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Mice Puppets and Souls

Tuesday, October 02, 2012 - 05:00 PM

A few weeks ago, we posted a call-out for listener questions -- intriguing quandaries to serve as launching-off points for conversations here on the blog.

Now that we've got a big collection of questions in our Cabinet of Curiosities, I'm kicking things off with a huge, deeply personal one that's all but impossible to answer. So here goes, and please weigh in!

Alright. This question comes from a listener named Michele, who wrote in to say that while she doesn't believe in the idea of an afterlife, she found herself questioning her feelings after her mother passed away. She was:

...caught between a sense of feeling as though [my mother] -- or her energy -- was still nearby...and a feeling that I was grasping for straws as a way to soothe myself in my bereavement.

Michele explained that she doesn't accept intellectually that her mother's spirit is still a presence on earth. But she continues to have moments where she feels her mom is there. And she wonders why. Why can't she shake the feeling? Why, long after you bury your loved ones and know in your head they are gone, as Michele puts it, "why don't they stay buried?"

There are infinite explanations for why someone who doesn't believe in an enduring soul might still sort of perceive one from time to time. Maybe it's because it’s hard to let go. Maybe it's because we're trapped by the limits of our own experiences, and simply can’t wrap our minds around the utter "offness" of death. Heck, it could be because there actually are souls out there, enduring. Who knows. I don’t claim to.

But I do want to share a study that helps me think about Michele's question.

It centers around a puppet show.

Illustration by Daniel Horowitz

There's a little stage. Children are gathered around. Up pops a little mouse puppet. Hello! Baby Mouse. He's lost. He’s trying to find his way home through the woods. And he misses his mom. He's getting hungry. Then suddenly, from behind a bush, out pops an alligator! And eats him. “Baby Mouse is not alive anymore,” the narrator concludes.

This slightly perverse act of puppetry was the brainchild of two psychologists, Jesse Bering and David Bjorkland. They showed it to hundreds of children of various age groups, then asked them all kinds of questions, like:

  • Even though Baby Mouse is not alive anymore, will he still need to eat food?  ("Biological")
  • Is he still hungry? ("Biopsychological")
  • Can he see where he is? ("Perceptual")
  • Does he still love his mom? ("Emotional")
  • Does he still want to get home? ("Desire")
  • Does he know he’s not alive? ("Epistemic," which I've renamed "Mindf#&!")

What they found is that the youngest children (aged 3 – 6) had a pretty good understanding that biological functions stopped at death. 85% of them reported that Baby Mouse's brain stopped working after he was eaten. Most figured that Baby Mouse couldn’t eat anything anymore. But when it came to questions about emotion or desire, things got blurry. A majority of the little kids answered "yes," Baby Mouse's emotions and desires continue even though he's not alive anymore. Judging from their answers, they didn't think Baby Mouse had fully ceased to exist. Bering and Bjorkland call this "psychological continuity." Yes, he still loves his mom. Yes, he still wants to get home.

When the team asked older kids (age 10 - 12) the same questions, they found they were more likely to answer "no" -- more likely to believe that Baby Mouse's mental states stopped after death. In fact, within just a few years, from kindergarten age to older elementary school age, the answers became statistically just like those of adults.* 

Here's how Bering and Bjorklund interpret these results: they think the sense that we "continue on" is something that's with us from a very young age -- it’s how we "naturally" understand death before we're taught otherwise. Their idea is that to get to a place where you don’t believe in an afterlife, it actually takes UNLEARNING a basic belief.

To test their hypothesis, they repeated the experiment a couple years later in Spain. This time, half the kids were from a religious school (Catholic) and half were from a secular school. Once again, they got the same results. As Bering explains it: 

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.

The funny thing is, even the most adamant “extinctivists” (as Bering calls people who say they believe nothing endures after death) sometimes betray a tendency toward psychological continuity. In a slightly different experiment, Bering told college students the story of "Richard," a man who died in a car crash. He then asked the students if Richard had the capacity to retain various mental states. Bering recalls:

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.**

So in answer to Michele, maybe she can't shake the feeling that her mother is still out there because it's deep within us to think in terms of continuity -- it's how our brains naturally understand things.

As for why our brains have this understanding...the explanation that sits best with me is that believing someone is truly gone goes against one of the most fundamental things we learn about how the world works: an understanding called "Object Permanence."

