Death for each and everyone of us is “inevitable” and yet that basic realization somehow becomes hard to grasp, unless you’ve done the math and realize you’ve reached the near end of life expectancy or suffering a terminal illness that forces us to accept that “inevitable” conclusion, however short of those dismal facts. Our brain shields us from accepting our own demise, according to a new study.
The analysis conducted by both French and Israeli researchers details how the human brain protects itself from reality regarding death, by optimizing and categorizing death as an unfortunate event affecting other individuals.
“The brain does not accept that death is related to us,” said co-author Yair Dor-Ziderman from the Bar Ilan University in Israel. “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.”
The hypothesis derived from the study thus far suggests that the brain shields itself from thoughts of our demise as an inherited safety mechanism so that we can live in the present.
To investigate how the brain handles thoughts of death, Dor-Ziderman from Israel’s Bar Ilan University along with his colleagues developed a test called the “protective mechanism,” that involved producing signals of surprises within the brain.
Volunteers were hooked up to a brain monitor and instructed to view a screen projecting a series of various faces with accompanying words including descriptive verbiage related to death. Words such as “burial” “funeral” and “coffin” were randomly projected on the screen along with faces of strangers; the words would momentarily vanish from the screen and then reappear
However as soon as the individual’s face appeared on the screen along with death words, the brain immediately shut down its “prediction system” refusing to link the photo and the death word, moreover no surprise signals were recorded.
Dor-Ziderman concluded, “The brain does not accept that death is related to us.”
Adding, “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 argued the realization that we will one day die “goes against the grain of our whole biology, which is helping us to stay alive.”
Lead author of the study Avi Goldstein, also weighted stating, “This suggests that we shield ourselves from existential threats, or consciously thinking about the idea that we are going to die, by shutting down predictions about the self, or categorizing the information as being about other people rather than ourselves.”
Arnaud Wisman, a psychologist at the University of Kent, said people put up numerous defenses to stave off thoughts of death. The young in particular may see it as a problem for other people, he said.
His own work had found that in modern societies people embraced what he called the “escape treadmill”, where hard work, pub sessions, checking mobile phones and buying more stuff meant people were simply too busy to worry about death.
In a related study last year, researchers at Imperial College in London gave volunteers the powerful psychedelic drug dimethyltryptamine (DMT), the main ingredient in “ayahuasca” which is said to mirror near-death experiences or psychological events reported by those who have come close to or believe they have come close to dying.
Researcher Christopher Timmermann, the lead author of the study, outlined the controlled research at the college, hoping that he and his team “get a fuller picture of the limits of consciousness and how these experiences correspond brain activity.”