one of my pets was euthanized, a dog at age 21, and I literally SAW life leave the eyes both times. It was obvious that something happens in death that changes a “material presence” from alive to STOP. But what happens after that stop we don’t know, and all speculation and science will not prove anything one way or another.

    I do know that before my mother died she saw former relatives who had passed on before her standing at the foot of her bed to welcome her. She described them. Hallucinations? Maybe. I can’t say. But it gave her comfort and that, to me, is more important than anything science proves or disproves.

  6. #6 speedwell
    July 19, 2007

    …and that, to me, is more important than anything science proves or disproves.

    Oh, for the love of warm fuzzies and sweet candy fluff.

    This post is about hard, experimental science. Science is about truth, not about “Uh, whatever, it feels good so who cares about reality?”

  7. #7 roseindigo
    July 19, 2007

    Speedwell, you are free to believe only in science. No one has said you can’t. I certainly do care about reality, but I am equally free to believe that science does not explain everything. So try to be a bit more polite. Your comment adds nothing to the discussion except arrogance.

  8. #8 Shawn M. O'Hare
    July 19, 2007

    Roseindigo, I would challenge your assertion that no amount of science will prove or disprove things about the afterlife. The fact of the matter is that every day more evidence mounts that there exists no “ghost in the machine”.

    What I initially thought about this study is that it shows probably people simply don’t learn much more about death after the age of 3-6. It seems like you would have to control some way for the fact that much of your view of reality is constructed at these ages, and remains somewhat rigid afterwards.

  9. #9 Judith
    July 19, 2007

    I was raised atheist and taught there is no life after death. From the first time I asked my parents those questions they told me NOTHING happens after death–it all stops. And I believed them.
    So I guess my belief in a non-afterlife was indeed informed by social learning. I couldn’t wrap my three year old brain around the idea of “nothingness”, and I’m not there yet–but I have faith in it regardless!

  10. #10 christopher
    July 19, 2007

    rose, i have to at least partially disagree. i know folks can be very sensitive when it comes to the death of a loved one (my girlfriend still cries at any old woman because it reminds her of her grandmother), however i had practically the same reaction when i read your post. your statement was not only completely irrelevant to the discussion at hand, but also a very strongly worded opinion about the validity of the study.

    the fact that delusions might have given your grandmother comfort is more important to you than any science, at least in my eyes, devalues your contribution to this discussion, since it’s clearly not being made without a serious bias against the possible findings.

  11. #11 fiend
    July 19, 2007

    Roseindigo,

    Perhaps people who do believe in a “spiritual existence” can more easily accept evil in this world. After all, they are not ‘really dead’ if their body dies.

  12. #12 roseindigo
    July 19, 2007

    Science can only explain that which is physical and material. It has no power over anything else. It doesn’t have power over human psychology UNLESS it can be proven that human psychology is merely a set of chemical reactions. That has not been conclusively proven, at least not as far as I know, even though chemistry plays a part in our psychology too. But is that all there is to it? And it has no power whatsoever over anything spiritual which can never be explained by science as we know it. Science can explain how electricity works; but it hasn’t even been able to explain exactly what electricity is.

    So science isn’t the answer to all there is, and never has been, like those who believe 100% in science like to claim. However, I understand that if you’ve never seen a a particular phenomenon, it’s easy not to believe in it. So if you don’t have a spiritual bent, it’s easy to dismiss the whole thing. That does not mean it doesn’t exist.

    Human psychology, intuition, hunches, beliefs, are NOT completely in the realm of science to explain. As I said, science can accurately say DEAD IS DEAD, but it has no ability to say what happens after that.

    And yes, christopher, studies like this are interesting curiosities (as far as I’m concerned) but they don’t explain much of anything or clarify anything very much as far as human psychology. So I do question its validity except as an interesting experiment.

    As for the last sentence in the above article: “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.” —– In some instances maybe, but I don’t believe the belief in an afterlife will ever be completely erased from the human mind. It’s there for a reason. We just don’t know what it is as yet.

