When is the last time you thought about your life ending? Did this cause distress or cheer you up? Either way, you’re thinking about your own mortality, and that can change the way you think and act on other issues. More on this later.
When I was a teenager, I thought a fair bit about the end of my consciousness, and started reading about death. I don’t remember the names of any of the authors except for the Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno, and don’t remember what any of them said!
At Rice University in 1968, I had the opportunity to take a class titled “The meaning of death in Western culture.” I remember that I wrote my final essay arguing that religious arguments for immortality were inadequate and the best scientific evidence for life after death was from psychic phenomena, and this evidence was inconclusive. I was majoring in physics and I guess my scientific mindset was on display.
In the following years, the issue of my own mortality became less salient. I still read and thought about death-related issues, for example through my studies of nuclear extinction, the euthanasia debate and Death imagined as a powerful perpetrator. Even so, I became far more accepting of the end of consciousness.
What would it be like to go to sleep and not wake up? The best answer I discovered was in the book The Mind Club by Daniel M. Wegner and Kurt Gray. The authors say it’s intrinsically impossible to understand non-existence because there would be no “I” to think about it. As they put it, “Trying to perceive your dead mind is paradoxical, because you have to perceive a state that is incapable of perception — which is impossible while you are currently perceiving.”
Recently, while in the Sydney bookshop Dymocks hunting for something to read, I saw Mortals: How the Fear of Death Shaped Human Society. Written by two psychologists based in Sydney, Rachel Menzies and Ross Menzies, it seemed a perfect opportunity to refresh and update my understanding of death issues.
Menzies and Menzies begin by tackling a big issue: religion. They go through several of the world’s major religions, including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism — the four largest in terms of adherents — arguing that much of their appeal comes from their promise of immortality, in one form or another. And why should anyone seek immortality? The fear of death, of course. If major religions are successful in recruiting and retaining followers due to their role in reducing the fear of death, this is indeed a powerful influence on human society. In some religions, your immortality comes via your mind, but in Christianity your body is part of the package, which presumably is more appealing. Menzies and Menzies say less about a negative side of immortality: the possibility of everlasting damnation. Why would religion be attractive if it comes along with the risk of going to hell? Maybe this uses the fear of death in an even more potent combination: frighten people with visions of hell and then promise everlasting life in heaven if only they believe.
But is fear of death the key driver of religious belief? Research shows that people who are religious are happier, on average, than those who are not. Religious belief plays a role in this, but so do social relationships, which are known to promote happiness, among believers. Some religions have rituals involving expressing gratitude, something that reliably improves happiness. So there might be more to the attractions of religion than just warding off the fear of death.
In the 1980s, three researchers — Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon and Tom Pyszczynski — developed what is called Terror Management Theory or TMT. Despite the name, this has nothing to do with terrorism. It is about people’s fear of death, a fear so great as to warrant the word “terror,” and posits that this terror, even when not recognised consciously, has major influences on thought and behaviour. When I first read about TMT, years ago, it sounded a bit crazy, but there’s lots of research showing the impact of being reminded about death.
In a typical experiment, the participants — most commonly undergraduate psychology students — are brought into the lab and asked to undertake a task, like solving anagrams. The task is seldom the real purpose of the study but is designed to distract their attention, so they don’t realise what the experimenter is trying to find out. Along the way, some participants are exposed to an article or video with images of death, whereas others, the controls, are exposed to a “neutral” equivalent like a cat video. Then there is a further task, or something happens, and the participants are watched to find out what they do. In one study, they needed to wash their hands, and the experimenters cleverly weighed soap dispensers and counted paper hand towels before and after.
With ingenious experiments, researchers have discovered all sorts of fascinating things about how people react to being reminded of death. One finding is that some people become more willing to punish those not in their own group, such as foreigners. But only some people are affected this way, mainly those with certain personality traits or political orientations. Still, the overall picture is worrying. According to Menzies and Menzies, “Hundreds of studies show that nearly any reminder of death makes people more aggressive, more racist and more willing to inflict harsh punishments.” (pp. 82-83)
Living forever in the flesh
What are your prospects for immortality in your own body, here on Earth? Back in the 1970s, one of my colleagues, Tom, planned to have his body frozen when he died so that, with future recovery techniques, he could later be restored to life. This process is called cryonics. Tom wasn’t alone. Thousands of people have signed up to have their bodies, or just their heads, frozen at ultra-low temperatures in the hope of being brought back to life when the technology is available.
