Scientists Think Our Brains Protect Us From Our Mortality: 'The Brain Does Not Accept That Death Is Related to Us'

Our brains are programmed to stop us dwelling on thoughts of our own deaths, scientists believe.

The brain processes information about death as something more likely to happen to others than ourselves, the authors of a study due to be published in the journal NeuroImage told The Guardian.

When we are faced with the prospect of passing away, our brain activity appears to change in order to shield us from the existential threat, the researchers wrote in their abstract.

To investigate what they describe as the "protective mechanism," researchers hooked participants up to a brain monitor, and asked them to watch a screen where a series of faces appeared. The images were accompanied by words, including vocabulary related to death, such as "burial" or "funeral", half of the time.

The volunteers saw their own face and that of a stranger's a number of times, before they were shown an unexpected new face in an attempt to shock the brain.

When confronted with their own face next to a death-related word, activity in the area of the participants' brains linked to prediction dampened. Scientists believe this is because of their brains wanted to avoid associating the self with death.

Study co-author Yair Dor-Ziderman of Israel's Bar Ilan University told The Guardian: "The brain does not accept that death is related to us.

"We have this primal mechanism that means when the brain gets information that links self to death, something tells us it's not reliable, so we shouldn't believe it."

Dor-Ziderman argued the realization that we will one day die "goes against the grain of our whole biology, which is helping us to stay alive."

Study co-author Avi Goldstein told The Guardian: "This suggests that we shield ourselves from existential threats, or consciously thinking about the idea that we are going to die, by shutting down predictions about the self, or categorizing the information as being about other people rather than ourselves."

The study is the latest investigation into how our brains process this inevitability.

Last year, researchers at Imperial College London gave volunteers the powerful psychedelic drug dimethyltryptamine (DMT), the main ingredient in ayahuasca. Hallucinations are said to mirror near-death experiences, or psychological events reported by those who have come close to or believe they have come close to dying.

Christopher Timmermann, a Ph.D. candidate at Imperial College London and lead author of the study, told Newsweek at the time the team used DMT in a controlled research environment. The team hoped to "get a fuller picture of the limits of consciousness and how these experiences correspond to brain activity," he said.

tomb stone, death, grave yard, stock, getty
Scientists have investigated how the brain processes the prospect of our own death. A stock image shows tombstones in a graveyard. Getty