Psychology: How We Live With Death

In the 1975 movie Love and Death, Woody Allen's spoof of the brooding sensibilities of Russian literature, Allen plays the cowardly soldier Boris. Under assault by Napoleon's troops, Boris asks his lover Sonja (Diane Keaton), "Are you scared of dying?" Sonja ponders the question for a few seconds. "Scared is the wrong word," she finally replies. "I'm frightened of it."

Woody Allen has gotten a lot of laughs out of death and dying, but the fact is, scared or frightened, we're all in the same boat. We instinctively don't want to die, yet know we must. We are the only animals on the planet who can contemplate death, yet we'll do pretty much whatever we can not to, including playing semantic games with ourselves. The fact of death is just too terrifying.

Philosophers and scientists have long been interested in how the mind processes the inevitability of death, both cognitively and emotionally. One would expect, for example, that reminders of our mortality--say the sudden death of a loved one--would throw us into a state of disabling fear of the unknown. But that doesn't happen. We weep and grieve, of course, but we're not paralyzed. If the prospect of death is so incomprehensible, why are we not trembling in a constant state of terror over this fact?

Psychologists have some ideas about how we cope with existential dread. One emerging idea—"terror management theory" in the jargon of the field--holds that the brain is hard-wired to keep us from being paralyzed by fear. According to this theory the brain has evolved into a kind of two-engine processor, which allows us to think about dying, even to change the way we live our lives, but not cower in the corner, paralyzed by fear. The automatic, unconscious part of our brain in effect protects the conscious mind.

But how does this work? It's obviously not easy to study existential dread in the laboratory, but a group of psychologists have started to do just that in a series of clever experiments. They start by using a psychological technique to fill volunteers' minds with thoughts of death. They basically prompt them to think about what happens physically as they die and to imagine what it's like to be dead. They conjure thoughts of neurons not firing and hearts beating their last beats and tissue decomposing beneath the soil. It may sound morbid, but the technique has been widely tested and is highly effective. It's the experimental equivalent of losing a loved one and ruminating about dying as a result.

Once the volunteers are preoccupied with thoughts of death and dying, they complete a series of word tests, which have been designed to tap into unconscious emotions. For example, volunteers might be asked to complete the word stem "jo_" to make a word. They could make a neutral word like job or jog, or they might instead opt for the emotional word joy. Or, in a similar test, they might see the word puppy flashed on a screen, and they would instantaneously have to choose either beetle or parade as the best match. Beetle is closer to puppy in meaning, but parade is closer to puppy in emotional content. Volunteers must respond very quickly to these tests, so fast that they really can't consciously process their choices. The idea is that the results represent the unconscious mind at work.

When psychologists Nathan DeWall of the University of Kentucky and Roy Baumeister of Florida State University ran three experiments of this type recently, they got unambiguous and intriguing results. As reported in the November issue of the journal Psychological Science, the volunteers who were preoccupied with thoughts of death were not at all morose if you tapped into their emotional brains. Indeed, the opposite: they were much more likely than control subjects to summon up positive emotional associations rather than neutral or negative ones. What this suggests, the psychologists say, is that the brain is involuntarily searching out and activating pleasant, positive information from the memory banks in order to help the workaday brain cope with an incomprehensible threat.

So that's good news. And there's more, because these findings jibe with a separate line of research on aging. Studies show that as we get older and approach death, our brains somehow shift gears, craving more upbeat stimulation. We find ourselves averting our eyes from grisly auto accidents and gradually losing our interest in slasher movies. It's not a planned, deliberate change; it's more like an effortless retuning of the neurons, and psychologists believe it has everything to do with the keener sense of mortality that comes with aging.

So not only is the human brain deep-wired to cope with the terrifying idea of death on a daily basis, it seems to know when it's time to make a permanent shift toward positive emotions. The brain is in effect changing to allow us to approach the end of life with some grace and serenity. Now that's an idea even Woody Allen's most neurotic alter ego could find comforting.