    Of course, all of the above is my opinion. You are free to have other opinions.

  13. #13 roseindigo
    July 19, 2007

    fiend, the subject you brought up about evil could become an endless discussion, so I won’t go into it. However, in looking at history it seems to me the greatest evils have been committed by atheist types who have the delusion that Earth can be turned into a sort of paradise. All we have to do is look at Nazi Germany and Russia under the Stalin purges.

    At least religion acknowledges evil, and makes an attempt to balance it with legitimate good, and with some hope for human beings. And I’m saying that despite the fact that I am not particularly religous in the least. I just see the benefit of it to human psychology and human hope, and that is outside the realm of science.

  14. #14 fiend
    July 19, 2007

    Roseindigo:

    Religion often acknowledges evil as ‘other’, and balances it with ‘society’.

    If your argument is against the article’s last sentance, OK: the study cannot tell us anything about the truth of a persisting soul, just that belief are relatively immutable. Otherwise, it seems you are trying to educate others on the benefits of spiritualism.

    Oh, and Godwin.

  15. #15 Tony Jeremiah
    July 19, 2007

    Very interesting study. I have a couple of comments:

    (1) This is just a slightly different evaluation of the data shown, but amounts to the same general idea. I’m curious as to whether statistically significant differences could be found for the age groups if one combined the discontinuity response percentages for the biological, psychobiological, and perceptual categories vs. those for the emotional, desire, and epistemic categories. Looking at the figure, it looks like the former categories generally have higher percentages than the latter categories. If one notes that the former categories are (technically) more associated with body processes, and the latter with mind processes, the data does indeed suggest that from childhood, a trend towards believing body processes die but the soul (i.e., our thoughts and feelings; collectively called the mind)lives on exists. Looks like (at least for participants in this study) the belief decreases somewhat with age as indicated by an increase in the discontinuity responses for each of the six categories discussed which might suggest a social learning phenomenon. So it is intriguing that rather than learning to believe in life after death; it looks like social learning might involve learning to disbelieve in life after death.

    (2) There’s interesting research concerning this general topic in the area of near death experience (NDE) phenomena. A study reported in the Lancet (van Lommel et al., 2001) empirically verified post-death consciousness; and more recent work in the area of consciousness will focus on attempting to resolve the enigmatic nature of consciousness by conducting research which will investigate whether out-of-body experiences are a mind phenomenon, or, whether people are actually leaving their bodies.

    Reference

    van Lommel, P., van Wees, R., Meyers, V., & Elfferich, Ingrid (2001). Near-death experience in survivors of cardiac arrest: A prospective study in the Netherlands. Lancet, 20, 39-45.

  16. #16 Mike-2
    July 19, 2007

    The physicalist account still has no answer to the hard problem of consciousness, other than to simply refuse to deal with it. Dennett’s answer to it is particularly absurd, but that doesn’t mean that the Christian belief in an individual soul is also not absurd. The feeling that there is an “I” in here that is separate from what is out there is an illusion of consciousness that is easily dissolved, in sleep or even in something so ordinary as watching a movie. So since the separate self-sense is an object of consciousness (something that is perceived by consciousness), a non-materialist account of consciousness doesn’t imply the existence of a soul.

  17. #17 Lauren
    July 19, 2007

    So…as a developing neuroscientist (being a rising sophomore in undergrad, having spent many summers learning neurology, and majoring in neurology), along with several other experiences, I would have to say that I neither believe in God nor life after death.

    I think that religion was established as a catalyst for moral perfection, deemed as such by those in power. In times of ignorance, such as the middle ages, having superiors to tell you what is right or wrong, when you’re not capable of thinking philosophically about which matters are important to you, religion was helpful. Religion is also a great source of power in terms of outreach to those less fortunate.

    However, religion is the cause of many fights and wars. People who disagree with each other on religious issues become infuriated at the other person for not believing in the same things. Just look at the Middle East right now. Two nations claim ownership of the same piece of land according to scripture and other sources. Honestly, if people were to lose their religious feelings altogether, perhaps people could live in peace for once.

