Death is difficult to imagine.

There’s a fascinating article on the Scientific American website today titled Never Say Die: Why We Can’t Imagine Death:

The common view of death as a great mystery usually is brushed aside as an emotionally fueled desire to believe that death isn’t the end of the road. And indeed, a prominent school of research in social psychology called terror management theory contends that afterlife beliefs, as well as less obvious beliefs, behaviors and attitudes, exist to assuage what would otherwise be crippling anxiety about the ego’s inexistence.

[…] Yet a small number of researchers, including me, are increasingly arguing that the evolution of self-consciousness has posed a different kind of problem altogether. This position holds that our ancestors suffered the unshakable illusion that their minds were immortal, and it’s this hiccup of gross irrationality that we have unmistakably inherited from them. Individual human beings, by virtue of their evolved cognitive architecture, had trouble conceptualizing their own psychological inexistence from the start.

[…] Consider the rather startling fact that you will never know you have died. You may feel yourself slipping away, but it isn’t as though there will be a “you” around who is capable of ascertaining that, once all is said and done, it has actually happened. Just to remind you, you need a working cerebral cortex to harbor propositional knowledge of any sort, including the fact that you’ve died—and once you’ve died your brain is about as phenomenally generative as a head of lettuce. In a 2007 article published in the journal Synthese, University of Arizona philosopher Shaun Nichols puts it this way: “When I try to imagine my own non-existence I have to imagine that I perceive or know about my non-existence. No wonder there’s an obstacle!”

This observation may not sound like a major revelation to you, but I bet you’ve never considered what it actually means, which is that your own mortality is unfalsifiable from the first-person perspective. This obstacle is why writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe allegedly remarked that “everyone carries the proof of his own immortality within himself.”

While reading this I had one of those “Aha!” moments of understanding. There’s been more than one religious friend with whom I’ve had the how-can-you-not-be-a-believer discussion that said exactly the same thing to me to justify their religious beliefs. Paraphrased they all said “I just can’t imagine there being nothing after I’ve died. There must be something.” They were hitting up against the psychological wall that this article was talking about.

Some of us are able to get around the wall and recognize the finality of death, the article refers to us as “extinctivist”, but even we are susceptible to, as the article says, “psychological continuity reasoning.” From the article:

What was surprising, however, was that many participants who had identified themselves as having “extinctivist” beliefs (they had ticked off the box that read: “What we think of as the ‘soul,’ or conscious personality of a person, ceases permanently when the body dies”) occasionally gave psychological-continuity responses, too. Thirty-two percent of the extinctivists’ answers betrayed their hidden reasoning that emotions and desires survive death; another 36 percent of their responses suggested the extinctivists reasoned this way for mental states related to knowledge (such as remembering, believing or knowing). One particularly vehement extinctivist thought the whole line of questioning silly and seemed to regard me as a numbskull for even asking. But just as well—he proceeded to point out that of course Richard knows he is dead, because there’s no afterlife and Richard sees that now.

Which, of course, is nonsense as a dead person doesn’t know anything anymore. Still it’s very hard to imagine ceasing to exist as a conscious entity simply because all of our experiences throughout life are a result of our consciousness and even when we’re unconscious there’s still a certain level of brain activity taking place which is far removed from no activity at all.

The article goes on to briefly describe some experiments they conducted to try and verify the idea that psychological immortality represents the intuitive, natural way of thinking about death as opposed to being something we pick up through cultural influences such as religion. I don’t want to quote too much from the article as it’s something you should read in full, but the results of the studies did support that premise. As it turns out religious belief tends to reinforce psychological-continuity thinking, but isn’t the main cause of it:

In fact, exposure to the concept of an afterlife plays a crucial role in enriching and elaborating this natural cognitive stance; it’s sort of like an architectural scaffolding process, whereby culture develops and decorates the innate psychological building blocks of religious belief. The end product can be as ornate or austere as you like, from the headache-inducing reincarnation beliefs of Theravada Buddhists to the man on the street’s “I believe there’s something” brand of philosophy—but it’s made of the same brick and mortar just the same.

