Sunday, February 13, 2011

Existential Neuroscience

Is it reasonable to fear death? If you agree with Lucretius, you will say no. In what is known as the Symmetry Argument, Lucretius contends that that the time before our existence is similar to the time of our future non-existence. And since we do not fear the time before we existed, it is not reasonable to fear our future non-existence i.e. death. (See Rosenbaum, 1989 for a more detailed exposition)

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
They suggested that the activations in the amygdala and ACC may indicate ‘non-conscious, latent markers of threat aroused by mortality salience’ and that further investigations may reveal the role of the CN in regards to the defensive mechanisms that we employ against mortality threat.

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


  1. Taking a wider view: It would be interesting to see what te brain does when religious and other secular strategies to manage existential terror of the common death fate and consider if their are any implications of this eg: managing inter-faith or faith based/secular conflicts.

  2. For a start you might enjoy the book, 'The Denial of Death', by cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker published in 1973.

    Drawing on the works of Søren Kierkegaard, Sigmund Freud, and Otto Rank, it is both a psychological and philosophical treatise on how human civilization is ultimately a symbolic defense mechanism against the awareness of our mortality and impermanence, which in turn acts as the emotional and intellectual response to our basic survival mechanism.

    Man therefore engages in "immortality projects" (e.g. immortality through art, immortality through wealth, etc) to become part of something eternal. This, in turn, gives man the transcendental feeling that his life has meaning, purpose and significance in the grand scheme of things.

    Extending from this basic premise, Becker argues how mental illness (such as depression and schizophrenia as a result of faulty engagement in immortality projects) and war (as a result of incompatible immortality systems between one's culture/civilization and another's) may result.

    While this isn't specific to direct studies of the brain, it provides a pretty insightful backdrop on matters of existential angst against death and inter-faith conflict.