Most studies on immortality or "eternalist" beliefs have focused on people's views of the afterlife. Studies have found that both children and adults believe that bodily needs, such as hunger and thirst, end when people die, but mental capacities, such as thinking or feeling sad, continue in some form. (Credit: maraweeen/Flickr)

Are we hardwired to believe we’re immortal?

Most people, regardless of race, religion, or culture, believe they are immortal. That is, people believe that part of themselves—some indelible core, soul, or essence—will live forever.

Why is this belief so unshakable?

A new study published in the journal Child Development sheds light on these profound questions by examining children’s ideas about “prelife,” the time before conception.

Emmons interviewed children from an indigenous Shuar village in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador. She chose the group because they have no cultural prelife beliefs, and she suspected that indigenous children, who have regular exposure to birth and death through hunting and farming, would have a more rational, biologically based view of the time before they were conceived. (Credit: Boston University)
Natalie Emmons interviewed children from an indigenous Shuar village in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador. She chose the group because they have no cultural prelife beliefs, and she suspected that indigenous children, who have regular exposure to birth and death through hunting and farming, would have a more rational, biologically based view of the time before they were conceived. (Credit: Boston University)

Based on interviews with 283 children from two distinct cultures in Ecuador, the researchers say the findings suggest that our bias toward immortality is a part of human intuition that naturally emerges early in life.

And the part of us that is eternal, we believe, is not our skills or ability to reason, but rather our hopes, desires, and emotions. We are, in fact, what we feel.

Religion and science

The study led by Natalie Emmons, a postdoctoral fellow at Boston University fits into a growing body of work examining the cognitive roots of religion. Although religion is a dominant force across cultures, science has made little headway in examining whether religious belief—such as the human tendency to believe in a creator—may actually be hardwired into our brains.

“This work shows that it’s possible for science to study religious belief,” says Deborah Kelemen, associate professor of psychology and co-author of the paper. “At the same time, it helps us understand some universal aspects of human cognition and the structure of the mind.”

Most studies on immortality or “eternalist” beliefs have focused on people’s views of the afterlife. Studies have found that both children and adults believe that bodily needs, such as hunger and thirst, end when people die, but mental capacities, such as thinking or feeling sad, continue in some form.

Is it intuition?

But these afterlife studies leave one critical question unanswered: where do these beliefs come from? Researchers have long suspected that people develop ideas about the afterlife through cultural exposure, like television or movies, or through religious instruction.

Emmons thought perhaps these ideas of immortality actually emerge from our intuition. Just as children learn to talk without formal instruction, maybe they also intuit that part of their mind could exist apart from their body.

Emmons tackled this question by focusing on “prelife,” the period before conception, since few cultures have beliefs or views on the subject.

“By focusing on prelife, we could see if culture causes these beliefs to appear, or if they appear spontaneously,” says Emmons.

“I think it’s a brilliant idea,” says Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University who was not involved with the study. “One persistent belief is that children learn these ideas through school or church. That’s what makes the prelife research so cool. It’s a very clever way to get at children’s beliefs on a topic where they aren’t given answers ahead of time.”

Children in Ecuador

Emmons interviewed children from an indigenous Shuar village in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador. She chose the group because they have no cultural prelife beliefs, and she suspected that indigenous children, who have regular exposure to birth and death through hunting and farming, would have a more rational, biologically based view of the time before they were conceived.

For comparison, she also interviewed children from an urban area near Quito, Ecuador. Most of the urban children were Roman Catholic, a religion that teaches that life begins only at conception. If cultural influences were paramount, reasoned Emmons, both urban and indigenous children should reject the idea of life before birth.

Emmons showed the children drawings of a baby, a young woman, and the same woman while pregnant, then asked a series of questions about the child’s abilities, thoughts and emotions during each period: as babies, in the womb, and before conception.

The results were surprising. Both groups gave remarkably similar answers, despite their radically different cultures. The children reasoned that their bodies didn’t exist before birth, and that they didn’t have the ability to think or remember.

However, both groups also said that their emotions and desires existed before they were born.

For example, while children generally reported that they didn’t have eyes and couldn’t see things before birth, they often reported being happy that they would soon meet their mother, or sad that they were apart from their family.

