Studying children's belief in the afterlife

Do kids naturally believe in an afterlife, or is it something they’re taught? Jesse Bering from the University of Arkansas has developed some clever experiments to find the answers to questions like these, described in a recent issue of American Scientist.

For instance, Bering would tell the kids a fable about a mouse eaten by an alligator, and then ask them what kinds of physical or mental functions they thought the dead mouse retained. He found the answers lay along a spectrum—almost none of the kids thought the mouse would be eating something after death (biological behavior), bur increasing numbers thought it might feel hunger, sense something, feel something, want something, or know something. Interestingly, it also took the kids longer to decide as they progressed down this spectrum.

And the younger the children, the more behaviors and feelings they attributed to the dead mouse. The implication here is key: belief in supernatural things is not simply based on cultural indoctrination but is somehow intrinsic in the kids’ young minds. More acculturation—and/or just growing up—actually reduces the tendency to supernatural belief.

Bering’s overall stance on the origin of religion and belief in the supernatural is that it was originally a natural outgrowth of humans systems for making inferences about intentional agents (compare this to Boyer, who emphasizes that the idea of dead people doing things is “memorable” due to its counterintuitiveness). The belief in the supernatural was then found adaptive and selected for due to its effect in preventing people from engaging in destructive behaviors even when they would not be caught.

5 Responses to “Studying children's belief in the afterlife”

  1. Sed Says:

    If you contact Jesse Bering by email, he will kindly send you the article (as a pdf file) back.

  2. Jack Richardson Says:

    Emerging from the Void and
    Returning into human life
    Echos of eternity
    Linger in the mind.

  3. wolfgang brinck Says:

    Attributing human mental factulties to evolutionary pressure is an interesting exercise, but at this point is not science. Scientific theories must be testable and disprovable. Scientific theories are not proven, only disproven.

    In any case, attributing mental features to evolutionary pressure would be a scientific enterprise only if we could actually set up an experiment that would show that two test groups, in this case, one with a belief in an afterlife and another without it had different survival rates. Seems kind of hard to do. Until someone comes up with some kinds of actual experiments to test the assertion on mental feature x offering survival advantage, they need to be regarded as interesting speculation and not science.

    I forgot the guys name, a neurologist who just for grins submitted an article to a scientific journal that proposed survival advantages of blondness just to make a point about how anyone can play this game and how ridiculous it is found to his dismay that the article was actually accepted for publication.

    Anyway, speculation about evolutionary advantage of various mental features is just speculation and not science unless it can be tested.


  4. Tony Rendle Says:

    Would you please email the article.

  5. Supernatural Season Says:

    I like to watch Supernatural and also Lost, becous the sexy cast lol. BTW found this site on google, searched for some TV Show Plot.

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