    As to faith, I believe in a purely scientific world. I feel that if we believe in religion, it’s not because it exists, but for a need to live for a purpose. I have a purpose of helping other individuals in society through my neurology background-whether I become a researcher or a doctor. Enjoy life. Stay moral. Don’t get sucked in by religion too much (my own personal opinion).

    If you can be self-disciplined enough to not need religion, then i believe you’re doing just fine. Go volunteer with a volunteer organization of your own volition…don’t make other people make you do it. Find commonalities in people based on other things than religion. You’ll find that you had a lot in common to begin with.

  18. #18 Tony Jeremiah
    July 19, 2007

    Mike-2,

    The proposed experiment I read about will focus particularly on veridical experiences. Namely, examining whether people labelled as clinically dead will be able to report sensory experiences while in this state. From what I’ve heard, the experiment will involve examining whether clinically dead persons will be able to report characteristics of objects placed at strategic points (such as a ceiling) upon returning to “consciousness”. Presumably this will be done to distinguish between the illusion of leaving one’s body, and actually leaving one’s body.

    So if such an experiment were conducted, and (as an example), it could be shown that a clinically dead person can identify, say, a very specific object [perhaps they have to choose among several] placed on a very high ceiling while in that state (and which wasn’t there prior to entering the room), how would one explain that in terms of an illusion of consciousness?

  19. #19 Xanthir, FCD
    July 19, 2007

    fiend, the subject you brought up about evil could become an endless discussion, so I won’t go into it. However, in looking at history it seems to me the greatest evils have been committed by atheist types who have the delusion that Earth can be turned into a sort of paradise. All we have to do is look at Nazi Germany and Russia under the Stalin purges.

    As noted, Godwin. The discussion is now over.

    However, Hitler was a devout Catholic. Here’s a list of quotes from his speech and writings:
    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2006/08/list_of_hitler_quotes_he_was_q.php

    Stalinist Russia, while atheist, was irrational. They believed in Communism for gods’ sake. Nationalism is essentially a form of religion, venerating the State over individuals.

    This may sound like a “No true Scotsman…” fallacy, but truly it isn’t, because luckily for us, atheists aren’t a group with consistent principles. You know, because atheism isn’t actually a belief in anything, so there’s nothing tying them together. The correct group to refer to is rational skeptics. That’ll get you a bit further. You’ll still find some crazies, but at least we’ve got consistent principles with which to judge each other.

  20. #20 roseindigo
    July 19, 2007

    Just out of curiosity, has anyone heard about some of the latest theories in physics? Like the one that claims there are at least seven dimensions, if not more. Or the string theory???

    Seems to me that if there is more than one dimension, dead doesn’t necessarily have to be dead except in the physical/material sense. It can merely be a shift from one dimension into another.

    But I’m not a physicist and even if I can wrap my mind loosely around some of the latest findings, I admit I’m no expert. But I do believe we haven’t even scratched the surface of any of this yet.

    As for those of you who think I’m trying to sell religion here, think again! All I’m saying is that human beings need HOPE, and religion gives that to them. Science gives human beings ZERO as far as this question is concerned, even if it gives us much about other matters.

  21. #21 c0t0s0d0
    July 19, 2007

    science is invaluable in trying to describe material reality – it gives us the “current best possible explanation” – but in no way at the moment can it claim to have an “ultimate explanation” (perhaps we will get there one day, and that day might be a day that actually does not see spirituality and science as opposing viewpoints).

    As such, i think all experiments will have flaws (including this one), however, they make a good attempt to be as objective and unbiased as possible (as i believe this one has, as the questions seem to have been well thought out) – so there is an enormous amount we can learn from it and don’t have to disregard the experiment as completely flawed or accept its findings as “ultimate truth”.

  22. #22 Azkyroth
    July 20, 2007

    Just out of curiosity, has anyone heard about some of the latest theories in physics? Like the one that claims there are at least seven dimensions, if not more. Or the string theory???

    Seems to me that if there is more than one dimension, dead doesn’t necessarily have to be dead except in the physical/material sense. It can merely be a shift from one dimension into another.

