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Science in Mind

Immortality belief starts young, experts say

A child in the study in Ecuador examined three images researchers used to help children visualize the time before and after they were born.  All the children studied showed belief that they had existed in some way before conception.

Natalie Emmons/Boston University

A child in the study in Ecuador examined three images researchers used to help children visualize the time before and after they were born. All the children studied showed belief that they had existed in some way before conception.

Is the desire for immortality something we learn as we grow older and fear death, or a core, universal intuition that we develop early in life?

Given the diversity of cultural and religious teachings about what happens after people die, it can be hard to sift out what beliefs about the afterlife are learned and which, if any, are universal. What about before life begins, psychology researchers at Boston University wondered? Do human beings share common, universal beliefs about prelife — before conception?

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To find out if people believe they existed before they were conceived, the researchers studied two groups of children: an urban population from Connocoto, Ecuador, that was largely Catholic, and children from a Shuar village in Ecuador’s Amazon basin. Neither group had explicit prelife teachings, such as reincarnation. Catholicism, for example, teaches that life begins at conception. The Shuar children don’t have cultural teachings on prelife.

What the researchers found was that all the children — but especially younger ones — were likely to believe that before they were conceived, they had existed in some way, whether it was as a “little worm” or a “drop of blood.” While they generally didn’t believe they would have had the ability to see, eat, or think during those prelife times, they did tend to think they had emotions and desires.

The children, who ranged in age from 5 to 12, were shown three drawings: a newborn baby, a pregnant woman, and the same woman before she was pregnant. They were asked to imagine that they were the baby and that the woman was their mother, before and during her pregnancy.

Then, Natalie Emmons, the postdoctoral researcher who led the work, asked a series of questions to the children about what abilities they would have had at each stage of life, such as “Could your eyes work?”, “Could you be hungry?”, and “Could you feel happy?”

In the study published in the journal Child Development in January, Emmons and psychologist Deborah Kelemen reported that across the two groups of children, they saw the same patterns. Overall, children did not believe that before they were conceived they were able to see, to be thirsty, or to have a heartbeat. They also did not tend to believe they could think or remember things. But overall, they did believe they had emotions and desires before they existed.

This belief diminished with age, but the differences suggest children have a core intuition that they exist in some form — the desire for immortality may be something we simply cannot escape.

“I think as part of our social reasoning, we are so motivated to infer goals and desires and emotions to social agents that we really can’t switch it off,” Emmons said.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.
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