Stick with me one more paragraph or so, and then me and the mice puppets will leave you be. "Object Permanence" is the idea that an object exists even if you can’t see it. It was coined by Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget when he was studying how infants learn the rules of the world. So a wooden block, even if you hide it away in a toy chest, still exists. This may seem like a thing you don't have to learn, that you just know, but it isn't so. Remember when you were a little baby crying so hard because you woke up from a nap and didn’t see your mom and figured this meant she was lost and gone from the world forever and always? No. You don't remember that because thanks to the human inability to retrieve memories from early childhood you've been graciously spared the recollection of that terror. But that's how we come into the world. According to Piaget, anyway, and his many disciples, when we are newborns we don’t understand Object Permanence. It takes us a while to figure it out. It's very hard and impossible to believe at first. Only with enough teaching (enter, peek-a-boo: OMG is your face really still there? Wait wait wait, show me that thing again), can young children begin to grasp it. Usually it isn't until they're about nine months old that they begin to get it. (Though some folks now think it happens earlier). In any case, to buy this whole Object Permanence thing takes a leap of faith. And once a child leaps, the effects are universal.

So with a soul like a wooden block. Once it goes in its box in the ground, even though we can't see it, it is in our programming to trust that it's still there. We can accept that the body disappears because we can visualize its destruction -- decomposing into the soil or being burned into ash. But what about the rest of it? That personality of a loved one that has been such a solid presence in our life? Even though it’s gone—fear not, fear not, remember how the world works—it must still be there. Right around some corner, or about to emerge from some familiar old room.

That's just the way the world works. It's how it works. It's how it works.



* For a detailed description of the study, and a great bar chart of the results, check this out.

** For a fabulous read, check out Jesse Bering's essay "Why We Can't Imagine Death." He rants and raves and makes you laugh, but all padded with lots of scholarly musings and citing of studies, and then informs you of the neatest fact I've heard in a while: you will never be able to prove you've died. Yeah really. Think on it: “Your own mortality is unfalsifiable from the first-person perspective,” says Jesse. Ha!

*** Check out our After Life episode for meditations on how, when, and even if we die.

**** A giant alligator-puppet-sized thanks to Daniel Horowitz for the illustration of Baby Mouse and Alligator.


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Comments [16]

Field Weber from Los Angeles

There is a great line in Just Like Heaven, "When you know, you know" and this pretty much sums up my attitude. Every thing reported in the the study is absolutely correct. It is how the human is wired. It is all based on the physical manifestation as a human. The physical is the vessel for the spirit. The spirit does not cease to exist. You were right about the physical and very close with your quip, "Heck, it could be because there actually are souls out there, enduring. Who knows." These are many of us who do know. "When you know, you know."

I apologize ... I have not read the other comments. I just wanted to respond directly to you. Field

Aug. 07 2016 06:34 AM
Sue Thomason from UK

Just two names and one theory to say to this: Professor Roger Penrose, Stuart Hameroff and Orc-OR. I love Radiolab but your religious defence of your materialist position makes me lose respect for your intelligence. To keep saying you know something that we don't know is just annoying atheist propaganda. I am not religious at all and i am skeptical about a lot of this stuff but I'm not arrogant enough to claim to know for sure. You are, it seems.

Jul. 22 2016 03:45 AM
John Galloway from Alameda California

For Harry Chckpea and others holding his view, I suggest that you read Sean Carol's new book "The Big Picture" (or listen to it, Carol turns out to be a good reader of his own work). The idea that we just don't know about life after death, is false in every practical way. In the real world we can never be 100% certain about anything (we don't know after all with 100% certainty that any of this even exists, we could be brains jars or you could just be in my dream, or I might be in yours etc.). But, in every way that matters we DO know. We could say that we are 99.9999...% certain there is no life after death, there are no souls. Carol does an excellent job at laying out why we can say this today based on physics. its pretty interesting stuff (and quite approachable for the layman I think, which includes me when it comes to quantum mechanics).

Jun. 28 2016 08:37 PM
Harry Chickpea from North Alabama

I love how Newtonian physics and determanism have claimed all access to scientific and rational thought at the same time that quantum physics is claiming that entanglement may determine the universe.

The core question here is if the physical brain, neuron connections, and so on define us, or in a different language, does the ego state determine who we are?

Jungian thought claims that we are spikes coming put of the collective unconscious into consciousness. Psychiatry questions how much we exist as individual entities in the first place, vs. being automatic responses to chemical/hormonal/environmental stimuli.