“They didn’t even realize they were contradicting themselves,” says Emmons. “Even kids who had biological knowledge about reproduction still seemed to think that they had existed in some sort of eternal form. And that form really seemed to be about emotions and desires.”

Feelings are forever

Why would humans have evolved this seemingly universal belief in the eternal existence of our emotions? Emmons says that this human trait might be a by-product of our highly developed social reasoning.

“We’re really good at figuring out what people are thinking, what their emotions are, what their desires are,” she says. We tend to see people as the sum of their mental states, and desires and emotions may be particularly helpful when predicting their behavior.

Because this ability is so useful and so powerful, it flows over into other parts of our thinking. We sometimes see connections where potentially none exist, we hope there’s a master plan for the universe, we see purpose when there is none, and we imagine that a soul survives without a body.

These ideas, while nonscientific, are natural and deep-seated.

“I study these things for a living but even find myself defaulting to them. I know that my mind is a product of my brain but I still like to think of myself as something independent of my body,” says Emmons.

“We have the ability to reflect and reason scientifically, and we have the ability to reason based on our gut and intuition,” she adds. “And depending on the situation, one may be more useful than the other.”

Source: Boston University

chat13 Comments

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13 Comments

  1. X

    The Bible stated long before the development of science and philosophy that “He put eternity into their hearts”.

  2. Richard Prichard

    Many well documented cases of reincarnation indicate that the continuation of life after death is far from a settled matter.

  3. Dave

    How does the author “know” the mind is the product of the brain? That is not scientific reasoning, it is mere speculation and preference of the materialistic world view. There is no proof for such claim and certain studies (particularly NDE’s) are challenging this assumption.

  4. Herb Frick

    As I read the introdruction to this piece, I was surprised to learn that this is something taught or learned.
    I have never been told of such beliefs, except for the attitudes, mores, and values in traditional religions; and those beliefs were elucidated upon by priests. As I searched my entire life for God, I have had Peak Experiences as described by Maslow, and have maintained these states of consciousness for a few days ot weeks. I was regularly dissapointed in the end, yet I steadfastly refused to believe in a devil or satan a long time ago. Recent experiences have lead me upon a different path; one that I have ” Intuited “. I feel as if my mind has been “blown” and this state of consciousness is steady, and strong; with perception of unusual clarity.
    I am awake.
    I feel as if I am Columbus, stepping onto a new hemisphere, and breaking new ground. This state of consciousness is not limited as past religous experiences have been; I understand aspects of my life in a revolutionary new way that transcends anything which I have been taught, read, or learned.
    However, that being said, I truly believe that those experiences were crucial to understanding and experiencing in order for me to arrive. I can only relate this in familiar terms, such as my belief that Buddha needed to experience every failure that he did before he had the same experience.

  5. robin broughton

    I feel the author handles the topic stuntedly with the language and beliefs she already holds, for instance, there is no mention anywhere in the article of the soul or spirit, assumedly because She doesn’t want to use such terms, but instead is quite willing to assert “I know that my mind is a product of my brain” It is this reductionism which is rife in science that hinders it’s advancement. She’s insistent on viewing the eternal existent form as “emotions and desires” unwilling to acknowledge what is having those emotions. Another example of the naive reductionism “Although religion is a dominant force across cultures, science has made little headway in examining whether religious belief—such as the human tendency to believe in a creator—may actually be hardwired into our brains.” For one the belief in a creator is a very simplistic view of a divinity , secondly I don’t think this is at all a religious belief, thirdly to use a computer analogy “hard wiring” to describe where the author believes all our beliefs “live” shows a lack of scope and range in understanding. Interesting article but I’m not sure if the author isn’t too empirically reductionisticly bent to examine the topic.

  6. y

    it is more likely that our belief in “we can’t live forever” and “immortality is painful” are hardwired.

  7. Ravicher

    I prefer to see it as the awareness (or whatever term you’d politcally like to use), and the body (as in not “yours”), communicate in the colorful field known as emotions – not that you are emotions, you are (as we know it so far), more of an it, is it not? Either way there are biological differences that do have verifiable “spiritual” consequences, typically most involve “loosing” the body in one way or another, and lets not even go into thrill seeking, or for that matter “falling” asleep.

