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.