Psychology

If and why we Fear Death



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"The fear of death". How often do we hear this phrase? Why is it that we fear death so much, and how does this fear manifest itself?

Two distinct kinds of fear spring to mind, one related to our animal origins and the other a human fear that is bound up with the very nature of consciousness. I will briefly explore both.

First, our animal heritage. When a cat or a mouse or a human are faced with an impending threat to life and limb, a number of specific physical reactions kick in.

Adrenaline floods through the body, causing the heart rate to speed up like crazy. Simultaneously the bronchial passages dilate and the lungs draw in larger volumes of air, all the better to grab more oxygen. The result? A rush of oxygenated, glucose-rich blood thundering through the arteries, on its way to the skeletal muscles, which is where it will be needed if we want to take immediate action. Some blood vessels constrict, others dilate, in order to channel resources efficiently.

What else happens? The senses become extremely selective and we experience tunnel vision and auditory exclusion (tunnel hearing). Weird things also happen to our sense of time passing (the technical word for this distortion is tachipsychia). At the same time, other processes, such as digestion, salivation and sex are placed on hold.

When these changes happen, we are driven to do one of two things - fight or run for our lives, hence the name of this response, "fight or flight", first identified by physiologist Walter Cannon in 1915. Depending on the situation, it can propel us down to the very depths of panic or up to the highest levels of heroism, should our children, for instance, be trapped in a burning house. This fear is part of our animal heritage which comes into play when our lives, and those of our loved ones, are physically threatened.

But there is another fear of death, which is (as far as anyone knows) peculiar to human beings.

This has also been called an existential crisis, and fundamentally, it is a fear of annihilation, of ceasing to be. We tend to identify with our conscious mind or ego, and the thought of no more "I" after death can be intolerable and terrifying. It is also difficult to imagine. How can "I" stop existing? How can there be a world without "me" in it?

This kind of crisis or panic can affect us when we are in a vulnerable state, after a loved one has died, perhaps, or when we become elderly or are suffering from a life-threatening illness, such as cancer. It can leave us feeling anxious, isolated, unbearably lonely.

Just as small children can be fearful and resist falling asleep, so adults can be fearful and resist the ultimate sleep.

Is there a cure for it?

The traditional way in which humans have armoured themselves against the fear of death is through religion. Most of the world's religions postulate an afterlife, a way in which a person can survive death, either as an individual spirit or a fragment returning to the great ocean of spirit, which we commonly call God.

But there are so many religions, each with its version of Heaven, Paradise, Nirvana or Elysium, and each with its various sects. Which one to choose? And can any of them prove beyond reasonable doubt that we do survive the deaths of our bodies? Speaking for myself, the answer to the last question is no.

There is also the materialist world view, i.e. that when the body dies, the atoms of which it is composed go their separate ways and that is it. No spirit, no soul, no God and no afterlife.

A materialist might argue that we can survive, in a fashion. We can live on in our children and grandchildren, and we can do good deeds in the world, so that our descendants have a better life than we did.

However, a moment's thought will dispel this hope. If we are nought but atoms, then so are our children and our grandchildren. All the future generations who will inherit the goodness we create, will in turn become dust and be lost forever. And this will go on until the universe ends, or humanity becomes extinct, or perhaps if science enables us to prolong our lives indefinitely, which might not even be possible.

So is the situation hopeless? Perhaps not, but the answer might lie at the edges of current knowledge, not at its heart.

We have known for a long time that people in the grip of a life-threatening illness or accident sometimes experience an NDE or "near-death experience". There are quite a few parts to this experience, and it varies, but here are some common elements. For instance, persons at the brink of death may find themselves floating or levitating, and looking down at their own (completely inert) bodies.

They might also have strong feelings of serenity and joy. Light also seems to be an important factor; they may move through a tunnel of light and enter a realm that appears to be aglow with a light that seems to be a spiritual, rather than physical, phenomenon. They may also meet previously-deceased relatives, undergo a detailed review of their lives to date, and encounter a being who resembles a deity, before returning to their physical bodies.

It is very difficult (some might say impossible) to prove that any of this is real. What would it take to prove, to a die-hard sceptic, that we survive physical death? One of the closest accounts we have to a demonstration that we exist independently of our mortal bodies, is the experience of singer-songwriter Pam Reynolds, who in 1991 underwent an operation, during which, for a while, she was clinically dead, with no blood flowing through her brain and no brain-wave activity.

Later, she is said to have given accurate descriptions of the medical procedures she had undergone, which were corroborated by the hospital staff, and it is very difficult to see how she could have sensed or known about these procedures, in the condition she was in.

So, do this and other accounts of NDEs provide proof that we survive, beyond all reasonable doubt? Well, no they don't. But they are very interesting and consistent, nonetheless. Science has not been able to validate them (and maybe it will always be thus) but neither has it been able to disprove or debunk them, completely.

And there is more. People who have experienced them also find that their fear of dying has diminished, or has disappeared altogether. There was a study carried out in the Netherlands of survivors of cardiac arrest, which was published in the medical journal The Lancet in 2001. This study confirmed that people who had an NDE also had a significant increase in a belief in an afterlife, and a decrease in their fear of death, compared with those people who had not had the experience.

This is not proof that we each have a spirit or soul essence that survives the dissolution of our physical bodies, but it is an indication, perhaps, a sign, a ray of hope. It is difficult to see how a mere hallucination or dream, however vivid, could predictably have such a life-changing effect.

It will have no bearing on the purely physical response we have to the prospect of death. When immediate danger comes, our animal nature will always prompt us to fight or flee. But when we are lying alone in the dark at three in the morning, anxiously contemplating our mortality, then it may well provide some solace.

Perhaps the NDE phenomenon is the best antidote we can reasonably expect to have, for the fear of death.

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