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Death And The Great Beyond: How We Grapple With The Idea Of Dying

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Getty Images/Science Photo Libra

Many people tend to push frightening realities out of mind rather than face them head-on. That's especially true when it comes to the terrifying event that no one can escape — death. Psychologist Sheldon Solomon says people may suppress conscious thoughts about their mortality, but unconscious ones still seep through.

In the book The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life, Solomon, along with psychologists Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski, illustrate how death anxiety influences people's behavior in ways they would never suspect. The fear of death is so overwhelming, they say, that people go to great lengths to seek security; they embrace belief systems that give them a sense of meaning — religion, values, community.

Through decades of studies, Solomon and his colleagues have shown that people suppress their fear of mortality by supporting those who are similar to themselves and by shoring up their self-esteem.

Even when people do acknowledge death, they tell stories that assure them that death is not what it seems — that there are ways to live forever.

Philosopher Stephen Cave says that all of these immortality stories can be boiled down to just four narratives, repeated over and over again in different forms. Each one presents a clever plan to cheat mortality, but raises new dilemmas.

This week on Hidden Brain, mortality and the paths to eternal life.

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, Parth Shah, Laura Kwerel and Thomas Lu. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can follow us on Twitter @HiddenBrain and listen for Hidden Brain stories on your local public radio station.

Additional Resources:

The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life, by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski, 2015

The Birth and Death of Meaning, by Ernest Becker, 1971

The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker, 1973

Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization, by Stephen Cave, 2012

The story of Jesus and the empty tomb, Mark 16:1-8, circa 66-70 C.E.

Consciousness at the Crossroads: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on Brain Science and Buddhism," edited by Zara Houshmand, Robert B. Livingston and B. Alan Wallace, 1999

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Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Rhaina Cohen is a producer and editor for NPR's Enterprise Storytelling unit, working across Embedded, Invisibilia, and Rough Translation.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
Laura Kwerel
Jennifer Schmidt is a senior producer for Hidden Brain. She is responsible for crafting the complex stories that are told on the show. She researches, writes, gathers field tape, and develops story structures. Some highlights of her work on Hidden Brain include episodes about the causes of the #MeToo movement, how diversity drives creativity, and the complex psychology of addiction.