    “Dimension” doesn’t mean the same thing to physicists that it did to the creators of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And while it’s “possible” that human consciousness survives death, in the sense of “possible” that square circles aren’t, there is absolutely no solid empirical evidence that it does so, no known mechanism by which it might, and substantial evidence that every function of human consciousness is inseparable from the function of the physical brain. Until you have evidence enough to state with some confidence that there IS a sense of “dead” other than the physical/material sense and that human consciousness does in fact enter it, your position remains wishful thinking. “Possible” doesn’t cut it as support for a positive assertion.

    Also: “THE” string theory?!

    But I’m not a physicist and even if I can wrap my mind loosely around some of the latest findings, I admit I’m no expert. But I do believe we haven’t even scratched the surface of any of this yet.

    Then perhaps you should refrain from cherry-picking it in an attempt to support your preconceptions and emotional biases?

    As for those of you who think I’m trying to sell religion here, think again! All I’m saying is that human beings need HOPE, and religion gives that to them. Science gives human beings ZERO as far as this question is concerned, even if it gives us much about other matters.

    Science gives us zero hope?

    Tell me, do you have any children? If so, did half of them die before they were five? If not, do you think that’s likely? Either way, do you think religion can claim the slightest sliver of credit for the fact that this outcome is no longer routine? And this is just one example of many!

  23. #23 Brian
    July 20, 2007

    The problem is that the average person does not read a lot of cognitive psychology journals, and so is ultimately far less aware of just how much research in perception and awareness (or consciousness for that matter) that there really is!

    There IS an absolute, 100% link between our experiences as caring, feeling, loving, hoping humans and that mushy box at the top of our heads. It’s a wonderful gift to have (and you may thank whomever you’d like for it!), an amazing thing really, but that’s where YOU are. If you lose a little bit, you will not be yourself. Just ask stroke victims, people with lesions or other forms of brain damage. Ask lobotomy patients, split brain patients, or even anyone in a TMS study! Your brain is amazing, but if it isn’t working, you aren’t living.

    So make the most of your life, please! Stop frittering it away on blogs! Live while your brain lets you, because by the time you’re about 85 or so, it won’t.

  24. #24 Victor
    July 20, 2007

    As Rummy put it, there are known knowns, and there are known unknowns. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know that we don’t know. How can consciousness exist after machine had stopped can be just one of those things. Just because we can’t possibly conjecture it at our current level of knowledge, doesn’t mean it’s nonsense. Who would have thought a century ago that time can contract and dilate – even now we have trouble imagining it. Scientific knowledge covers everything on our side of the fence. What’s beyond the fence – nobody knows, and it’s silly to assert that there is nothing because “there is no evidence”. Of course there is no evidence, it’s beyond the fence, we can’t experiment there! We can’t even build sentient AI, how are we expected to know what exactly consciousness is and how exactly does it work??

  25. #25 Ashok
    July 20, 2007

    True,science may be false at some points, but isn’t it way better than religion. Science and technology make things possible , it’s not just a plain old story of people walking over water. You can see rockets taking off, the aircrafts flying, the computers !!

  26. #26 IVS
    July 20, 2007

    I wonder how much the presentation of the death affects the results of this experiment. Suggestive questions in a suggestive context can produce misleading results. For example, kids are exposed to fairy tales/beliefs as well as material facts and there are indications that they can tell the difference (for example they treat assertions about beliefs and God differently than factual assertions). The mouse in the experimental setting was a “baby mouse”, the presentation itself a “puppet show”, in other words the context was more akin to fairy tales than reality. There were both “emotional” and “desire” questions asked (the “mommy” question is particularly loaded).

    Could it be that the fact that the emotional/desire/epistemic questions had much lower rates of discontinuity responses is at least partially explained by the following: children have learned that in the context of a fairy-tale puppet-show deaths different answers are “appropriate” than in the real, factual world? That is, they were partially misled by the setting into giving the answers they did… Some of those distinctions could be retained well into adulthood. If I were conducting the experiment I would try to control/evaluate the effect of such suggestive context and questioning.