In support of the idea that culture influences our natural tendency to deny the death of the mind, Harvard University psychologist Paul Harris and researcher Marta Giménez of the National University of Distance Education in Spain showed that when the wording in interviews is tweaked to include medical or scientific terms, psychological-continuity reasoning decreases. In this 2005 study published in the Journal of Cognition and Culture, seven- to 11-year-old children in Madrid who heard a story about a priest telling a child that his grandmother “is with God” were more likely to attribute ongoing mental states to the decedent than were those who heard the identical story but instead about a doctor saying a grandfather was “dead and buried.”

And in a 2005 replication of the Baby Mouse experiment published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, psychologist David Bjorklund and I teamed with psychologist Carlos Hernández Blasi of Jaume I University in Spain to compare children in a Catholic school with those attending a public secular school in Castellón, Spain. As in the previous study, an overwhelming majority of the youngest children—five- to six-year-olds—from both educational backgrounds said that Baby Mouse’s mental states survived. The type of curriculum, secular or religious, made no difference. With increasing age, however, culture becomes a factor—the kids attending Catholic school were more likely to reason in terms of psychological continuity than were those at the secular school. There was even a smattering of young extinctivists in the latter camp.

Finally the article goes on to address why we tend to think that the mind is freed from the body at death to go off into some form of afterlife:

Back when you were still in diapers, you learned that people didn’t cease to exist simply because you couldn’t see them. Developmental psychologists even have a fancy term for this basic concept: “person permanence.” Such an off-line social awareness leads us to tacitly assume that the people we know are somewhere doing something. As I’m writing this article in Belfast, for example, my mind’s eye conjures up my friend Ginger in New Orleans walking her poodle or playfully bickering with her husband, things that I know she does routinely.

As I’ve argued in my 2006 Behavioral and Brain Sciences article, “The Folk Psychology of Souls,” human cognition is not equipped to update the list of players in our complex social rosters by accommodating a particular person’s sudden inexistence. We can’t simply switch off our person-permanence thinking just because someone has died. This inability is especially the case, of course, for those whom we were closest to and whom we frequently imagined to be actively engaging in various activities when out of sight.

And so person permanence may be the final cognitive hurdle that gets in the way of our effectively realizing the dead as they truly are—infinitely in situ, inanimate carbon residue. Instead it’s much more “natural” to imagine them as existing in some vague, unobservable locale, very much living their dead lives.

Again this is something that even people who recognize death as the end still engage in. Just this morning, for no apparent reason, I found myself thinking of my best friend Bill Owen who was killed suddenly in an auto accident over five years ago. The pain and sadness of that loss has softened enough after all this time that I didn’t even remember to mention the anniversary of his death on SEB this year as I had done every year previously, but when I do think about him these days (and it’s still fairly often) I still have a hard time believing he’s really dead even though I know it beyond a shadow of a doubt as I was one of the people who identified his body. Had I only seen him at the funeral it would’ve been even harder because the corpse laying in the casket didn’t look quite like Bill did in life, but the one I saw laying on the hospital gurney certainly did. He didn’t have any outward signs of injury and might have been sleeping except for the complete and utter stillness of his form. It’s a sight I won’t soon forget. Yet in spite of all that I still entertain thoughts of what Bill would be up to today. Granted I manage to tack on a “if he were still alive” to the thought process, but it’s the same sort of thinking none-the-less.

It’s important, I think, to realize that this is a natural thought process that everyone tends to have and that while religion certainly encourages it, it would be wrong to say that religion causes it. When people say they can’t imagine there being nothing after death they’re speaking literal truth and for many people that’s a good reason to accept religious beliefs as true. When arguing about religious belief we need to be aware of the hurdles we all have that make religious ideas seem believable if we are to formulate good arguments against them.

Couple of good articles on magical thinking.

There’s a fascinating article over at Psychology Today’s blogs on how people who feel powerless or that they lack control tend to see patterns in chaos and formulate conspiracy theories:

The paper, by Jennifer Whitson of the University of Texas at Austin and Adam Galinsky of Northwestern, ties together leads from several areas of research into a tight argument: lacking control increases illusory pattern perception. According to Whitson, “the main contribution of [the six new studies reported in the paper] is that they connect a lot of different things that were previously thought of as separate and reveal that underneath, the same visceral need for control is affecting all of them.”

