Death and the Self

On Tuesday the 10th of March, Shaun Nichols delivered the 2015 Wellcome & Loebel Lecture in Neuroethics. You can listen to the lecture here.

Nichols presented a range of intriguing empirical data on how our view of the self affects our attitudes. The common view about the self is that it is something that persists through our lives. The self is an essential part of us that remains the same from childhood to adulthood.  However some views in philosophy and religion see the self as something much less permanent.

Nichols notes that unlike many revolutionary views in the philosophy, the idea that there is no persisting self is predicted to have generally beneficial consequences. For example, it should make people more generous and less selfish, as the boundaries between different people become less significant. It should also make individuals less punitive, as if the self regularly changes, agents may not be responsible for former wrongs.  Further, it should decrease peoples fear of death, as the person who eventually dies would not truly be them.

Nichols presented data from his own work showing that when individuals are primed to view the self as something which changes through time, they do indeed become more generous, and choose to give more to charity when given the opportunity. They also are less inclined to punish people for former wrongs.

However when Nichols looked at how the conception of the self affects attitudes toward death, he found it made no difference. Those who think the self changes over time are just as afraid of death as those who believe in the persisting self.

One explanation for these results could be that Nichols’ experiments only included those who grew up in cultures that continually reinforce the idea of the persisting self. Perhaps individuals from cultures which show a robust belief in the impermanent self will show less death anxiety. To investigate this, Nichols studied attitudes toward the self and death in Tibetan Buddhist Lamas. Members of this population have deeply ingrained views about the impermanent nature of the self, which was confirmed by Nichols. However when he looked at the views of this population toward death, the result was surprising. This group was more scared of death, not less, than controls.

Nichols then presented various theories that might explain this result.  One comes from neuroscience. Evidence from brain damaged patients indicates that two distinct senses of self can be affected by two distinct parts of our brain – the semantic self, and the episodic self. Our semantic self is essentially the set of traits that we believe make us who we are. It seems clear that this does change significantly through time. According to the biopsychosocial view in psychiatry , our mental attributes are the result of interactions between biological, social and psychological factors. As these factors change, so do our mental attitudes.  Hence as our brains, environments and social situations change from childhood to adulthood, so too does the sets of traits we possess.

However the episodic self is something quite different.  When we conceive of our episodic self, we conceive of something that has experiences rather than something that has traits. When we imagine our first kiss, we imagine that experience as if it happening to us now. Our traits, our semantic self,  don’t get represented at all.

One possible explanation for Nichols’ results is that although it may be easy to manipulate our view of the semantic self, this is not the case for the episodic self.  When we imagine our death, we can’t help but imagine it happening to us as we are now – just like when we remember our first kiss.

As to why the Lamas actually have a greater fear of death than others, Nichols had an interesting hypothesis. Given these individual pray and think about death on a daily basis, this may bring death to the forefront of their minds and inadvertently make them more worried about it.  This suggests that one way of avoiding death anxiety is to simply not think about death.

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One Response to Death and the Self

  • Joshua Livingston says:

    I listened to Prof. Nichol’s interview at Philosophy Bites, and was surprised that he doesn’t seem to seriously consider that accepting the non-permanence of the self would predict more, rather than less fear of death. After all, I would imagine that people who believe in the permanence of the self are also more likely to believe in a soul that persists beyond death.

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