Why am I afraid to die? Maybe it’s the “I” in that sentence. It seems that I have a single constant self—the same “I” who peered out from my crib is now startled to see my ageing face in the mirror 60 years later. It’s my inner observer, chief executive officer and autobiographer. It’s terrifying to think that this “I” will just disappear. But what if this “I” doesn’t exist? For more than 2,000 years, Buddhist philosophers have argued that the self is an illusion, and many contemporary philosophers and psychologists agree. Buddhists say this realisation should make us fear death less. The person I am now will be replaced by the person I am in five years, anyway, so why worry if she vanishes for good?
A recent paper in the journal Cognitive Science has an unusual combination of authors. A philosopher, a scholar of Buddhism, a social psychologist and a practising Tibetan Buddhist, tried to find out whether believing in Buddhism does change how you feel about your self—and about death. The philosopher Shaun Nichols of the University of Arizona and his fellow authors studied Christian and nonreligious Americans, Hindus and both everyday Tibetan Buddhists and Tibetan Buddhist monks. Among other questions, the researchers asked participants about their sense of self—for example, how strongly they believed they would be the same five years from now. Religious and nonreligious Americans had the strongest sense of self, and the Buddhists, especially the monks, had the least. In previous work, Prof Nichols and other colleagues showed that changing your sense of self really could make you act differently. A weaker sense of self-made you more likely to be generous to others. The researchers in the new study predicted that the Buddhists would be less frightened of death.
The results were very surprising. Most participants reported about the same degree of fear, whether or not they believed in an afterlife. But the monks said that they were much more afraid of death than any other group did. Why would this be? The Buddhist scholars themselves say that merely knowing there is no self isn’t enough to get rid of the feeling that the self is there. Neuroscience supports this idea. Our sense of self, and the capacities like autobiographical memory and long-term planning that go with it, activates something called the default mode network—a set of connected brain areas. Long-term meditators have a less-active default mode network, but it takes them years to break down the idea of the self, and the monks in this study weren’t expert meditators. Another factor in explaining why these monks were more afraid of death might be that they were trained to think constantly about mortality. The Buddha, perhaps apocryphally, once said that his followers should think about death with every breath. Maybe just ignoring death is a better strategy. There may be one more explanation for the results. Our children and loved ones are an extension of who we are. Their survival after we die is a profound consolation, even for atheists. Monks give up those intimate attachments. I once advised a young man at Google headquarters who worried about mortality. He agreed that a wife and children might help, but even finding a girlfriend was a lot of work. He wanted a more efficient tech solution—like not dying. But maybe the best way of conquering both death and the self is to love somebody else.
Credit: Alison Gopnik for The Wall Street Journal, 6 June 2018.