  27. #27 roseindigo
    July 20, 2007

    Askyroth, so who is cherry picking here? Asking questions and admitting your ignorance is cherry picking? Since when exactly? If you are an example of what science has wrought, well I think science needs a good hard look at itself.

    Just for your information (and read it carefully), THE COMPLETE sentence I wrote was: Science gives human beings ZERO as far as this question is concerned..

    I sure hope you aren’t a scientist, because I would tremble with worry if you were, just by the way you cherry pick.

  28. #28 DrFrank
    July 20, 2007

    @Tony Jeremiah, #19
    So if such an experiment were conducted, and (as an example), it could be shown that a clinically dead person can identify, say, a very specific object [perhaps they have to choose among several] placed on a very high ceiling while in that state (and which wasn’t there prior to entering the room), how would one explain that in terms of an illusion of consciousness?
    I’m assuming that the objects would never be in direct line of sight of the `participant’ (if such they can be called), or else any effect could be explained much more mundanely as the brain itself must obviously still be alive in order to allow resuscitation.

    Also, there’s no point wondering about how one would explain something that hasn’t yet been (and probably never will be) observed.

  29. #29 roseindigo
    July 20, 2007

    I think cOtO summarized it very niclely, according to my view (and in my opinion): “science is invaluable in trying to describe material reality – it gives us the “current best possible explanation” – but in no way at the moment can it claim to have an “ultimate explanation” (perhaps we will get there one day, and that day might be a day that actually does not see spirituality and science as opposing viewpoints).”

    And thank you also for such thoughtful comments, Victor and IVS.

  30. #30 GH
    July 20, 2007

    , but I am equally free to believe that science does not explain everything.

    Of course it doesn’t. What you fail to understand even a little is that religion isn’t giving you any answer at all.This is a simple false dicotomy. Science is a way of knowing and religion isn’t. Science and rationality is the best way we have of knowing anything.

    Science gives human beings ZERO as far as this question is concerned

    This is silly. Science may give little now but as neuroscience progresses and our understanding of why this neuron does this or that increases the answers will emerge.

    Again you say this about science without realizing nothing else gives you any answers at all. Unless of course superstition is an answer for you.

  31. #31 GH
    July 20, 2007

    science is invaluable in trying to describe material reality

    Why do people say such clueless things? What other ‘reality’ is there other than the material one? You may believe in this woo or that woo but that doesn’t make it reality. The only reality anyone has ever seen, heard, or confirmed is the material one. That is where the discussion is most vital and productive.

    Which is why science makes societies better and sectarianism tends to push it backwards. It’s why astronomers have given us views of galaxies far away and astrologers have bilked people of their money and given out incorrect lottery numbers.

    The rest is just counting dancing things on the head of a pin.

  32. #32 Paul
    July 20, 2007

    People seem to say “science can’t DISPROVE the afterlife” as if that were evidence that it does in fact exist.

    No one knows, and I’m happy to accept that until someone proves otherwise. In the meantime, I’ll default on the fact that there’s no evidence that it does.

  33. #33 Tony Jeremiah
    July 20, 2007

    @DrFrank, #31

    I’m assuming that the objects would never be in direct line of sight of the `participant’ (if such they can be called), or else any effect could be explained much more mundanely as the brain itself must obviously still be alive in order to allow resuscitation.

    **Yes, this is assuming the non-existence of experiment demand characteristics. Also, clinical death is defined as the ceasing of measurable brain activity prior to resuscitation (i.e., reinstatement of brain activity). So it would be pushing the envelope of our understanding as it concerns the identification of (currently) a type of consciousness associated with non-measurable brain activity. Also as a seemingly trivial but important side note, a characteristic of death is that the eyes are closed. So one would also have to explain how it is that a person could report the characteristics of an object with their eyes closed–which has been verified in NDEs. Physics has also been raised as an important subject of this discussion, and it is important to note that the notion of a soul would not embarass contemporary understandings of our universe especially as it pertains to non-local phenomena observed at the quantum level, and particularly, Karl Pribam’s holographic view of the universe.

