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Wednesday, 30 October 2019

The brain uses a brain mechanism to protect itself from the concept of death


From an early age, humans are often confronted with the concept of death. So much so that this inexorable finality is commonly implanted in any person. However, it is not because death is a universally widespread concept that it is easily assimilable. On the contrary, in a recent study, Israeli researchers have shown that the human brain inherently rejects this possibility by refusing to conceptualize it. Such a function could have an evolutionary end in the perpetuation of the species.

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Death is an inescapable finality, and at a certain point, everyone is aware that it will eventually die. But Yair Dor-Ziderman and his team hypothesized that when it comes to our own death, an underlying mechanism of the human brain prevents conceptualizing the idea of ​​"end, nothing, total disappearance".

The brain: a powerful prediction machine

Their research was aimed at reconciling the learning mode of the brain with the universality of death. The brain is a sort of "prediction machine," says Dor-Ziderman. It uses old information to predict what might happen in similar scenarios in the future, which is an important tool for survival. Since death is inexorable for any person, it would seem normal that it be also predicted by our brain.

However, that does not seem to be the case. To understand why, the researchers recruited 24 people and observed how their brain's prediction mechanisms worked when faced with their own death. The results of the study were published in the journal NeuroImage.

Dor-Ziderman and his team examined a special signal in the brain, corresponding to a "surprise". This signal indicates that the brain is learning patterns and making predictions based on them. For example, if you show three images of oranges to a person, and you show him an apple image, his brain will emit a "surprise" signal, because the brain has already learned the pattern and predicted that it would see Orange.

Confronted with death, the brain inhibits its predictive ability

In this study, the team showed volunteers images of faces associated with negative or death-related words. The researchers simultaneously measured participants' brain activity using magnetoencephalography, which measures the magnetic fields created by the electrical activity of brain cells.

Images of the brain obtained by magnetoencephalography. The colored areas indicate the intensity of the cerebral electrical signal corresponding to the surprise. Credits: Y.Dor-Ziderman et al. 2019

After learning to associate a face with the words of the lexical field of death, the participants were offered a different face. As the researchers had predicted, when participants had this different image, their brain generated a revealing surprise signal, indicating that they had learned to associate the concept of death to a particular face and that they were surprised to the new appearance.

But in a second test, the participants were shown an image of themselves associated with a word from the lexical field of death. When they were then shown the image of a different face, their brain activity did not show a surprise signal. In other words, the prediction mechanism of the brain crashes in a person associating death to itself, according to the researchers.

Death is a common concept, but when it comes to our own death, the brain inhibits its predictive ability so as not to assimilate this reality, explains Dor-Ziderman.

However, researchers are still unaware of which evolutionary goals serve such a function. According to them, the consciousness of death would diminish the chances of reproduction, because human beings would be so afraid of death that they would not take the necessary risks to find a partner. To deny this part of reality would allow it to ensure its durability.

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