Does the life of the mind survive the body's demise?

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: WHAT HAPPENS the mind after death? You might think that people would divide neatly into two camps on this…

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE:WHAT HAPPENS the mind after death? You might think that people would divide neatly into two camps on this matter, religious people holding that consciousness survives bodily death and non-religious people believing that when the brain dies so does the mind, writes William Reville

But, surprisingly, non-religious people can readily entertain the notion that the mind survives bodily death. This tendency seems to be innate and underpinned by our inability to imagine death. The subject is reviewed by Jesse Bering in Scientific American Mind (October, 2008).Science assumes that the mind is simply what the brain does and when the brain dies so does the mind. Although we are a long way from understanding how electrical communication between nerve cells produces the conscious mind, science assumes we will surely understand this matter in due course.

One of the few things we can be sure of is that we will die and many people believe that death is the absolute end. It might be expected therefore that most of us would spend much time worrying about death, considering that we are willing to worry about so many other things that may never happen and over which, in any event, we have some control. But, most people spend very little time worrying about death, which is just as well because such widespread worry would produce a crippling universal debilitation.

Bering believes we are protected against such worry because we are unable to imagine the nothingness of death. In order to worry about something you must have some conscious experience of it. But we can have no cognitive experience of lack of consciousness. Although we routinely have episodes devoid of consciousness, for example, dreamless sleep, we cannot have a memory of them to summon up in our imagination.

Even people who accept that the mind ends at death have a real struggle to think that way. In one study students were asked about the psychological faculties of Richard who died instantly in a car crash. The students were read a description of Richard's state of mind just before the accident and then questioned about whether dead Richard retained the capacity to experience mental states, eg "Is Richard still thinking about his wife?", "Can he still taste the mint he ate just before he died?", and so on. Most of the answers indicated that Richard continued to think despite his death, and, most interestingly, many students who had previously indicated that they did not believe in an afterlife also gave answers indicating that emotions and desires survive death.

One might think that notions about consciousness surviving death spring, one way or another, from religion - even people who are not religious cannot avoid being exposed to religious ideas of an afterlife. But Bering believes that the notion that consciousness can survive bodily death is innate. This hypothesis is testable.

Bering and collaborator presented 200 three- to 12-year-olds with a puppet show about Baby Mouse, which was strolling in the woods when an alligator ate him up. Baby Mouse was not alive any more. The children were then asked about dead Baby Mouse's psychological functioning, eg "Does Baby Mouse still want to go home?", "Does he still feel sick?" All the children knew that Baby Mouse was dead, that he didn't need food or water any more and that he wouldn't grow up to be an adult mouse. They even knew that his brain was dead. And yet most of the children said that Baby Mouse was hungry or thirsty, that he felt better or that he was still angry at his brother. And three- to five-year-olds were significantly more likely to reason in terms of psychological continuity than the children from the two older age groups.

The Baby Mouse experiment was repeated with a variation - children from a Catholic school were compared with children attending a secular school. As in the previous study, the great majority of the youngest children from both schools said that Baby Mouse's mental state survived bodily death. However, culture becomes a factor with increasing age, when the Catholic children were more likely to reason in terms of psychological continuity than the secular children.

Bering also argues that another psychological trait called "person permanence" also encourages us to be sympathetic to the notion of consciousness surviving death. Even babies learn that people don't cease to exist simply because we cannot see them.

We all assume that everyone we know is somewhere doing something and we can easily picture this in our mind's eye. Bering argues, "Human cognition is not equipped to update the list of players in our

complex social rosters by accommodating a particular person's sudden inexistence. We can't simply switch off person-permanence thinking just because someone has died."

• William Reville is associate professor of biochemistry and public awareness of science officer at UCC -