Brain Scientist Thinks Their Brains Are Out To Kill Them And Get Away With It

The peer-reviewed paper by Messrs Dor-Ziderman, Lutz, and Goldstein is in NeuroImage (the journal went with the hip no space) “Prediction-based neural mechanisms for shielding the self from existential threat“.

One such mechanism known to man for millennia for shielding against existential threats is the shield. The idea is to hold up something stiff to block the life-taking whatsit that’s pestering you.

This was so well known that you wouldn’t think even an academic in need of papers would find it a worthy subject to write about. But this type of shield is not what our trio was thinking of. From the abstract:

The human mind has an automatic tendency to avoid awareness of its mortality. How this protective mechanism is implemented at the neuronal level is unknown. Here we test the hypothesis that prediction-based mechanisms mediate death-denial by shielding the self from existential threat.

One gathers that Dor-Ziderman, Lutz, and Goldstein had never been to Mexico during a Day of the Dead ceremony. Nor have they heard of memento mori.

These objects took many forms, but were, and still are in many communities, in essence a token which reminded its bearer that he would permanently cease owing any more of his income to the IRS.

Remember that you will die and prepared for that death.

Christians learned the idea from stoics, and a good idea it is, too. Even from Wiki we have a song that was the top of the charts before our current musical obsession with sex:

Life is short, and shortly it will end;
Death comes quickly and respects no one,
Death destroys everything and takes pity on no one.
To death we are hastening, let us refrain from sinning.

There were, as anybody with a passing familiarity of history knows, similar ideas among many other peoples. It is only our modern age that thinks talking about death in poor taste. Hail Mary, pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

Our trio either exhibit odd lacunae in the knowledge of memento mori, or their own personal fears caused them to think what they felt was universal. Not just them, I hasten to add, but “researchers” in this field. “Death-denial has been empirically studied for more than thirty years and by hundreds of experiments, mainly under the Terror Management Theory”.

Terror management theory.

They start their paper saying what is not true: “the human mind goes to great lengths to avoid awareness of its mortality.” Some minds, and only in some times, might do so. But not all, and not always. From that false notion and incorrect observation they blame the brain for hiding the idea of death from the brains’ owners.

More abstract:

We provide evidence that self-specific predictive processes are downregulated during the perception of death-related linguistic stimuli and that this mechanism can predict fear-of-death. Using a magnetoencephalography visual mismatch paradigm, we show that the brain’s automatic prediction response to deviancy is eliminated when death words and self-face representations are coupled, but remains present when coupled to other-face or to negative words.

Anybody else smell some wee p-values comin’? And some wild experimentin’? Yeehaw!

Participants were shown a (death-related or negative) prime word for 1 sec. After that, underneath the word, 3-6 repetitions of standard (either self or other faces) and then a deviant face (50% self-other morphs) were shown. Faces were shown for 250 ms followed by a blank image for 350 ms. Participants’ task was to press a button when a target stimuli (face with sunglasses) was detected. There were 360 total trials delivered in 3 blocks. 90 target trials (randomly appearing), 4 conditions averaging of 67.5 trials per condition

People were strapped to a chair, shown the word grave, which is a death-word, then a picture of their own face—which may have reminded some of death, depending if they had been drinking the night before—and then they were shown a “deviant” face, which was theirs crossed with something else. I couldn’t discover whether the deviant mask used Hilary Clinton or some other frightening figure as a basis. Skip it.

We hypothesized that death salience would generate a context in which probabilistic representations of ‘death is related to others (non-self)’ would decrease the likelihood that incoming sensory stimuli (self-face) would be processed as self-related information. We expected the brain’s predictive system to falter (a diminished vMMR effect) under existential threat when coupled with self-, but not with other-, perception, and that this self-other distinction would be unique to death-related (and not negative) stimuli

In other words, the button-pushing time would be different in the 24 people as measured by brain scans, and that differences in button-pushing time would confirm their worst fears about brains hiding death.

Of course “Event-related fields (ERFs) were calculated by first low-pass filtering the data using a two-pass Butterworth filter with a filter order of 4 and a frequency cutoff of 40 Hz.” Averages were taken. Et cetera. Then came cluster analysis. My eyes blurred over the rest. Then arrived p-values.