    Also, there’s no point wondering about how one would explain something that hasn’t yet been (and probably never will be) observed.

    **My comment certainly sounds like science fiction, but in fact, such experiments are (apparently) in the works (see http://www.world-science.net/exclusives/070520_consciousness.htm ). Also, much discussion in the realm of consciousness research is replete with thought experiments such as the notion of the philosophical zombie.

  34. #34 greglor
    July 20, 2007

    Science can only explain that which is physical and material.

    Is there anything else to explain? I know there are people who claim there is, but can they prove it? Because I can make up stories, too. About a 7th dimension with butterflies and puppies and endless fountains of beer. But at the end of the day, I’m just making shit up. And really, so is anyone else who claims there is anything beyond the material.

  35. #35 Paul
    July 20, 2007

    greglor – I wouldn’t mind a beer fountain, would you mind conjuring one for me?

  36. #36 Tony Jeremiah
    July 20, 2007

    IVS,#27

    “Could it be that the fact that the emotional/desire/epistemic questions had much lower rates of discontinuity responses is at least partially explained by the following: children have learned that in the context of a fairy-tale puppet-show deaths different answers are “appropriate” than in the real, factual world?”

    **I think this might be a good explanation for the older age groups (10+), but might not hold so well for the youngest age groups (3-6). Research on perspective taking in children (particularly Selman, 1976) would seem to suggest that considering the social implications of a puppet-show as a means for guiding responses to questions, is a level of reasoning too sophisticated for children in this age category. If true, then one is still left to explain the lower rates of discontinuity for questions related to psychological vs. bodily functions in the youngest children.

    Possibly this can be explained from a Piagetian perspective–the transition from concrete to abstract forms of reasoning. It could be that the youngest children understand physical death better (as suggested by the biological/psychobiological/perceptual questions)because it’s a more concrete phenomenon than the more abstract forms of death (implied by the emotion/desire/epistemic questions), which takes more time to understand due to the abstraction. However, by this time (particularly if one grows up in non-religious families), one might also adopt the monistic philosopical view that the mind is nothing more than a manifestation of bodily processes. Therefore, when the body dies, so does all other metaphysical processes.

    To test these hypotheses, the researchers should repeat the study, but determine what developmental differences (if any) exist between persons from religious vs. non-religious upbringings. I suspect if participants in the study were all raised in a religious household, probably you would not see a rise in discontinuity responses for each type of death category with each age category. This would thus suggest that most likely the results from the current study are a social learning phenomenon.

  37. #37 Dave F.
    July 20, 2007

    Why is it always the task of science to prove all of mythology wrong. In all of history myths have produced zero evidence. I will never be able to prove your imaginary friends are not there, but I will never believe until you prove that they are.

  38. #38 Azkyroth
    July 20, 2007

    Rose:

    The definition of “cherry picking” is going through the available data and citing only those that support the view you’ve already arrived at. Please explain how my attempt to illustrate that your devaluing of science on the grounds that it doesn’t answer questions that may or may not even be meaningful ignores very real benefits falls into this category.

    Oh, wait, that’s right. I can’t “PROVE” I *wasn’t* cherry-picking, therefore I must be!

    And finally: any chance you’ll respond to the rest of what I wrote, Ms. Pot?

    -Sincerely, Kettle

  39. #39 Jesse
    July 20, 2007

    [3]“And people can choose to believe in nothing but “physical existence” and can also choose to believe in a “spiritual existence”. There is no way to prove the latter; it’s an intuitive belief you either have or you don’t.”

    I think the part of you either believe or you don’t is the exact thing this is attempting to address. Is age a factor in it? that’s the question. If we can statistically see that as people age these thoughts change, then perhaps we can make explanations for it.

  40. #40 Azkyroth
    July 21, 2007

    And people can choose to believe in nothing but “physical existence” and can also choose to believe in a “spiritual existence”. There is no way to prove the latter; it’s an intuitive belief you either have or you don’t.

