Our brains are wired to prevent us thinking about our own death — Israeli study
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'We have this primal mechanism...'

Our brains are wired to prevent us thinking about our own death — Israeli study

While our brains may recognize the notion of death, they shield us from thinking about it as something that can happen to us, but rather only to others, Bar-Ilan researchers find

Illustrative image of brain (iStock)
Illustrative image of brain (iStock)

The human brain is wired to prevent us from thinking about own own mortality, a new Israeli study has found.

Researchers at Bar-Ilan University determined that the mind shields humans from the existential thought by viewing death as an end result that only befalls other people, and not ourselves.

This brain mechanism kicks in at a young age when children begin comprehending that all people die. At this point, their minds begin to avoid thoughts on the subject in order to allow them to live more positive lives free of morbid thoughts, according to the study.

To reach these conclusions, the Bar-Ilan researchers developed a test that sought to examine how the individuals’ brains reacted to different photos of themselves and also separate photos of strangers. Half the time the photos were accompanied by words associated with death, and the other half by words without those connotations.

The final image shown to participants was completely different to the prior pictures, in an effort to test their brains’ reactions to surprises.

When the death-related words appeared next to the participants’ own faces, the researchers found that the brains’ prediction systems shut down and were unable to properly correlate themselves to the notion of death.

“The brain does not accept that death is related to us,” the study’s leader Yair Dor-Ziderman told The Guardian on Saturday. “We have this primal mechanism that means when the brain gets information that links self to death, something tells us it’s not reliable, so we shouldn’t believe it.”

“We cannot rationally deny that we will die, but we think of it more as something that happens to other people,” he added.

His colleague Avi Goldstein said that the study “suggests that we shield ourselves from existential threats, or consciously thinking about the idea that we are going to die, by shutting down predictions about the self, or categorizing the information as being about other people rather than ourselves.”

The full study will be published in the NeoroImage journal next month.

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