Death may be the most uncomfortable and fear-inducing fact of life. But recent research suggests that there may be nothing to fear because death is more like a metamorphosis than an ending.
Our views of death are important. Research over the years has found that our fear of death influences our beliefs and choices in areas of life as diverse as prejudice, conflict, religiosity, risk-taking, art and creativity, sex, preventative health care, consumerism and environmentalism. Fear of death even significantly shapes our other fears, such as the very common fear of public speaking.
Obsession with death has greatly shaped human civilization in profound and subtle ways across cultures throughout history. We would not have the pyramids inEgypt, the terracotta army in Xian,China or the Mayan temples without this preoccupation. If the most powerful rulers on the planet will go to such extreme lengths to achieve immortality, clearly this is a big deal to us.
In today’s materialistic and technology-oriented culture, a great deal of time and money is put into scientific research on physical immortality in areas like cryogenics, genetics and nutrition and digital immortality. It also seems relevant that 40% of all Medicare spending, representing hundreds of billions of dollars a year, goes towards the last month of life. Our desperation to preserve life at all costs costs us dearly.
Death, as the Great Unknown, has been a major component of the beliefs of every major religion, both in terms of required rituals and death practices, but also as a mechanism of social control and sometimes even oppression. Views of the afterlife, for example conceptions of a heaven and hell vs. a belief in reincarnation, greatly shape and control the behavior of adherents.
Can science resolve these debates and disagreements about the afterlife? Increasing empirical evidence provides reasons for optimism.
Over the past several decades, a growing body of research has begun to shed light on what people actually experience after death. These “Near Death Experiences” (NDEs) as they called, share a surprising number of similarities and are nearly universally very positive experiences. For example, one frequently cited study of patients who experienced cardiac arrest found that these experiences were almost always “pleasant.”
People generally experience
- continued awareness of their surroundings
- a deep sense of peace and being loved
- a “life review” in which they see their whole lives and have a chance to assess what they have learned and achieved
- knowledge of the true nature of the universe, which includes a disembodied realm of benevolent spirits
- a personal experience of the divine
- a desire to remain in the afterlife state
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a psychiatrist and one of the pioneers of near death studies, investigated thousands of near death experiences. She was thoroughly convinced that there is nothing to fear. In her own words, “Death is simply a shedding of the physical body like the butterfly shedding its cocoon. It is a transition to a higher state of consciousness where you continue to perceive, to understand, to laugh, and to be able to grow.”
Dr. Kubler-Ross and other researchers were able to refute common concerns about near death studies, for example that these experiences are not of some true nature of the afterlife but simple artifacts of chemical processes in the brain. There are documented accounts of blind subjects who were able to “see” and recall details of events that occurred in their vicinity after death, which could not be otherwise explained.
In summary, the most recent scientific evidence strongly suggests that death is nothing to fear. If we are able to internalize this truth, it has the potential to release us from our fears and open us up to living more fully. Misperceiving danger in death may be hurting us more than death hurts us itself. Imagine how a new and more positive view of the afterlife could benefit survivors and close family members and friends after a death.
How would you change your life if you knew you were already immortal?Even if there is still room for addition proof of the benevolent nature of the afterlife, there may be benefits in believing it now anyway. Narrative psychology reminds us that the stories we tell ourselves about life might be more important than the fact that they are “True,” so long as we believe them. What could we achieve if we redirected the mental and financial resources we devote to fighting death instead to living life more fully?
How would you change your life if you knew you were already immortal?