    Yes, people can choose to believe in a “spiritual existence,” or an all-powerful god, or a china teapot in orbit between the Earth and Mars, or any number of propositions completely unsupported by evidence and rendered unlikely by what evidence is available. People can also expect that, if they choose to flaunt their irrational wishful thinking in public forums–or worse, attempt to argue that their beliefs should be treated as serious, credible alternatives to those which enjoy actual evidential support–that they will be subjected to criticism. Unless you’re arguing that pointing and laughing at how silly you are is somehow a violation of your rights, I don’t see why “people can choose to believe” is relevant here.

    For what it’s worth, the people who don’t attempt to force their irrational wishful thinking on others through laws or violence are less dangerous and more tolerable than those who do, though even they aren’t entirely harmless: for instance, the prospect of a jury composed of people who think that believing something to be true when no evidence supports its truth, and much evidence supports its falsity ,is not only defensible but admirable, is terrifying.

  41. #41 Keith Nolan
    July 21, 2007

    The arrogance of some humans thinking they have been selected for an afterlife. It must be all of those intelligent design types!

  42. #42 pj
    July 21, 2007

    The methods need work. One of the most significant limitations that I noticed was the age limitation. Does an individual stop thinking about this once they hit 20? Brain development and the ability to think and integrate numerous concepts continues for several more years. I believe that the numbers would change significantly (statistically and otherwise) if they surveyed participants from other age groups.

  43. #43 Joanna Bryson
    July 21, 2007

    I’m not sure I buy the hypothesis concerning social learning. Certainly there’s a developmental component, but I bet culture has a big part, though who can say whether it is holding back or accelerating the transition to the discontinuous model.

    I’d like to see the same experiment run in a number of different cultural communities, e.g. villages dominated by various religious and secular organizations (e.g. compare rural Muslim Pakistan and rural Hindu India; compare a US university town dominated by a conservative seminary vs. one dominated by a national research centre such as Argonne Labs; compare Atlanta to Prague to Beijing). And I agree with PJ — extend the sample of adults to 45, 60 & 80 year olds. Although then you get substantial differences in culture confounding the developmental differences, but again done across enough cultures that might be OK.

    Of course, that’s a lot of work & money!

  44. #44 tangdou
    July 21, 2007

    An interesting topic!
    How do u imply your subjects to answer question?I mean that what facts the suject take from to answer question?
    For example ,if a adult consider the epistemic will diappear after mouse’s death in a objective point,but he or she may prefer to tell u exis of epistemic,because of hiself or herself desire.
    The subject’s own desire should be took as another combounded variable.

  45. #45 Morgan
    July 25, 2007

    What other ‘reality’ is there other than the material one? You may believe in this woo or that woo but that doesn’t make it reality. The only reality anyone has ever seen, heard, or confirmed is the material one.

    Well to be fair, that’s not necessarily so – it depends on whether you’re literally talking about what people have experienced through the functioning systems of sense organs, or whether you’re talking about what people have perceived. I realize that this could quickly turn into a metaphysical discussion, but there are some valid points to be made regarding the crossover between physiological processes to conscious concept.

    Everything that people experience on a subjective level is based on the interpretation of data being provided to the person/brain/conscious entity. I’m not trying to take a Descartes position – far from it. Rather, I’m saying that the very nature of consciousness is one of constant interpretation.

    For example, let’s say you had two people looking at a tree, one of them red-green colorblind and the other with normal vision. Now as far as I know, colorblindness is a physiological condition based on the functioning of the rods and cones in an individual’s eyes, not a neurological condition. Therefore, although the colorblind person is literally receiving a different set of data than the non-colorblind person, both end up with an image of the tree based on entirely valid information; the non-colorblind person simply has more information available. That doesn’t make the colorblind person’s information any less valid. If you could find a third person who could see into the infrared or ultraviolet range of the spectrum, they would have additional information as compared to both of the other individuals.

    I really do have a point, I swear.

    The point is that a person’s concept of reality – either material (e.g. a rock) or metaphysical (e.g. time) – is based on the data they are able to collect, as well as their ability to interpret that data.

