Getting your head out of the clouds

Jesse Bering looks into reasons why people believe in the afterlife despite "scientifically derived

In my post yesterday, my intention was to show that asking whether human beings have a soul that ascends after their biological expiration (or descends, transmigrates, slumbers, hovers, recycles, take your culturally applicable pick) is a sure-fire way to keep a decadently vacuous debate burning. I’ve no illusions, of course, of making converts of the deeply religious. If this classification applies to you, then by the time you’re reading this, you’re already well-enough inoculated against secular reason that this isn’t registering any more to you than another run-of-the-mill atheistic assault on your beliefs. You’ll see me, at best, as just one of a lot of lost souls corrupted by menial rationality. Even worse, you’ll see me as an ambassador to the Devil himself.

But, more than that, you’ll trust your “gut feelings” that there’s an afterlife more than you will trust some psychologist telling you that it’s all really in your head. I don’t know about you, though, but if there’s one person I don’t trust to give me objective, reliable, unbiased information about the reality outside my head, it’s me. I do, on the other hand, trust controlled, scientifically derived data. I suppose that’s why I got into psychological science in the first place. It’s the best (and perhaps only) way to cut through that egocentrically tilted, cognitively blemished, emotional jalopy of a conscious mind and arrive at the sterile, factual, clinical reality of why we think, feel, act and do.

When it comes to believing that the human mind spirals out of the brain at death, launching off into eternity, this is such a wildly baroque way of conceptualising our individual existence that it just cries out for a proper scientific theory. You may be surprised to discover, for example, that after almost a century’s worth of correlational research on the topic, investigators have uncovered no correlation (negative or positive) between expressed death anxiety and belief in the afterlife. In other words, those trembling with death anxiety are no more or less likely to say that they believe in life after death than those who aren’t particularly rattled by the grave.

Does this mean that emotions play no role at all? That’s probably too strong a statement. But it does mean that it can’t be reduced to a simplistic “people-believe-because-they-want-to-believe” explanation. After all, there are lots of things that people would like to be true but don’t actually believe to be true. My own research in this area has focused therefore not on emotions, but rather the lesser studied cognitive factors underlying afterlife beliefs. It’s here, in cognitive science, that I’m convinced we’ll find the real meat of the soul.

One very telling example of this is the fact that, contrary to our casual philosophising that people believe because of religious indoctrination or anxiety, younger children are actually more likely to reason that the mind survives death than are either older children or adults. That is to say, it’s the four and five year olds who have been less exposed to religious teachings and who are oblivious to their own mortality, who tell you that the dead are just as psychologically intact as they were in life. With increasing age, reasoning about the afterlife becomes more ‘sophisticated’. University students will tell you, for instance, that the capacity to experience emotions survives death while the capacity for more viscerally salient states, such as tasting the breath mint you put into your mouth right before you died, goes with the corpse.

The thing is, you don’t need a Ph.D. in neuroscience to recognize that the body (i.e. the brain) causes mental states, so why the disconnect between logic and starry-eyed faith? The hypothesis that I favour is called the simulation constraint hypothesis, which simply implies that when we try to imagine (or ‘simulate’) death, we are constrained by the fact that death is not ‘like’ anything we’ve ever consciously experienced and can use as an analogous ‘state’. When I asked disbelievers whether someone who died knows that he’s dead, many of them thought I was a numbskull for even asking. “Of course he knows,” they’d say. “There’s nothing after death. He sees that now.” Even when we’ve acquired the biological knowledge and theoretical framework to escape from the soul, our minds still leap to simulate death — even death as a state of unending blankness — and get ensnared by the illusion all the same.

If you want to read more, start with my recent article in American Scientist, the work of philosophers Shaun Nichols or Thomas W. Clark, or the excellent book Descartes’ Baby by developmental psychologist Paul Bloom.

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How to explain Brexit to your kids

It’s not hard. The Brexiteers’ tantrums are a parody of how children behave.

My parents never sat me down for “the politics talk”. I suspect they were too embarrassed. Like many children of my generation, I was left to develop my own ideas about what adults did in private.

We didn’t have the internet and our arms were too short to open most newspapers (scientists were still working on the tabloid-broadsheet hybrid). Hence we picked up news randomly, either by overhearing snippets on the radio while buying sweets in the newsagent’s or by accidentally watching the start of the six o’clock news following the end of Charles In Charge.

