Developing Minds

Exploring the social side of humanity

Children’s Understanding of Death and the Afterlife

Evidence for “natural-born dualism”?

photo by OakleyOriginals via flickr

photo by OakleyOriginals via flickr

A friend’s 4-year-old daughter (we’ll call her Amy) recently learned that her neighbor’s beloved cat passed away. This was Amy’s first experience with death and she took it hard—tears were shed, questions were asked, sulking ensued.  (With a little prompting from me,) Amy’s mom had the following conversation with her:

Mom: Can [the cat] still move?

Amy: No.

Mom. Does he miss his family?

Amy: Yes

Mom: Can he still have thought?

Amy: Yes

Mom: Does [the cat’s] brain still work?

Amy: No.

Mom: Huh?

Amy: …hmm…how does that work?!

Amy, like a lot of young children, views death through the eyes of what Paul Bloom has called “a natural-born dualist,” having the intuition that after death a body dies but the mind lives on. Now if Amy went to Sunday School, had a religious upbringing, or learned about concepts like heaven and hell this might not be surprising—but she doesn’t. Amy has no religious training and her parents might best be characterized as atheists.

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And Amy is not alone. Fascinating work by Jesse Bering and David Bjorkland has demonstrated that many, if not most, children see death through the body-soul dichotomy, believing that the body dies but mental function continues. Perhaps my favorite version of this study was done by the same research team in Spain where they compared a group of children attending a Catholic school and those attending secular schools. The researchers told children ages 5-12 about a mouse who was eaten by an alligator. They then asked children a series of questions about the mouse after he was eaten: biological questions like whether his brain still works and whether he still needs to drink water, as well as emotional questions (Does he still love his mother? Is he still scared of the alligator?)and questions about his desires (Does he still want to go home?) were asked. Just like Amy, these children thought it was likely that while the biological processes stopped, the psychological ones continued. That is the mouse wouldn’t need water or have a working brain but would still love his mother and want to return home, they said. This pattern was seen in both the religious and secular children, though not surprisingly, the latter showed the pattern a bit less than their religious peers.

These studies and others have suggested to Bering that children might be innately predisposed to believe in religion and an afterlife with non-believing adults having rationalized their way past such a belief.  Others, like Paul Bloom and Koni Banerjee cite work showing that beliefs in dualism actually increase throughout development in other cultures (e.g., among the Vezo of Madagascar) to suggest that the specific belief in afterlife may not be innate. They point out that there’s also no work showing that children generate belief in the afterlife within cultures that do not have this belief already. Thus, they hold a more intermediate view that perhaps children are innately “prepared” for or open to religious belief, but that they need cultural input to attain specific beliefs, like that of an afterlife.  


While these discussions about why, when and how children like Amy come to believe that a dead cat cannot live but can love, or hold any religious beliefs at all, Amy herself is on to a new conceptual difficulty—trying to understand cat cremation, a topic I’ll leave her mother to explain…

 

Copyright 2013 Kristina Olson

Photo Credit: OakleyOriginals

On twitter @scdlab

Kristina R. Olson, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University.

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