Are We Hard-Wired To Believe In Life After Death?

spaceface-RAScienceDaily on a study suggesting that the conviction that our souls will survive beyond death is a feeling that emerges intuitively:

Most people believe they are immortal. That is, that part of themselves-some indelible core, soul or essence-will transcend the body’s death and live forever. But why? And why is this belief so unshakable?

A new Boston University study published in Child Development  suggests that our bias toward immortality is a part of human intuition that naturally emerges early in life. And the part of us that is eternal, we believe, is our hopes, desires and emotions.

Researchers have long suspected that people develop ideas about the afterlife through cultural exposure, like television or movies, or through religious instruction. But perhaps, thought Emmons, these ideas of immortality actually emerge from our intuition. Just as children learn to talk without formal instruction, maybe they also intuit that part of their mind could exist apart from their body.

Emmons tackled this question by focusing on “prelife,” the period before conception, since few cultures have beliefs or views on the subject. Emmons interviewed children from an indigenous Shuar village in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador. She chose the group because they have no cultural prelife beliefs. For comparison, she also interviewed children from an urban area near Quito, Ecuador. Both groups gave remarkably similar answers, despite their radically different cultures.

Both groups also said that their emotions and desires existed before they were born. Why would humans have evolved this seemingly universal belief in the eternal existence of our emotions? We tend to see people as the sum of their mental states, and desires and emotions may be particularly helpful when predicting their behavior. Because this ability is so useful and so powerful, it flows over into other parts of our thinking. We sometimes see connections where potentially none exist, we hope there’s a master plan for the universe, and we imagine that a soul survives without a body.

20 Comments on "Are We Hard-Wired To Believe In Life After Death?"

  1. Liam_McGonagle | Jan 31, 2014 at 10:04 am |

    I think so. People who claim not to have any spiritual beliefs are liars or stupid.

    Okay, all kidding aside, it would be powerfully disappointing to realize that there is no awesome prize for beating the final level boss. It’d make all your suffering seem like the Universe were playing a pointlessly cruel joke at your expense.

    • Rhoid Rager | Jan 31, 2014 at 8:18 pm |

      I’m always looking for cheat codes. It be gross if I wake up with some pulsating blob attached to my belly button, though–a là eXistenZ.

  2. I suspect there’s some adaptive value to such beliefs, and we may be prone to them. The terminology “hard-wired” is objectionable however, because for just about everything we’re supposedly hard-wired for, there are contrary examples. My own determinism is wholly relative along this line. Being born of human parents makes it likely you’ll have certain features common to all humans, but doesn’t guarantee any of them.

    Of that adaptive value? A parent who believes they will eventually be reunited with a deceased child might be more likely to take such hope to heart and not waste away (or commit suicide from despair), eventually leading them to have more children.

    So I’ll pass on any appeal to popularity that the prevalence of such beliefs is an indication of their veracity. There was a time when almost every human believed the earth was flat, and that idea was as wrong then as it is now.

    • rhetorics_killer | Jan 31, 2014 at 10:05 pm |

      “almost every human believed the earth was flat”

      I doubt the veracity of this claim. Smells much like a nowadays belief. Ancient men were ‘wired’ in nature and by so may have been much more capable than our educated times for basic intuitive truth. Dont forget their shamans could reach high skies and report what they grasped. And every tribe had its skilled practitioners. But I am off topic.

  3. American Cannibal | Jan 31, 2014 at 10:31 am |

    Has anyone read Becker’s Denial of Death? I’m curious to know how the ideas in that book are linked to this study. I have not read the book, but it’s reserved at the library, so I’m going to pick it up today and hopefully get through it next week, which, coincidentally, happens to be the week of my birthday (the big 3-5), and, coincidentally, the week of my annual mortality freakout & drunk-a-thon.

  4. From my ‘average guy on the street’ position all I know is that the more science discovers the closer their discoveries confirm biblical stories.

  5. We have actions that cross the threshold of permanence, even if seemingly insignificant in larger scales. We learn this early as children, and therefore it is obvious that something about us is immortal. Putting it into words though can dilute, manipulate, or even corrupt this idea though.

  6. Gjallarbru | Jan 31, 2014 at 11:35 am |

    I don’t know about that one.

    My brother claims not to know what will happen after death, so he doesn’t believe either way for or against an eternal soul. My father Couldn’t care less about the subject. My mother believes in an afterlife, but more in a residual catholic way. I believe in a “eternal” soul, simply because I can’t really accept the idea of material constructs acheiving consciousness.

    My point is, if things were hardwired in that domain, wouldn’t we have a more standard position on the matter? Wouldn’t the adult expression of thos beliefs be more even between individuals?

    • Simon Valentine | Jan 31, 2014 at 12:23 pm |

      equilibrium conversion isn’t so much a gray area as realizing that 4 = 2 + 2 is not only true but that either side of the equals sign is both inherrently different and intrinsically the same … continue to realize that there’s no end to the conversions of whatever equals four … see how the issue of consciousness could be a plane with hell below and heaven above … wonder about it being a sphere or greater genus … figure out how everything is wrong and ignore how it’s all right … learn.

  7. herzmeister | Jan 31, 2014 at 12:19 pm |

    reincarnation is and isn’t true at the same time.

    it’s simple. everything is one. we’re all drops in the same ocean. we are the universe and the universe is the eternal observer of itself. i am you and you are me in another lifetime.

  8. Richard Johnson | Jan 31, 2014 at 2:36 pm |

    I don’t necessarily think the concept of an after life exists in the mind of a child. Rather the awareness of the eternal that is our true nature is all the child has until he or she learns to speak and is taught to ‘BELIEVE’ in the opinions of others. At this point the child experiences a split as he or she learns to mimic those in the community in order to survive in a an illogical world that traditionally has eradicated those who don’t fit in. (The inquisition, Witch burnings, …,, and so on )

    Eventually the child forgets entirely that his or her true self exists and just like a fish in the ocean has no concept of water, the child has no real concept of who he or she is, something that can not be conceived of but only experienced.

  9. Spasmodius | Jan 31, 2014 at 5:09 pm |

    “I know that my mind is a product of my brain but I still like to think
    of myself as something independent of my body,” said Emmons.

    This man has solved the mind-body problem! Somebody buy him a drink and give him a pat on the back.

  10. I don’t think it’s an emergent belief in the afterlife so much as it’s a denial of the finality of death. Absolute nothingness is about as hard to imagine as infinity. The closest analog we have is our sleep cycle. We go to sleep, perchance to dream and wake up so that’s the easiest way to imagine death. Seems the most likely too. If there is an afterlife, it’s probably some quantum infinity between two moments somewhere in the process of dieing. Nicely wraps up nothing and everything in one package.

  11. Rhoid Rager | Jan 31, 2014 at 8:11 pm |

    I like to believe I’m in a scenario similar to ST:TNG ‘The Inner Light’. So in 40 or 50 years when my eyes are closed for me, I’ll wake up on the bridge of the Enterprise.

  12. Life after death? The article talks about life before birth or conception.

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