We know that we shall die. But “most of the time, we go through our days unaware, not thinking of our mortality,” says Chris Feudtner, a pediatrician and ethicist at the Children’s Hospital of Phila­delphia and the University of Philadelphia. “We cope by focusing on the things more directly in front of us.”

What if we all suddenly were told the exact date and means of our deaths? Careful consideration of this hypothetical scenario can shed light on our motivations as individuals and societies – and hint at how to best spend our limited time on this Earth, writes Rachel Nuwer of BBC.

In the 1980s, psychologists became interested in how we deal with the potentially overwhelming anxiety and dread that come with the realisation that we are nothing more than “breathing, defecating, self-conscious pi­eces of meat that can die at any time”, as Sheldon Sol­omon, a psychology professor at New York’s Skidmore Coll­ege, puts it. He and his colleagues were inspired by the famous psychologist Ernest Becker, author of “Denial of Death.”

Terror management theory, of Solomon and others, posits that humans embrace culturally constructed beliefs – that the world has meaning, for example, and that our lives have value – in order to fend off what would otherwise be paralysing existential terror.

In more than 1,000 peer-reviewed experiments, rese­archers have found that, when reminded that we are going to die, we cling harder to “foundational cultural beliefs and strive to boost our sense of selfworth. We also become more defensive of our beliefs and react with hostility to anything that threatens them.”

Even very subtle nods at mortality – a 42.8 millisecond flash of the word “de­ath” across a computer scre­en, a conversation that takes place within sight of a funeral home – are enough to trigger behavioural changes.

Confronted with impending death, we “treat those who are similar to us in looks, political slant, geographic origin and religious beliefs more favourably. We become more contemptuous and violent towards people who do not share those similarities. We profess a deeper commitment to romantic partners who validate our worldviews. And we are more inclined to vote for heavy-handed cha­r­ismatic leaders who incite fear of outsiders,” writes Nuwer.

We also become “more nihilistic, drinking, smoking, shopping and eating in excess – and we are less concerned about caring for the environment.” Should everyone suddenly learn the date and means of their demise, society could become “more racist, xenophobic, violent, war-mongering, self-harming and environmentally destructive than it already is.”

This need not be the case Solomon hopes that, by becoming aware of the expansive negative effects that death anxiety triggers, we might be able to counteract them. Scientists have already recorded the cases of Buddhist monks in South Korea who do not respond this way to reminders of death.

So, if the people are asked to imagine how they will die and what impact their death will have on their families, elicits very different reactions. In that case, people become more altruistic. They are also more open to reflecting on the roles of both positive and negative events in shaping their lives.

This would especially be true “if we promote strategi­es that help us to accept death as part of life and integrate this knowledge into our daily choices and behaviour,” says Eva Jonas, a psychology professor at the University of Salzburg. “Knowing about the scarcity of life may increase the perception of life’s value and develop the sense that ‘we are all in the same boat’, promoting tolerance and compassion and minimising defensive responses.”

“Human civilisation truly has developed around death and the idea of death,” writer Caitlin Doughty says. Can we encounter death creatively and change ourselves and society?

(The writer is professor of science and religion and author of Death: Live it!)

Columnist: 
Kuruvilla Pandikattu