P-values were wee for differences in massaged microseconds in some way or another. They also constructed some kind of “death-denial index”, which of course had nothing to do with denying death and everything to do with pushing buttons when Hillary Clinton’s face showed up imposed over their own.

The paper was endless. And endlessly silly. Somehow “the brain mounts a second strategy”, among other things, to keep the person from relating death words and strange pictures to the brain-holder’s death. How does the brain, the sneak bugger, do this? It sounds like a ghost in the machine with its own plot and notions.

Given that death-reminders, even as subtle as a death-related word, are ubiquitous; and given that the process of death-denial affects basic low-level perceptual processes — the degree to which the brain’s cognitive capacities might benefit when freed from the imperative of constantly monitoring for and altering the perception of death reminders is an open empirical question.

One of the authors told a newspaper “The brain does not accept that death is related to us.” That’s what philosophers call bullshit.

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6 Thoughts

  1. Mock all you want, but these seekers-after-truth used the “magnetoencephalography visual mismatch paradigm” (MVMP).

    No one can argue against “Science,” especially when they use MVMP!

    Or is your brain rejecting Science as well as your eventual death?
    (/sarc)

    It appears that these poor suckers, toiling away with their magentoencephalographs and their simulation software that makes pretty pictures, never studied literature or poetry. For a huge chunk of literature and poetry is based on the theme of man’s mortality–or the exact opposite of their silly postulation of the brain’s “death-denial.”

    For example, Shelley’s Ozymandias illustrates the poet’s obsessive death-awareness.

    “In his essay “On Life,” (1815?) Shelley writes that man has “a spirit within him at enmity with dissolution and nothingness.” In one way or another, we all rebel against the oblivion to which death finally condemns us.” So, we don’t “deny death,” we struggle endlessly, while alive, with its reality. Pretty much the exact opposite of the brain guys’ assumptions.

    But maybe Shelley did not publish in a peer-reviewed journal, so the brain guys missed that reference.

  2. You have made an either/or proposition out of acknowledging death. While the religious among us (decreasing by the second, it seems) will claim to rejoice in death, sit for 10 minutes and picture your child lying dead in front of you. Not so easy to do, is it?

    Complete terror of death, on the other hand, is common in communist countries because they see it all the time and need some way to avoid ending the mental anguish associated with their horrific lives. For their humanity to continue, they must live. (The civilization falls if this stops happening.)

    There is a middle ground, where one accepts death but is not almost nonchalant about it nor blocking the horrors of it. People can and do know they can die. They don’t dwell on it. They dwell on living in good conditions and what is in the present, leaving the future to itself.

    Currently, death is often welcomed due to the very same non-scientific twits writing garbage about how worthless live is. So much better we just drop these people on an island and see how things work out than succumbing to their insanity.
    In part, the paper simply pointed out the reality of life. Those who dwell on death end up dead earlier or are miserable. Those who believe in life after death or reincarnation live full lives without a lot of fear, but without actual confrontation of one’s on mortality (Sure, they buy life insurance and may even plan their funeral, but the emotional impact is not necessarily there. It’s more a mental exercise than the actual emotional reaction felt when one suddenly finds out they have two weeks to live due to a severe illness.). They just used a lot of non-scientific garbage to try and prove it. The constant use of images and words to “prove” thoughts and feelings in a subject is purely political. It’s not scientific. We know people react, we just hope it’s in the direction needed to sell you on some stupid idea or sale.

    (I’ve never heard a philosopher call BS. It would destroy the entire profession.)

  3. @sheri

    I’ve never heard a philosopher call BS. It would destroy the entire profession

    Harry Frankfurt wrote a delightful essay “On Bullshit.” Does that count?

  4. “we show that the brain’s automatic prediction response to deviancy is eliminated” ?
    Can somebody explain that to me?

  5. A Butterworth filter passes all date perfectly when that data is smaller than the cut-off. So, why is is it a two pass filter? If software a Butterworth filter is automatically perfect kf you implement it as a simple test.

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