The Origins of Spirituality and Death Anxiety in Human Evolution.
Mommy, mommy, I feel sick.
Run for the doctor, quick, quick, quick.
Doctor, doctor, will I die?
Yes my dear, and so shall I.
Human spirituality had an origin in our history. It began soon after we acquired our language skills, and it’s related to our use of language and our sense of self.
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If we didn’t have language, it would have been very easy to go into a total denial of the fact of personal death (1). Of course, nobody has ever experienced their own death. You have to understand its inevitability while you’re still alive.
How do you know you’ll die? Unless you have some fairly intense psychic powers (and you believe in reincarnation) or you’ve had a near-death experience, you won’t remember dying, and even then your memories will bear other interpretations.
Most people, most of the time, only know that they will die because they’ve learned it, usually during childhood.
“Does everybody have to die, Daddy?”
“Do dogs go to Heaven?”
“Can people in Heaven see us?”
“Is it a long time?”
As children grow up, they experience the deaths of those around them, and learn that people actually die. Their religions tell them about life after death, making sure that kids think about it in their own terms as soon as they learn to think about it at all. Tales are told.
Death is heaven and hell.
Death is rebirth.
Death is where the ancestors are.
Death is a lush spirit world.
Death is being in the arms of God.
Cultures and religions have co-opted death, turning it into a story written by living cultures, for living people. Near-Death studies have found that experiences very much like traditional afterlife stories (or something like them) can actually be found in near-death accounts. This can explain the source of these stories, but this chapter is more about why humans have the need for these stories in the first place.
When we first appeared as a species, our brains expanded in two important areas. The frontal lobes, which have to do with planning, anticipating things, and projecting into the future, and the temporal lobes, which have to do with memory. Both of these large areas have many other functions, but these two stand out when we are talking about understanding death. The temporal lobes expanded, and now included language comprehension areas, and the frontal lobes grew to include language production areas. The human sense of self changed to include a component that dealt in language, so that we began to take words personally, and to feel our “selves’ affected by what others say to us.
Our minds were re-shaped with a new ‘top priority’: talking to others. Each person had to fit the way they related to others into a vocabulary they shared with others. The process of actually identifying with others was probably enhanced as well. We were more able to assume that our experiences were like those of others, and that their experiences were also like ours because they used the same words and gestures we do. This must have enhanced our capacity for bonding, but it also introduced a defense mechanism that helps people to feel that anyone who seems to see the world differently than they do is somehow less than fully human. Other nations were thought of as though they were other species. We began to judge others. Not just dislike them, but actually entertain thoughts that they shouldn’t be the way they are.
Taking death personally.
At this point in our evolutionary history, a fundamentally new experience became possible. A person could look at a dead body, remember the experience, think about it, personalize the whole thing, and conclude that the same thing is going to happen to them. Language skills are utilized, and the sentence appears in the mind: “I will die.” The conclusion is reached without the person having any first hand experience at all.
The concept is very threatening. Our new cognitive skills would allow a lot more imagination than before, and it would have been very adaptive for us to use this skill to imagine as many ways of dying as possible. The more ways of dying we can imagine, the more ways we can avoid. But death anxiety is very stressful. If we were aware of our death at all times, we would be at risk for several psychoses, like the ones that follow the development of the normally fear-laden temporal lobe seizures. (2, 3).
Persinger (4) has theorized that we developed a mechanism that shuts death anxiety off. Spiritual experience.
You have to know something about how the brain creates emotion before you can understand how this works. It starts with a structure called the amygdala. Actually, there’s two of them, one on each side of the brain. The one on the right is specialized for negative feelings, especially fear and sadness. The one on the left manages positive feelings.
There’s an idea that keeps re-appearing in my work. That when a negative emotion becomes intense enough, it can actually create bliss.
Here’s how it works: As a negative emotion, especially fear, deepens, it involves more and more of the right amygdala. The source of the emotion stimulates it from within. When a certain point is reached, it ‘overloads’, and the activity spills into the amygdala on the left. All of a sudden, the left amygdala, which has been operating at a low level, is filled with activity, and the person is filled with bliss, joy, ecstasy, and a sense of meaningfulness.
The point where this happens is very deep in the experience of fear or sadness.
