Most people, of most faiths, and even some atheists, believe that all or part of the body, mind and/or soul survives, transcending death. Is this because of man’s evolutionary brain, conditioning from our parents, priests or peers? Taking an impassionate look at the hard facts, the evidence, there is virtually no solid evidence that humans experience life after death and immortality for their core being. So why is it so persistent?
Boston University think they have the answer. It’s developed in “Pre-life”, not just before birth, but before conception.
A study published a couple of weeks ago in the online edition of “Child Development”by a team led by postdoctoral fellow Natalie Emmons (pictured above) illuminates this area following interviews with 283 children from two distinct cultures in Ecuador. The research suggests that the human bias toward thinking we are immortal is a part of human intuition that emerges, naturally, in our early in life- before we are conceived. And that’s not all, the theory goes on to suggest that the part of us that is eternal, we believe, is not our skills or ability to reason, but instead our hopes, desires and emotions. In a nutshell we are what we feel. And we feel immortal.
The co-author of the paper, Deborah Keleman, pictured above, an Associate Professor of Psychology at Boston University, said:
“This work shows that it’s possible for science to study religious belief. At the same time, it helps us understand some universal aspects of human cognition and the structure of the mind. By focusing on prelife, we could see if culture causes these beliefs to appear, or if they appear spontaneously”.
It may come as no surprise to learn that most studies on immortality have focused on people’s views of the afterlife, often coloured by religious indoctrination. Both children and adults seem to agree that physical bodily needs, such as hunger and thirst, end when people die, but our mental capacities, such as thinking or feeling emotion, continue in some form or another. But all previous studies have not tried to address the question where do these beliefs come from? Emmons suggests that they are not developed through exposure to religious teaching, reading, learning or even the television, but from our intuition. Just as children learn to talk without formal instruction, the research suggests that intuitively they develop the belief that part of their mind could exist apart from their body.
Emmons interviewed children from an indigenous Shuar village in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador. She chose this group because they have no cultural pre-life beliefs, and she suspected that indigenous children, who have regular exposure to birth and death through simple hunting and farming, would have a more rational, biologically-based view of the time before they were conceived. Another “control” group was needed for comparison, so she also interviewed children from an urban area near Quito, where the children were Roman Catholics. That religion teaches that life begins only at conception. Emmons was looking to see if cultural influences ruled all, so that both urban and indigenous children should reject the idea of life before birth.
Emmons showed the children drawings of a baby, a young woman, and the same woman while pregnant, then asked a series of questions about the child’s abilities, thoughts and emotions during each period: as babies, in the womb, and then, before conception.
The results were not those expected. Both groups gave very similar answers, despite their very different cultures. The children in both groups reasoned that their bodies didn’t exist before birth. However, both groups also said that their emotions and desires existed before they were born. For example, while children generally told researchers that they didn’t have eyes and couldn’t see things before birth, they often reported being happy that they would soon meet their mother, or sad that they were apart from their family.
So why would humans have evolved this universal belief ?
The answer Emmons suggests is not science-based, it’s due to the by-product of our highly developed social reasoning. She said:
“We’re really good at figuring out what people are thinking, what their emotions are, what their desires are. We tend to see people as the sum of their mental states, and desires and emotions may be particularly helpful when predicting their behaviour. Because this ability is so useful and so powerful, it flows over into other parts of our thinking. We sometimes see connections where potentially none exist, we hope there’s a master plan for the universe, we see purpose when there is none, and we imagine that a soul survives without a body.”
So standing back from all this, it does not seem to me to take us any closer to attaining or confirming our immortality. The study merely confirms, in my view, the ability to convince ourselves that we shall live forever in one form or another. Personally, I’m still looking for the elixir of life, the tome of immortality, or the DNA equivalent of the God-particle that will stop our bodies from ageing.