Tom was a peculiar guy, lacking typical social skills. This was not uncommon for pure mathematicians, but Tom was at an extreme end. I used to imagine some future group of scientists restoring frozen people from a previous century and saying, “This is amazing. Everyone back in the 1970s was a lunatic!” If Tom was an emissary from our time to the future, he was hardly typical. But at least he was a gentle, introspective soul, not a megalomaniac.
Menzies and Menzies use cryonics as one of many examples of the human quest for immortality. Incidentally, they give many reasons why the prospects for resuscitating a frozen brain are minimal: those relying on cryonics to have their minds restored have let hope triumph over the evidence.
Living forever symbolically
Menzies and Menzies offer a new perspective on Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo insisted on making this artwork a fresco, so it is part of the surface, making it far more lasting than a wall painting. In their telling, Michelangelo was willing to spend years of agonising effort so his art would be long remembered. In this, he was successful. However, most artists are not. Before long, they are forgotten.
Menzies and Menzies argue that striving for symbolic immortality is important in driving cultural production. I thought this could apply to me because I’ve written lots of articles and books. The quest for a type of immortality may play a role, but there are other factors. Artistic production is one way to enter into a state called flow in which one’s focus is entirely on what’s happening and the sense of self recedes from consciousness. The pioneer researcher on flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, found that this is a highly desirable mental state that can be entered through all sorts of means, typically exercising a skill at a level challenging enough to avoid boredom but not so challenging as to induce anxiety. Quite independently of the fear of death, entering flow can be a motivator for producing artistic works. On the other hand, is flow a way to avoid thinking about death?
Menzies and Menzies discuss several other ways that people try to deal with their unconscious fear of death, for example taking vitamin supplements and exercising. In every case, there are other factors. For example, physical activity is the most reliable way for people to feel better physically and mentally, which surely is a worthy goal even for those unconcerned about dying.
The authors make a grand claim: “We have shown that nationalistic fervour, aggression against outgroups, religious wars, popping vitamins, endless hours on treadmills, investing in cryonics and futile health interventions all arise from failing to accept one’s mortality.” (p. 181) I think they’re on solid ground with cryonics, but for the other topics more is involved, and the precise role of the fear of death remains to be determined.
Mortals is filled with fascinating information from cultures around the world. How about this? In Alabama, you can have your ashes incorporated into a shotgun shell. In this way, you can protect your family after you’re gone! Well, it’s only a replica, but it’s a thoughtful gesture.
Menzies and Menzies are psychologists and have treated many patients with mental problems. They argue that the fear of death is an underlying factor in many mental illnesses that seem to be about something else. An example is a spider phobia. A therapist might try to reassure a patient by saying, “Don’t worry, you’re not going to die just by looking at a spider.” The trouble is that the patient is going to die, eventually, of something. To say that a fear of death underlies many mental disorders might sound outlandish, but Menzies and Menzies cite some striking evidence in support, including that the level of people’s death fears correlates with mental health problems, medication use, hospitalisations and the recurrence of problems.
If the fear of death has so many harmful consequences, what is to be done? The authors say, basically, accept that you will die and get on with life. They tell about the Stoics, the philosophers in ancient Greece who advised not to worry about things you can’t control. This is good advice generally and certainly applies to the fact that everyone dies.
Menzies and Menzies also discuss funeral practices, noting that the practice of embalming — routine in the US — is environmentally damaging. They discuss the “death-positive movement” that promotes acceptance of death and has led to environmentally friendly options for burial.
On a much bigger scale is human overpopulation, a factor in the environmental crisis. Menzies and Menzies say having children is a way to help deal with the fear of death, because children carry on our genes and our culture. Also, in most societies, having children is looked on favourably and thus helps build self-esteem, a buffer against the fear of death. This is plausible, and then there’s research showing that when men are asked how many children they would like to have, they give a higher number after having been subliminally reminded of death.
The authors also argue that people’s belief that the human species is immune to disaster, including catastrophic global warming, derives from an inability to face death. You may not agree with all these assessments, but the stakes are potentially high. If you turn away from the evidence and arguments presented in Mortals, does that reflect an aversion to thinking about your own death?
Reminders of death are all around us, in the news and entertainment, though this varies a lot depending on the culture. I started this post by mentioning death, and that should have influenced your thinking, at least in the short term. It’s definitely worth learning about how reminders about death affect us, so if you can stand an intense yet engaging tour of death-related topics, why not read Mortals?
Thanks to Chris Barker, Kelly Gates, Emily Herrington and Julia LeMonde for helpful comments.