Mortality is a paradox – we all know we’re going to die someday but our brains cannot fully grasp the concept of no longer being alive.
It is not just a matter of avoiding the toughest existential question of them all. A new study by researchers at Bar-Ilan University claims that our brains are wired to shield us from thinking about our own deaths.
“We cannot rationally deny that we will die,” the study’s leader, Yair Dor-Ziderman, says, “but we think of it more as something that happens to other people. The brain does not accept that death is related to us.”
Being shielded from thoughts of our future death allows human beings to live in the present rather than gripped with worry and fear of the future.
The death-denying brain mechanism begins functioning when children first comprehend that all people will eventually die.
“We have this primal mechanism that means when the brain gets information that links self to death, something tells us it’s not reliable, so we shouldn’t believe it,” Dor-Ziderman told The Guardian newspaper.
The Israelis monitored study participants’ brain activity while showing them photographs of themselves and of strangers several times in succession. Half the photos were accompanied by words relating to death. The other half had no such connotation.
The participants were then shown an entirely different face to end the experiment, which the brain would normally react to with a signal of “surprise,” since the image clashed with what the brain predicted from the previous pictures.
It’s this prediction system the researchers wanted to measure in relation to death.
When death-related words appeared alongside participants’ own faces, the participants’ prediction systems essentially shut down. As a result, when the “new” face was shown at the end of the sequence, the brain registered no surprise.
The test provides “a prediction-based account of how the mind avoids mortality awareness” and how “self-other perceptual inference mechanisms are actively involved in death denial.”
Exactly how this protective mechanism operates on the neuronal level is still unknown, the researchers said.
The full paper will be published next month in the scientific journal Neuroimage.