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Surprising Science

How Our Brains Cope with the Thought of Death

Being trained by evolution to avoid confronting your own mortality, your brain may register a feeling of terror to read news articles about death. We have a strong aversion to our fragility.

What’s the Latest Development?

A team of psychologists hypothesized that people would cling harder to their belief systems when confronted with the disturbing fact of their own mortality. To test their theory, the team asked different law court judges to deliver a ruling in a hypothetical case. After judges were given prompts reminding them of death, they were asked to set a bond for an alleged prostitute. “Judges reminded of their mortality set an average bond of $455 while judges not so reminded set an average bond of $50.” It seems the judges treated an alleged violator of cultural norms more harshly when they were thinking of their own death. 

What’s the Big Idea?

Being the only species which is consciously aware of its impending non-existence, humans have developed cultural system which portray the world as a meaningful, purposeful place in which death is not the final end. Besides the idea of an eternal soul, we talk of transcending death through social achievements like heroism, memorials and heirs. Decades of scientific research indicate that our mortality has a pervasive impact in our lives and that when we are reminded of our fragile and ephemeral nature, we quickly banish the thought by making our individual egos subservient to grander ideas like family, religion and nation.

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