Thursday, July 19, 2007

Cognitive Pyschology and Faith in Life After Death

There is an emerging focus by many scientists of various types in religious faith. Dave Munger a writer whose works include Researching Online and The Pocket Reader, and one of the bloggers at Cognitive Daily offers a discussion of a very interesting study in how belief in life after death changes with age.

The problem to be studied is this:

Kids in America grow up in a society that overwhelmingly believes in life after death. At the same time, these same kids grow up learning more and more about the nature of living organisms, and what makes something living or dead. At some point, these two belief systems inevitably collide: pure religious faith suggests that the soul lives on after death, but pure science suggests that consciousness can only exist in a living brain.

[W]hich of these knowledge systems will win out?

Dave then describes a study by Jesse Bering and David Bjorklund that was published in Developmental Psychology that attempts to answer this question:

Jesse Bering and David Bjorklund designed an innovative experiment to try to answer that question. They showed a puppet show to three different age groups: kindergartners (age 3-6), elementary-schoolers (age 10-12), and adults (college students age 18-20). The puppet show depicts an alligator eating a mouse, and afterward, each participant was asked a set of questions about the now-dead mouse.

The questions were designed to examine six different aspects of death: biological ("Will he ever need to eat food again?"), psychobiological ("Is he still thirsty?"), perceptual ("Can he see where he is?"), desire ("Does he still want to go home?"), emotional ("Does he still love his mom?"), and epistemic ("Does he know that he's not alive?"). The experimenter was careful to make sure that all participants understood that the mouse was truly dead -- that he didn't somehow escape or remain alive inside the alligator. Several of the questions were prompted by the story of the puppet show (the mouse is lonely and lost in the forest; he's hungry and thirsty, and thinking about how much he loves his mom and is angry with his brother. Then he hears a rustling in the bushes, and ... now the alligator's caught himself a tasty snack!). The experimenter was careful not to scare the children, and didn't actually directly mention death, instead saying "Baby Mouse is not alive anymore." None of the children, who were as young as three, appeared at all disturbed by the puppet show or the questions.

So, how did the different age groups fare? The experimenters coded their responses based on whether they indicated continuity (i.e. life functions continue on after death) or discontinuity (i.e. all life functions end at death).

The results were interesting and showed that while belief in discontinuity on biological functions increased with age, this was not true of emotional and epistemic functions--here adults were statistically indistinguishable from children. In other words, belief in these aspects of life after death persisted with age:

Overall, the progression was toward discontinuity -- the scientific or naturalistic understanding of death - as the participants got older, but the results were murkier when each individual type of question was considered. For biological and psychobiological questions, adults were indistinguishable from late elementary kids, but adults and older kids were significantly more likely to give responses indicating discontinuity than kindergartners. But on the epistemic questions, adults' responses were statistically indistinguishable even from the kindergartners. Only 40 percent of adults, for example, did not believe that the baby mouse still believed he was smarter than his brother after he died.

Bering and Bjorklund argue that these data suggest it is likely that beliefs in an afterlife are not acquired through social learning. If they were, then we would expect less discontinuity, particularly at the emotional and epistemic levels, as children aged -- just as older children and adults do acquire stronger beliefs about biological and psychobiological explanations of death. In a separate experiment, where more questions of this nature were asked, older elementary children showed significantly more discontinuity on both emotional and epistemic questions. The ultimate question this line of argument raises, perhaps, is whether higher levels of education about the biological and psychological implications of death would ever be able to supersede all belief in the afterlife.

Read it all here.

It seems to me that this study only takes the issue so far. Given that most beliefs on an after life focus on emotional and epistemic continuity, and not biological, it is not surprising to me that in a religious country like the United States, we find more belief in discontinuity for biological functions as we age than in epistemic functions. I think a far more interesting study would be to compare different cultures.

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