The first study showed that when people receive arbitrary feedback on a cognitive task—denying them of the ability to make sense of the task’s requirements—they score higher on the Personal Need for Structure Scale by saying, for example, that they find routines enjoyable. In the second study, subjects who received random feedback saw more images in random visual noise (think TV static) than did other subjects.

For the third experiment, subjects recalled an experience when they either lacked control or had control. Then they read scenarios describing potentially meaningful coincidences—in one, a man stomps his feet three times before a meeting and subsequently has his proposal approved. The people who recalled powerlessness saw stronger connections between behaviors and outcomes in the scenarios, and also said they were more likely to try similar stunts in the future.

Go read the whole thing for the fourth through six experiments. It’s a short article, but the implications are interesting. Matthew Hutson has also written his own article on magical thinking that’s worth a read. It opens with an anecdote about John Lennon’s piano and how it affected people when it went on tour after his death:

On this journey, Lennon assumed the form of a piano, specifically the one on which he composed Imagine. “It gives off his spirit, and what he believed in, and what he preached for many years,” says Caroline True, the tour director and a colleague of the Steinway’s current owner, singer George Michael. Free of velvet ropes, it could be touched or played by anyone. According to Libra LaGrone, whose home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, “It was like sleeping in your grandpa’s sweatshirt at night. Familiar, beautiful, and personal.”

“I never went anywhere saying this is a magic piano and it’s going to cure your ills,” True says. But she consistently saw even the most skeptical hearts warm to the experience—even in Virginia, where the piano landed just a month after the massacre. “I had no idea an inanimate object could give people so much.”

Maybe you’re not a Beatles fan. Maybe you even hate peace and love. But you are wired to find meaning in the world, a predisposition that leaves you with less control over your beliefs than you may think. Even if you’re a hard-core atheist who walks under ladders and pronounces “new age” like “sewage,” you believe in magic.

Magical thinking springs up everywhere. Some irrational beliefs (Santa Claus?) are passed on to us. But others we find on our own. Survival requires recognizing patterns—night follows day, berries that color will make you ill. And because missing the obvious often hurts more than seeing the imaginary, our skills at inferring connections are overtuned. No one told Wade Boggs that eating chicken before every single game would help his batting average; he decided that on his own, and no one can argue with his success. We look for patterns because we hate surprises and because we love being in control.

It is important that we recognize the truth of our tendency to engage in magical thinking especially when evaluating claims and propositions we’re presented with on a daily basis. The hardest part of being a good skeptic is maintaining that balance between rejecting everything out of hand and tempering our natural inclination toward magical thinking. Pretending we don’t have that tendency is the wrong approach to take.

I engage in a little magical thinking every time I buy a lottery ticket, but my indulgence is relatively harmless as I don’t play often and I rarely spend more than $2 when I do. Some folks give in to that same magical thinking, though, and spend hundreds of dollars on tickets chasing the elusive dream of easy riches. The big difference between us, other than the money being wasted, is that I recognize the magical thinking I’m engaging in and the poor fellow dumping hundreds of dollars into the lottery isn’t.

It’s not easy to resist that line of thought when there’s an outcome you’d really like to see. Which is why folks who claim religion is all about faith in the unseeable still go nuts whenever a crude image of Jesus or the Virgin Mary shows up in some random inanimate object. It’s proof, however flimsy, that the thing the desire most to be real actually is real. I try to maintain some amount of sympathy for folks who are engaging in magical thinking because it’s something we all do from time to time. If we’re lucky we will have developed the skill needed to recognize it when we’re engaging in it.

Another interesting part of the article is the very end in which they say that some magical thinking is beneficial so long as you don’t take it too far:

Magical Thinking: Positive psychology or psychosis lite?

