However, even if you concede to Lucretius’s argument, the fact remains that the awareness of our mortality generates a significant threat to our psychological well-being. A large corpus of research on terror management theory details how mortality saliency affects our self-esteem, worldview, among others.
In a recent fMRI study, Quilin and colleagues (2011) extends our knowledge on terror management theory by exploring the neural correlates of mortality salience. They were interested in the activity of the amygdala, rostral anterior cingulated gyrus (ACC), ventral tegmental & caudate nucleus (CN).
In this within-subjects experiment, thoughts of death were induced in the participants by requiring them to agree or disagree with a statement such as I am afraid of a painful death. Statements about dental pain were used in the control condition.
The authors found higher activations in:
- Right amygdala
- Left ACC
- Right CN
This area seems promising to me and more research needs to be done to help us better understand how we deal with threats of mortality. It would also be interesting to look at how religious affiliations affect the way the brain deal with existential fears. If indeed 'mortality threats functions as a potential for anxiety rather than as experienced anxiety', what can neuroimaging techniques tell us about whether believing in a higher being help us deal with the potential or experienced anxiety resulting from mortality threats?
Quirin M, Loktyushin A, Arndt J, Küstermann E, Lo YY, Kuhl J, & Eggert L (2011). Existential neuroscience: a functional magnetic resonance imaging investigation of neural responses to reminders of one's mortality. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience PMID: 21266462
Rosenbaum, S. (1989). The Symmetry Argument: Lucretius Against the Fear of Death Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 50 (2) DOI: 10.2307/2107964