The simple answer to ALL speculation of an existence after death is that ... We DO NOT KNOW. It is not science, but ego that claims knowledge over what is inherently unknowable. Religion got suckered into that centuries ago.

I will say that there were odd sychronicities after my wife died that I have no explanation for - finding exactly the right quote from her at the right time, my writing a reference to an author only to come across her doctoral work referencing the exact same cite of that author - from over 30 years ago, etc. I am reminded of Shakespeare -

There are things, Horatio...

Jun. 12 2016 10:19 PM

For those who have not forgotten the "Fact of the Matter" this again gets at the heart of the issue of Yellow Rain, and what was wrong with the podcast from a third party perspective.

Radiolab has so much to answer for.

Nov. 13 2012 07:39 PM

i've recently found radiolab and i'm so hooked into this podcasts and articles, amazing work!

Nov. 12 2012 11:52 PM
Robert Ganeles

check out Dr Ian Stevenson's work. it allows for a completely different conclusion than Lulu's.

Oct. 28 2012 01:23 PM

As an extintivist myself, I think of it in this way: we are social beings. Meaning, we are who we are because of who we've spent our time with (think of so-called feral children who have no language or social skills because of isolation). So, in a sense, who a loved one is becomes intrinsically interconnected with who you are. And when they die, your own identity associated with that person lives on. THEY live on, in a sense, because their impact on and place in your life shapes you and remains very much alive after their death.

Oct. 25 2012 11:59 PM

Remember the RadioLab about phantom limbs? I remember the neurologist describing the patient who felt pain in his missing limb, saying the man knew the limb was gone, but still had the very real sensation of pain. Couldn't there be a similar reaction in the brain when we are missing a loved one, someone we're used to having around?

Oct. 13 2012 08:48 PM
Andrea from Arkansas

Thank you for putting words to my feelings.

Oct. 09 2012 10:57 AM
Michele from nj/nyc

I am the Michele who posed the original question in the Cabinet of Curiosities, and thank you so much for this!

by the way, something I did not mention in my original question is that I work with young children and study the ways in which they think about and perceive the world. the Bering/Bjorkland puppet show example and the Slone article mentioned speak very clearly to me, indeed.

thank you again!

Oct. 03 2012 07:11 PM
Katherine Kilgore from Folsom, CA

We continue to FEEL the experience of having the loved person in our life when we think of them. Emotions follow thinking and are always valid and true experiences. So the thought of my father, dead now for ten years, Hobbes me the same feelings as when he was alive. I haven't lived in the same town for 2/3 of my life, and my love and interest in him is unabated.

Oct. 03 2012 10:08 AM
Anthony from los angeles

Lulu! this blog is awesome, I always look forward to hearing your stories on radiolab. This article forced me to question myself and what i think really happens after death. very intriguing. Thanks for the mental bubble gum. haha

Oct. 03 2012 12:35 AM
Stephen Dost

Love this story! A grim puppet show for toddlers--psychology at its most twisted.

Oct. 02 2012 09:28 PM
Sergio de Regules from Mexico City

Rationally, I have always been an extinctivist. One night, many years ago, I had a dream in which I was pleasantly chatting with my grandmother. At some point during the conversation, a nagging idea made its way up to my consciousness. "Hey, grandma," I said. "I hate to bring this up but... you're dead, right?" My grandma smiled and said, matter-of-factly: "Well, yes, but... you know..."
I woke up laughing out loud and in an excellent mood. I had just had a nice chat with my dead grandmother! Great! And a few days ago, in another dream, I played for my dad on the piano a couple of ragtimes I knew he had never heard me play, seeing as how he's been dead these 10 years. My take on this is that I still carry in my mind the model of my grandmother and my dad that I used to imagine their reactions in their absence even when they were alive. People pass away. Their models remain. "Model permanence"!

Oct. 02 2012 07:07 PM
Ira from Des Moines, IA

I think part of the reason that people have a hard time grasping the idea that death is the end of consciousness is that it is impossible to imagine the experience of being dead. When we imagine, say, winning the lottery, we do so from our own first-person perspective—we imagine what we will think, feel, and do based on our previous experiences. However, with death there is no way to imagine the experience, because there is no experience in the first place. We can’t imagine what it would feel like for our consciousness to end, so we imagine that it never ends, but that it somehow outlives our bodies. It is a little easier to imagine death from a third-person perspective, because our consciousness is not tied into another person’s.

Oct. 02 2012 07:07 PM

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