My interpretation of these events is that they’re a rare example of a state of consciousness that’s usually a part of the death process (5). Because these states are ordinarily reserved for the end of life, they might manifest only when a person only feels that their lives, their “self’ is threatened with extinction. When that threshold is crossed, a spiritual experience can occur, one that takes a part of the death process, and uses it to end a painful episode.
Many near-death phenomena have appeared at times that a person only thought they were about to die, even when they weren’t in any danger at all, as though the belief that one is about to die is as much of a trigger as death itself. There are many recorded accounts of near-death-like experiences happening because of threats to the sense of self without any threats to the person’s life.
Here’s one such case (4) :
“When Fred died, the world collapsed around me. I could not eat or sleep, everything seemed to lose its color-food was tasteless, I couldn’t swallow because of this lump in my throat; it would not go away no matter how much I cried. My mental pain would come and go like chill waves. Sometimes I would forget for a few minutes and think it was all a bad dream. Other times, the reality of it would hit me like a cold shower. The fourth night after he died, I lay in bed, trying to piece my life together. I lay there for hours. Suddenly, I felt Fred’s presence beside me in the bed. I looked over and saw him standing beside me. He was dressed in his old work clothes and had a big smile on his face. He said “Don’t worry Maud. I’m in heaven now, God has let me come to you. All our friends are here too. It’s all true, what we believed about God … this is only a temporary separation.” I went to sleep and didn’t wake for hours. The next day I felt good, the sun was shining again; there was meaning to my life.”
Maud probably identified herself as Fred’s wife. When he died, she died. Her sense of herself, that is. We can make a guess about her brains activity: when her grief passed a certain point, her left amygdala was triggered, and its positive contribution to her sense of self was restored. When objects identified with the self are lost, so is the self. In fact, one study found that the most prominent predisposing factor in sensing the presence of a deceased spouse was that their wife or husband had died unexpectedly (8). Without time to prepare themselves mentally, they weren’t able to resist their own grief, and the threshold was passed.
The human sense of self is partly a social thing. If a person experiences too much rejection at the hands of others, as in child abuse, their self-esteem can be lowered below a certain point, also triggering this process. There are several studies on child abuse that support this idea (6). As the cycle of abuse proceeds, dissociative states that first appear as ways to escape from the abuse can become permanent options, “traits.’ (7)
The following case (author’s collection-paraphrased) illustrates the point:
“As a child, I severely abused in every way a child can be. I grew up never having even one toy. I would be locked in a closet for days at a time. I spent my whole childhood wanting to die. He (her father) wouldn’t give me any food or water. I lost all sense of time in there. I felt myself falling into a space I came to think of as “the pit of despair’. Eventually, I came to the bottom. There, I found angels waiting for me. They held me and comforted me and told me how my I was being prepared for something important that would come later on in my life. They promised me that they would never leave me and that they would always protect me. Now, when I do massage, these same angels appear and give me spirit guidance. They helped me to become a healer, and I can’t imagine anything I’d rather be. I can’t say that I’m glad I was abused, but having been abused is a part of my life, and I like my life. Now.”
There are several points that both these stories have in common with near-death experiences, such as the angels and meeting a dead person. It seems as though they both felt they were dying, and used the mechanism for healing these feelings that appears in the death process.
Much my work is devoted to exploring the idea that mystic experiences are instances of the death process occurring outside of their normal context. I don’t see these as pathological instances of the experiences. It seems more likely that our continually evolving minds found additional applications of the new neural mechanisms associated with the death process, and that is the source of human spirituality.
In another article, we looked at the similarities between romantic love and religious devotion. Love, however its defined, has a powerful ability to lessen (attenuate) death anxiety. The death-process, as revealed in near-death experiences, seems to return, over and over, to the experience of love and being loved, of being reunited with loved ones, and of looking at life in terms of how much love we create for ourselves while we live.
Both love and the experience of religious bliss lessen the anxiety that threats to the sense of self create. Love from others heals wounds to the self, which is partly a social thing. Religious bliss and ecstasy heal threats to the more privately felt self. The death process begins with the fear and resistance that helps us to try to survive, but once death begins, and survival becomes impossible, the fear that expecting death creates is replaced by a feeling that’s every bit as good as the fear of death was bad.