By the time I was nine, the same age my eldest child is now, I had unrealistic expectations of politicians and the democratic process. Due to the fact that I had no idea what anyone was talking about, I assumed everyone in the House of Commons was having serious, informed thoughts about the most important issues of the day.

I now know that the real reason I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying was because what had sounded like “roargh roargh [insult] <braying laughter>” really had been “roargh roargh [insult] <braying laughter>” all along. I’d assumed it was a language I had yet to learn, one of the more specialised dialects of Adult-ese. I’d already wasted one vote by the time I realised that Prime Minister’s Questions was basically Jeremy Kyle with posher accents and minus the lie detector tests.

I don’t want my children to make the same mistakes as me. Thankfully, it turns out Brexit Britain is the ideal place to teach your kids how politics really works. Never has there been a time when those stalking the corridors of power were more in tune with the average tantruming toddler. There’s no point in rational argument; you just have to hope that those in power burn themselves out before too much damage is done.

This particular tantrum has of course been building for some time. The dominant rhetoric of the Leave campaign – like that of the Tory party itself – always offered a spoilt child’s view of the world, one in which you are the centre of the universe, depending on no one else for your survival.

When others point out that this isn’t the case – that perhaps you wouldn’t have a home and food on the table if it wasn’t for Mummy or Daddy, or perhaps the UK would not have a strong economy were it not a member of the EU – you simply tell them they’re being mean. You’ll show them! They’re not the boss of you! So you pack your bags and leave.

If you are six, you might get to the corner of your road, realise with disappointment that no one is following you and turn back, hoping no one noticed you were gone. If you are the UK, you hang around for a while, maybe hiding in some bushes, thinking “any minute now they’ll come looking for me.”

But they don’t, so eventually you think “sod ‘em, I’ll go to my mates’. Unfortunately, you cannot get there without Mummy to drive you. This is a problem. But at least you can tell yourself that you were doubly right to leave, since everything that is happening now is Mummy’s fault.

Never in British politics has the panicked outrage of those who know they are making a terrible mistake been so palpable. It reminds me of the time when I was teaching my eldest son to drink from a beaker. He kept spilling small amounts, which caused him so much distress he’d end up pouring the rest of the juice onto the carpet to make it look deliberate. Whenever I tried to stop him, I’d only make him more panicked, thus even more likely to get juice everywhere.

I have since asked him if he remembers why he did this. He says he does not, but I have told him this is what the British government is doing with Brexit. The referendum was the initial spillage; we now have to sit and watch, biting our tongues, in the hope that the “well, anyhow, I totally meant to do that!” response can be averted.

There is little chance of that, though. When my middle son told his older brother he could fly, he quickly backed down on being asked to demonstrate this by jumping from an upstairs window. Liam Fox would have thrown himself headlong, then blamed Project Fear for his broken neck. Or rather, he’d have thrown someone else – one of the millions of people whose lives really will be ruined by Brexit – then tried to argue that the exceptionally bendy necks of UK citizens could be used as one of the “main cards” in negotiations.

The behaviour is beyond childlike; it is a parody of how children behave. When I asked one of my sons to clean his teeth this morning, he called me a “poo head” and said his teeth wouldn’t get decay. He still brushed them, though.

He did not conclude I was some sinister sore loser out to trick him because his teeth are young and white and mine are old and stained. He still has some basic sense that people who ask you to do things you don’t want to do might yet have your best interests at heart, regardless of who is right or wrong. He did not call me a sneering member of the elite trying to override the will of all toothpaste-rejecting British children (to be fair, I think “poo head” may have been meant to capture that, but at least he only called me it once).

Then again, the teeth in my son’s head are his alone. The consequences of neglect would be his to endure. Those stage-managing the Brexit tantrum are insulated from its most devastating consequences. Thus they can hurl insults, stick their fingers in their ears and take more than a little pleasure in the sheer recklessness of it all. It is not just an extended childhood; it is childhood without having to come to terms with the consequences of your own behaviour, because others will suffer them for you.

I want my own children to understand that what they see now is not what politics should be. That there is not some deep, meaningful logic underpinning what the adults in charge are doing. What looks like bitterness, point-scoring and sheer lack of self-control is, more often than not, just that. We have indulged these people too long. Let’s raise a generation with higher expectations of those who will claim to speak on their behalf.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.