Looking Death in the Eye: Why Your Brain Is Convinced You’ll Live Forever
At 17, Yair Dor-Ziderman encountered death, and it was not what he expected. Years later, he is researching the complex mechanisms that make us certain that mortality is something that happens to other people
“It was a dissociative situation, like being in a dream,” he recalled. “It was clear to me then, and it is even clearer to me now, that something was wrong.”
It is even more clear today because Dor-Ziderman, now a graduate student at Bar-Ilan University, spent the last few years studying the way people deal with death. On Friday, a new research paper he co-authored will be published in the scientific journal NeuroImage, discussing a study he and his fellow researchers conducted that revealed the mechanism the human brain employs to shield people from accepting their own mortality.
The key concept is mortality salience, the moment awareness of death occurs and the brain’s defensive mechanism springs into action, he explained. “The study shows that the brain has an unconscious but very basic belief that death is something that happens to others, not to me,” he said. “And that belief is activated whenever we come into contact with something that could remind us of death. We repress its relation to us and project it onto others, and that protects us. The study made me understand not just how the brain constantly interprets reality to construct a story, but how fundamental the mortality denial mechanism is to our consciousness and brain.”
Dor-Ziderman puts into words something we already instinctively know: were we aware of death at any given moment, life would have been immeasurably harder. Animals, at least as far as science is aware, are not cognizant of their eventual death. Humans are, but evolution has produced repression mechanisms that enable us to operate despite that knowledge. They are constantly working, for example when one passes by a cemetery or glances over an obituary while reading the morning paper. Death is recognized and immediately rejected via systematic emotional detachment that turns death into something that happens to others. As far as we are concerned, we’ll live forever.
That was the focus of Dor-Ziderman’s study, conducted jointly with Adrian Lutz under the guidance of Avi Goldstein of Bar-Ilan’s Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center. It was performed using magnetoencephalography (MEG), a neuroimaging technique for mapping brain activity via magnetic fields. Dozens of volunteers were instructed to look at a screen onto which the image of a stranger was imposed, along with random words, half of which had a connection to death. Then, a photo of the volunteers themselves was unexpectedly shown, along with a death-related word like grave or funeral.
The researchers tracked all brain activity using 248 sensors, and discovered that images of strangers, no matter the words shown, created one type of activity, while the individual’s image—only in connection to a death-related word—created another, unusual type of activity. Under lab settings, they managed to duplicate the feeling of deathly fear, that feeling the brain suppresses mostly successfully in real life—making the participants confront their own mortality and recording that very brief moment of brain activity before the brain’s denial mechanism comes into play.
To isolate the brain’s reaction to death from its reaction to other negative concepts, the researchers also performed a control test where they exchanged the death-related words for other ones intended to create negative emotional response, but those did not cause the same activity in the brain.
By recording the brain’s beta wave activity at the moment of deathly fear, the researchers essentially proved the existence of a mechanism that neutralizes that fear the rest of the time.
So what, actually, is deathly fear? According to Dor-Ziderman, it is a “failed update of a prediction.” What that means is that the brain does not have an unbiased connection to the world, but rather conceptualizes its surroundings based on statistical beliefs that rely on already existing definitions and information.
“The eye receives light rays that bounce off a certain object, and the brain knows how to extract the right coding from memory and say that it is an apple,” he explained. “The brain actually monitors its internal and external environment to keep up to date, and updates its predictions accordingly. Are there any signs of predators? Are there potential sources of pleasure? Is it cold? Is there a shortage of food? That constant activity surrounds a virtual gravity source we experience as the self.”
The key finding of the study was that the brain refuses to connect death with the self, or predict that the self is finite, Dor-Ziderman said. “The self knows his fellow men will die, but not him,” he said, and therefore it will always categorize death-related information as something that relates only to others. “So deathly fear is therefore the moment when our definition of death as something that only happens to other people is disrupted, the prediction wasn’t updated, and the brain could not soften the blow like it usually does.”
Fear has a purpose, Dor-Ziderman explained: it is part of an evolutionary defense system that takes over reflexes and reactions if the need arises. But sometimes our brain cannot manage deathly fear adequately, for example when people are faced with actual death and not just the thought of it. “People who undergo trauma gain that insight aggressively and immediately, that connection between death and self. They keep reliving it, creating problems that are very difficult to fix later.”
That realisation manifests differently with very ill people, according to Dor-Ziderman. “We are programmed to see death as failure or defeat. That means that those who die fail or lose, and no one wants to lose. That’s why when a terminal patient is offered experimental treatment, even if it has a thousand to one odds and terrible side effects, they will not make a rational decision. Beyond the money being wasted on drugs and experiments with doubtful efficiency, on many occasions a person placed in this situation loses his or her humanity while their family goes completely crazy.”
An encounter with death rattles more than just a person’s close circle, according to Dor-Ziderman. “Terror management theory posits that fear of death defines us not just as individuals but within the social context as well,” he said. After people have an encounter with death it stays at the back of their mind, and they feel the need to protect themselves by connecting to something bigger than them. A religious person may grow closer to that element in their life, while other people might find their patriotic sentiment growing.
“People idealize their feelings of belonging, and anything that threatens that generates feelings of aggression and demonization. In general, once death is very visible, people are more malleable and can more easily be influenced by dangerous ideas. It is something that was tested in dozens of studies,” he said.
It is possible that there are groups that may experience stronger denial mechanisms, such as religious people, where a belief in life after death could perhaps lessen the fear, Dor-Ziderman said. He doesn’t know if differences in character could affect those mechanisms, but that is something he wants to test.
He himself used to believe in life after death as a younger man, “because part of the interpretations our brain creates for reality are thoughts of life after death.” Science does not provide a clear answer, he said. “Science can say, ‘yes, it is materialistic and everything disappears,’ but not more than that. I underwent surgery under full anesthesia and tried to track that moment when you disappear into the drug and transfer from conscious to unconscious. It happens in a fraction of a second and you’re gone, but science doesn’t know what happens because science doesn’t know what consciousness is. The psychophysical connection is something science can’t say anything about at the moment.”
While the study made him stop believing in life after death, it also changed his life in other ways, Dor-Ziderman said. “I can say that when I put my kids to sleep at night and contemplate my inevitable death and the realization that it can happen at any moment, those minutes I spend with them—reading a story, hugging, singing a lullaby—become priceless, precisely because my time with them in limited.”