We’ve come a long way since the speaking clock, but transactions over the phone or online can still sometimes be frustrating affairs. Endless options repeated just to get your bank balance, and not having a 24 hour service can be a pain. But if you want to ask something, anything about the new BMW electric car, the i3, you’ll get a swift and expert response… from a computer. The BMW I genius is a remarkable programme, known as “The Brain”.
Dimitry Aksenov, 21 years old, founded technology company London Brand Management in 2011. The company provides an AI service for big companies who want to outsource customer/staff interactions to computers.
BMW UK marketing director Chris Brownridge said:
“BMW I Genius is capable of understanding each question and responding accurately every time as if you were talking to an expert from the company. The system operates around the clock, allowing the consumer to ask any question relating to the “i” cars but without the hassle of having to pick up the phone or go into a dealership.”
LBM’s system is cloud-based, and so it can be accessed from anywhere . It can deal with thousands of enquiries simultaneously, and its database has a virtually unlimited memory capacity. It’s the equivalent of having hundreds or even thousands of call centre staff, with the added advamtage that it remembers and learns, and there is no downtime. Much better then than our human brain?
Aksenov provides the technology to brands under licence with a one-off implementation fee to “teach” the system. Unlike hiring humans, the AI only has to learn once and that’s it for good. He said:
“Within five years we will have a system that truly knows more than a human could ever know and is more efficient at delivering information. It will replace many of the boring jobs that are currently done by humans. Unfortunately, this may take some jobs from the economy by replacing human beings with a machine. But it is the future.”
“about the brain as a car, [and] what we have created is a car which has its engine on the roof and the gear box in the trunk. You can study the car parts but you can’t drive it.”
In one experiment, the researchers grew a mini-brain using cells taken from a patient with microcephaly. That disease (meaning “small head”) is when the size of the skull limits the size of the brain and therefore results in impaired brain function and limited longevity. They found that the brain grown from microcephaly-affected stem cells resulted in a stunted mini brain – mimicking the effects of the disease.
Neuroscientist Professor Paul Matthews, from Imperial College London, said the study offered the promise of a ‘major new tool’ for understanding major developmental disorders.
But not everyone is bubbling with enthusiasm for this breakthrough: Dr Dean Burnett, lecturer in psychiatry at the University of Cardiff, said;
“Saying you can replicate the workings of the brain with tissue in a dish is like inventing the abacus and saying you can use it to run the latest version of Microsoft Windows.”
So the bottom line is that while this is progress, we’ll be assembling no Franklenstein monsters, or finding a cure for brain diseases just yet.
The brain. Famously said by Woody Allen to be his “second-favourite organ”. The brain. The key component used by Baron von Frankenstein to create his creature (too bad that he had to use the damaged brain of a criminal instead of a healthy brain- damn that clumsy Igor!).
Whereas organ transplants are common these days, there has been no known attempt to effect a human brain transplant. But advances in understanding that most complex part of our body are being made.
A 65 year old European woman donated her brain to science five years ago. Over the next half a decade, the brain was sliced into extremely thin strips and then studied and copied into a computer programme known as “BigBrain”. The brain can be viewed at virtually cellular level- zooming in to a resolution of just 20 microns across (a millimetre is 1000 microns). The information is being shared; reserachers worldwide are able to download digital slices of the computerised BigBrain to assist their own research projects.
Prof. Katrin Amunts at Dusseldorf’s Heinrich Heine University said:
“It is impossible to understand the function of the brain without knowing its anatomy, and its microstructure in particular. Brain structure and function go hand-in-hand.”
The donated brain was immersed in paraffin and transported to the University in Germany. A custom built bacon-slicer was used to cut the brain into nearly 7,500 separate slices, each the thickness of plastic food wrap. The slices were then stained, mounted on slides, and then scanned onto a computer. At McGill University in Canada, computer scientists then used this to create a 3D model, BigBrain, taking up a terabyte of computer memory. The project is ongoing; the next step is to use the BigBrain to simulate the entire workings of the brain.
At what point might BigBrain comes self-aware within the computer? We are told that that is not possible…