Magical thinking can be plotted on a spectrum, with skeptics at one end and schizophrenics at the other. People who endorse magical ideation, ranging from the innocuous (occasional fear of stepping on sidewalk cracks) to the outlandish (TV broadcasters know when you’re watching), are more likely to have psychosis or develop it later in their lives. People who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder also exhibit elevated levels of paranoia, perceptual disturbances, and magical thinking, particularly “thought-action fusion,” the belief that your negative thoughts can cause harm. These people are compelled to carry out repetitive tasks to counteract their intrusive thoughts about unlocked doors or loved ones getting cancer. But more magical thinking does not necessarily mean more emotional problems—what counts is whether such thinking interferes with everyday functioning.

You wouldn’t want to be at the skeptic end of the spectrum anyway. “To be totally ‘unmagical’ is very unhealthy,” says Peter Brugger, head of neuropsychology at University Hospital Zurich. He has data, for example, strongly linking lack of magical ideation to anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure. “Students who are ‘not magical’ don’t typically enjoy going to parties and so on,” he says. He’s also found that there’s a key chemical involved in magical thinking. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that the brain uses to tag experiences as meaningful, floods the brains of schizophrenics, who see significance in everything, but merely trickles in many depressives, who struggle to find value in everyday life. In one experiment, paranormal believers (who are high in dopamine) were more prone than nonbelievers to spot nonexistent faces when looking at jumbled images and also were less likely to miss the faces when they really were there. Everyone spotted more faces when given dopamine-boosting drugs. Brugger argues that the ability to see patterns and make loose associations enhances creativity and also serves a practical function: “If you’re on the grassland, it’s always better to assume that a tiger is there.”

Also from that last segment is a bit about magical thinking and technology which does a lot to explain why I’m so into gadgets and computers:

Arthur C. Clarke’s assertion, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” comes to full fruition in cyberspace—a realm of avatars and instant messaging. And magical thinking may help us pluck the fruits of digital technology.

The mystical hunches that don’t always make sense in meat-space can make good in the datasphere. Computer viruses act even more like curses than real germs do, taking over computers and making them seem possessed. Icons work as charms that can open windows into new worlds, and simple clicks on buttons or links can have surprising and far-ranging effects. Action at a distance (for instance e-mail) works because everything is connected. In the real world, meaningful coincidences often incite unfounded suspicion about a mystical tinkerer behind the scenes. But with technology, intelligent agents really are pulling the strings—not deities but engineers and programmers. Computer hacks—solutions or tricks that sidestep normal operating procedures—are a form of coding magic. Or, as a geek might say, magic is a form of hacking nature.

Very cool stuff and worth a read.


Rubber hand illusion shows how easily our brains can be misled.

One of the things that contributed a lot to my eventual deconversion to atheism was learning more about how the human brain works. Many believers will admit that they may not have a rational basis for what they believe, but they know it’s real just the same and I accept those statements as sincere. The reason that I don’t find them convincing, however, is because it’s possible to experience all sorts of things that feel entirely real even when we know for a fact that they are not. It’s possible, for example, to still gain some benefit from a placebo even when you know it’s a placebo.

These days there are all sorts of cool experiments being done that show that the brain can be tricked into thinking something that’s not real is very real even when the evidence that it’s not real is right there in front of its eyes. Experiments like the rubber hand illusion:

The rubber hand illusion is more than a vaguely creepy parlor trick. It’s a window into relationship between our mental and physical self-conception.

During the illusion, a participant’s hand is hidden, and a rubber hand positioned so that it appears as her own. She knows that it’s fake—but when both hands are stroked simultaneously, what’s seen and felt becomes blurred.

Suddenly the rubber hand literally feels like it belongs to her. Consciously she knows it’s not true, but that doesn’t matter. Threaten the fake hand, and people under the illusion’s spell respond as if their own hands were threatened.

Scientists have now shown that the hidden hand’s temperature drops during the illusion: its effects aren’t simply mental, but physical as well, and could even hint at as-yet-unknown processes of disease.

The fact that they can clearly see the hand is fake and not a part of their body doesn’t stop these people from feeling as though it were and reacting accordingly. Their brain overrides what is plain to their eyes and insists that the fake hand is real and something to be protected. Knowing this it becomes very easy to see how people can have experiences that couldn’t possibly have occurred that seem very real to them and which they find very hard to dismiss as a result. Be those experiences sensations of communion with God(s), abductions by aliens, or what have you.