Thursday, June 2, 2011

Matters of life and death

In the midst of unexpected turbulence on a recent flight, an ominous announcement came over the intercom: "Attention passengers, there's something wrong with the system. We're not sure what's going on..."

A wave of panic swept over me as I braced myself for an emergency landing, or worse. A moment later a clarification was made: "The entertainment system, I mean. Sorry!" I could feel the collective sigh of relief. But I couldn't shake that feeling. As happens almost every time I fly - sometimes for no good reason - I found myself face to face with my mortality.

Experiences like these tend to arouse fear and anxiety, even terror. Social psychologists argue that we do everything we can to reduce our sense of vulnerability when we encounter reminders of mortality (see The Denial of Death and Terror Management Theory). Even subtle reminders like passing a graveyard make people more likely to cling to cultural worldviews, derogate those who are different from themselves, harshly evaluate others' transgressions, and fail to consider the dangers of behaviors like smoking and alcohol abuse. The desire to avoid thoughts of death may also lead people to distance themselves from others who are suffering, such as those who are terminally ill. In other words, reminders of death do not seem to bring out the best of human nature.

But in some cases, these reminders may have just the opposite effect. There can be something invigorating about recognizing the harsher realities of life: encounters with death may make us feel even more alive and more inspired to live life to the fullest. Accepting our own vulnerability and humanity can also help us feel more connected to other people, no matter who they are or how different they may be from us. In some spiritual traditions, practitioners actually seek out these terror-inducing experiences as a means of transcending fear and attaining a more enlightened state. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, for example, includes meditation exercises involving visualizing one's own death in vivid detail. Research suggests that while some encounters with mortality may indeed elicit terror, others seem to have a different effect. Near-death experiences, for example, can reduce greed and materialistic values (also see Amie's post on why a near miss feels so good), and longer-term rather than shorter-term exposures to mortality threats also seem to have more positive effects. Research on post-traumatic growth suggests that surviving a trauma such as an earthquake can makes people more intrinsically motivated - more concerned with the inherent value or importance of a task rather than with external incentives such as money or social approval.

Recent research has shown that certain people are less prone to mortality-related defensiveness, particularly those who are high in mindfulness. Mindfulness refers to a capacity to observe one's present experience - both internal and external - in a non-judgmental fashion, and it is related to a greater tolerance for negative emotions and less defensiveness. In a recent paper, a group of researchers led by Christopher Niemiec hypothesized that mindful people might feel less threatened by thoughts of death. The results of the first five studies indicated that mindful participants reacted to mortality primes with less pro-U.S. bias, less pro-White bias, less harsh judgments of others, and less self-enhancement, compared to participants who were lower in mindfulness. These effects were not driven by differences in more and less mindful individuals' values. The final two studies demonstrated that mindful participants spent longer writing about death and showed less suppression of death-related thoughts, suggesting that one reason why these individuals did not react defensively to reminders of mortality was because they didn't feel as threatened by them. These results suggest that mindfulness may help people confront death in more adaptive ways. However, as the authors note, future research should examine whether experimental interventions designed to increase mindfulness change the way people respond to reminders of death.

If we could have our way, most of us would prefer never to think about, witness, or experience death. Merely contemplating the loss of a loved one can be unbearably painful, and the thought of our own absence from this world is difficult to fathom. We hold out hope that in our lifetimes science will discover the secret to defying death. There is evidence, for example, that an enzyme called telomerase may have anti-aging effects (though it also could promote tumor growth), and some scientists believe that nanotechnology is the wave of our immortal future. Whether or not immortality would even be desirable is up for debate (the popular children's book Tuck Everlasting, for example, suggests that it is not). For now, though, we don't have much of a choice. Death is an inevitable part of life, and as we get older we will confront it more and more. We might as well find a way to make peace with it.

The article:
Niemiec CP, Brown KW, Kashdan TB, Cozzolino PJ, Breen WE, Levesque-Bristol C, & Ryan RM (2010). Being present in the face of existential threat: The role of trait mindfulness in reducing defensive responses to mortality salience. Journal of personality and social psychology, 99 (2), 344-65 PMID: 20658848


  1. Not sure that anyone can actually come to peace with his own death. The idea of this seems paradox to me since it is impossible for us to imagine not to exist. Imagination is a conscious action which implies existance in itself.
    Greets from Germany

  2. If the thought of death can affect us this way, it's interesting to think about how *not* having death, in the scientific ways that you describe, would affect us.

  3. Anonymous - I agree with you that it's very difficult to truly make peace with death. I think it's a worthy goal to the extent that our fear of death can prevent us from fully enjoying life, but I personally haven't figured out how to do it!

    Sarah - That's an interesting question. I imagine that we might appreciate it less and feel less of a sense of urgency. We might also start to get bored. (Though we're often like this anyway!) On the other hand, if it were scientifically and logistically possible, it would be pretty amazing.

    Here is an interesting article related to this debate from the NYTimes magazine:

    There is also apparently an immortal species of jellyfish...

    Thanks for reading!