Our species may be the only one that can hold the thought in our minds: “I will die.’ Ours is the only one that needs a way to cope with it, and its long-term effects may be among the most important factors that shaped our cultures.
As children, we might run to our mommies when we hear things that hurt our feelings. As adults, we run to God when our feelings are hurt. The fact of death is understood as an idea first, so its natural salve is more ideas. Ideas like the ones that religion uses to assure people that death, somehow, does not really exist. Any idea will do so long as it makes it possible to face death without anxiety.
A story comes to mind. When I was in India, I was walking in a main street in Jaipur. I came on a small crowd gathered on one side of the street, and went up to see what it was about. When I got in, I saw that they were staring at a very pale man lying on the ground, wearing only a loincloth. He was covered with a loosely woven cheese cloth. Next to him was a battered aluminum bowl with some money in it. I noticed a cheerful-looking man standing next to him wearing the khaki shirt and brass insignia of a government worker.
I went up to him and asked: “What are you doing?” You can ask that sort of thing in India.
He said: “I am collecting money for this poor fellow.” “I work in municipalities office.” I asked: “what’s the matter with him?”
He answered: “Nothing is matter with him. He is just dead. We need money to burn his body. You put money. Very good for you.”
This man wore the Hindu tilak (mark on his forehead) that advertised his beliefs about death and dying. I looked at the man, now knowing that it was a corpse. As if he could read my mind, the agent said: “Very soon he is child again. Nothing Worry.” I put down 20 Rupees.
The man’s comments illustrate the ease with which the mind can remove the threat of death, and turn it into something trivial. “He is just dead. … Nothing Worry.”
Just a few hours before the present, I was in the grocery store. While I waited in line , an old man got in the line behind me, and quite out of the blue, he said “I’m 83 years old. Last week, I knew I was going to die soon, but I don’t care. I tried to tell my son, but he didn’t wanna listen.” I told him, thinking of Near-Death Experiences, that I’d heard that the after life was usually a pretty good deal. He said “Oh… I don’t believe in any of that horseshit.” The man seemed very happy. I asked him about it, and he said “Oh … I smile all the time now.”
Feeling the approach of death to be certain, whether real or imagined, natural or not, expected or not, can initiate experiences that commonly occur at death. Threats to the more subtle sense of self are handled differently, in more social ways, like receiving comfort from others, but the brain structures involved seem to be much the same.
We use language to amplify the fear of death and that creates a deeper need to avoid it than any other species has. Our thoughts of death gave us a reason to want to be immortal. Our death-process, which continues our consciousness after death for a time makes it possible for us to feel its true while we’re still alive. And feel that we are safe from dying.
However, death anxiety was not the only thing that encouraged us to make religion a part of our evolutionary strategy. \We also found an evolutionary advantage in maintaining a population of mystics in our societies.
More Short Articles
(1) Persinger, M.A. “Death Anxiety as a Semantic Conditioned Suppression Paradigm” Perceptual and Motor Skills 1985, 60, 827-830
(2) Slater, E, & Beard, E.W., “Schizophrenia-like psychoses of Epilepsy” British Journal of Psychiatry, 1963, 109 95-150
(3) Umbricht, Daniel, Et Al, “Postictal and Chronic Psychoses in Patients with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy” American Journal of Psychiatry, 1995, 152:2 224-231
(4) Persinger, Michael A., “Neuropsychological Bases of God-Beliefs”, Praeger, 1987
(5) Murphy, Todd, “The Structure and Function of Near-Death Experiences: An algorithmic reincarnation hypothesis” Journal of Near-Death Studies (in press)
(6) Hunt, Harry, Et. Al, “Transpersonal Effects in Childhood: An Exploratory Empirical Study of Selected Adult Groups” Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1992, 75, 1135-1153
(7) Perry, Bruce, Et, Al “Childhood Trauma, The Neurobiology of Adaptation, and “Use-dependent” Development of the Brain: How “States” become”Traits,” Infant Mental Health Journal, Vol 16, No. 4, Winter 1995 271-291
(8) Simon-Buller, Sherry, M.S. “Correlates of Sensing the Presence of a deceased Spouse” Omega, Vol 19(1) 1988-89
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