    That is what lends credence to the descriptions of people who claim to have perceived things during near-death-experiences, or people who demonstrate some form of prescience, and validates the scientific study of such phenomenon. The way that humans generally experience the passage of time – i.e. linearly – is probably completely valid, just as greglor and GH submit, but it’s not necessarily the whole story. It is analogous to the fact that colorblind person’s concept of the tree is completely true, but not as complete as that of the non-colorblind person. If a person demonstrates, for example, some prescient ability, it could be that they are marginally starting to pick up on that infrared or ultraviolet information that most of us don’t perceive. Or, if a person were to have some kind of non-corporeal experience during a NDE, it could be that their ability to conceptualize it afterwards is hampered by the limitations of their “hardware”, so to speak: the brain. Therefore, their descriptions may have some validity – as scaled down to human-size bites, so to speak.

    In my opinion, strict and unwavering empiricism is just as intentionally self-blinding as strict and unwavering religious belief. The creationist will never be convinced that God did not create humans as we are now, and the colorblind empiricist will never believe that the tree is anything other than what he sees. Metaphorically. :)

  46. #46 Wafa
    July 31, 2007

    I see that science is based on sensation, we do analyze everything according to space and time, and I believe that even time & space are some sort of sensation.science is not an absolute analysis for what really exists, It is an analysis of what humans can interact with.So I consider that particular issue of death is not a sensible issue & so not a scientific issue to discuss.
    This maybe weired but think about it, not from the null hypothesis but from the alternative hypothesis.

    Locus-coeruleus

  47. #47 Tom B
    July 31, 2007

    “I believe that even time & space are some sort of sensation.science is not an absolute analysis for what really exist”

    I don’t believe space and time are fully understood by physics. We have better approximation than Newton did, but the fact of unresolved issues in Cosmology (the Many Universe hypothesis and such) indicates that there is room for some mystery still. The concept of a soul seems to be unviable, based on what we already know about brain science. The hypothesis of reductionism, that we all just meat, is unpalatable to me but could possibly be true. Other belief systems, like Buddhism, stipulate no soul, but also deny reductionism. I think this is an interesting idea, but the question remains open what the “something” we call consciousness is. It is not our thoughts or memories.

    For my part, I wish to maintain an open mind on the matter of the nature of being. Open, but skeptical. Schrodinger’s cat is all well and good, but I’d love to see more evidence that the world is more interesting than it appears.

  48. #48 Wafa
    July 31, 2007

    time contracts and dilates according to motion velocity, why do we have to say that the real changes, we can simply postulates that this is a change in the perception medium like changing illumination color in vision sense. We can not imagine a cat like Schrodinger’s one..but in fact it has to be true, one of two things..”real is not ultimate or Schrodinger is wrong”, I believe that the thing we call it real is not absolute just like the difference between red color & its wave length.

    Locus-coeruleus

  49. #49 Yoga online
    September 13, 2009

    When you dissolve into the sea of consciousness you are aware of everything, but you don’t care.

  50. #50 Michael Tinsley
    October 31, 2009

    Its amazing you want to try and apply psychology to death.
    When you die, you’re dead. There ain’t no more you.
    Awareness of your mortality is a sucker punch.
    The universe will assimilate your atoms and spit you back as something unrecognizable.
    There is no continuation of consciousness.
    Cognition is a cruel joke.
    Dead is dead.

  51. #51 Binky
    January 23, 2010

    For those who see ending their life as an ‘end to life’ (and suffering), they might consider that intellectually, it makes sense that nonexistence (and, subsequent non-consciousness or awareness) bookends ‘life’ -before and after. So, we are are left then with only life, awareness, and emotion. There’s no relief from pain (“glad that’s over..”), because there are no brain cells physically functioning to process any previous [experiential] memories. Unless…there are advanced interstellar intelligences with the computing power to zoom in on our individual active brains from afar, and re-create the trillions and trillions of neural connections that make up the moments, the days, the years, a life. Just had to add that last part. You never know.