  8. JB

    When my daughter was very young; just learning to talk well enough to express herself (2-3 maybe she’s now 23) I would ask her about the 1st thing she could remember.
    Basically, she would describe herself as a baby. Things that I could match from raising her in my memory. In other words; I remembered the same events she described. The earliest, were for her, very early indeed. She seemed to recall one memory from when she was about 1 to 1.5 years old the best I can recall… (after all it’s been awhile since I did this.)
    When I asked if she could remember anything before that; it got interesting.
    More or less, in the best way she could at the time (not having the vocabulary that we do) she described herself as being happy and or comfortable. As sense of bliss or well being, loved, if you will.
    The only way I could interpret the way she was trying to express herself (without coaching-I wanted to hear it from her) this at the time was it was her way of describing heaven.
    I know and understand what will be said about this from comments that follow. But, we weren’t particularly religious and due to the fact that we moved frequently and my disappointment with the way religious services had radically changed (for the worse i believe-conserv to lib) she @ that time had not attended a service. That’s not why i’m sharing this.
    The reason I am, is that I don’t feel that this is all that ground breaking. If i’m the only parent that’s ever done this (which I doubt!) then without a stated hypothesis, methodology and paper stating the results (this was just a spur of the moment thing) I was years ahead of everyone on this.
    Maybe, I should be getting the grant money and paid position this person is/has recievd for being such a forward thinker. Maybe, I should publish my other thoughts and off the cuff “experiments” and cash in like this person did. LOL!
    Come on folks, this can’t be ground breaking and better descriptions must be available in something like child psychology journals or research from the last 100 years. I’m sure they will describe something like exploring early memories and how it must get to a point where base “feelings” are predominant due to an underdeveloped brain/language capability and development. What would be interesting is finding a way to determine how early and when this occurs. If we could prove it happens say @ conception and not at birth or a viable fetus stage. If at a cellular stage there were some sort of measurable response, and none individually prior (sperm/egg) then our “self” could be downloaded (as the author seems to like computer terms) from another source. That I think would prove an “eternal” soul (or God) and the reason for the hope of some continuation beyond the grave for all.
    After all, that’s the main reason the author and all reading this are here. Me personally, I don’t care much anymore. What is going to happen; will. We can’t escape it. If there is nothing after we die so be it. If there is a “reward/punishment” after death I’m not so sure I want ether one. But that is an individual choice.
    Best to all in finding what you are looking for.

  9. At

    Job, your daughter could also have been describing life as a young baby, or even enwombed – slightly more likely than a prelife I think. Oddly my daughter used to remember things from early life which sh can’t now. I wonder if early memory and it’s loss is connected to learning language.

  10. Geronimo Stockton

    How can the researchers correlate the children’s thoughts on or emotional reactions to “prelife” (whatever that is) with a hardwired belief in immortality? It could just as well be that the children’s imaginations are bridging a gap of ignorance with what is familiar to them: the experience of consciousness. More specifically, the emotional aspects of consciousness that mediate our interactions with the world in childhood when higher order reasoning is not well developed. Too many assumptions are needed to make this thesis work.

  11. Sylvio Conde

    “The Bible stated long before the development of science and philosophy ”

    Philosophy was around roughly 16 centuries before the bible… Science was created the day man discovered fire.

  12. K1ng

    And you quote, “He put eternity into their hearts”. Really? That is an extremely ambiguous statement from a book. What did you wish to accomplish by quoting that?
    Also, do you really think that philosophy did not exist before the bible? oh wait – yes – now I remember, the world didn’t exist before that right? just like the dinosaurs were never here.

    Sit trash, and try your hardest to use your brain before posting something.

  13. Bleep loop

    K1ng said it best. Xtians seek every opportunity to spout their profitable religion.

    I went to Christian school for two years and they refused to properly teach science? Want to know why? because the concepts of dark energy, worm holes, multiverse and the like are far more fascinating than anything religion can provide! And thus would be born more scientific minds, taking away from the profitability of religious movements!

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