Academic journal article Merrill-Palmer Quarterly

Development of Afterlife Beliefs in Childhood: Relationship to Parent Beliefs and Testimony

Academic journal article Merrill-Palmer Quarterly

Development of Afterlife Beliefs in Childhood: Relationship to Parent Beliefs and Testimony

Article excerpt

Most adults worldwide, regardless of culture or religious affiliation, believe that the mind continues to exist after the death of the body (Bering, 2011; Davis, Smith, & Marsden, 1998; Greeley & Hout, 1999; Lambert, 2001; Pereira, Falsea, & Sá-Savaira, 2012). Moreover, evidence has begun to accumulate indicating that the belief in a psychological afterlife emerges early in development (Astuti & Harris, 2008; Bering & Bjorklund, 2004; Bering, Hernández-Blasi, & Bjorklund, 2005; Harris & Giménez, 2005). Two views on the developmental origins of afterlife beliefs have been proposed. On one view (Bering, 2006, 2011), afterlife beliefs are intuitive: They are the by-product of constraints in our mentalizing ability or theory of mind (ToM). On the second view (Astuti & Harris, 2008; Harris & Giménez, 2005), afterlife beliefs are culturally constructed: They are founded on the beliefs and testimony that children are exposed to in their sociocultural environment. The present study investigates the development of afterlife reasoning in children aged 5-10 years and its relationship to parents' beliefs and parent-child discourse about death and the afterlife.

Are Afterlife Beliefs the Result of Theory of Mind Constraints?

Bering and colleagues have cited evidence indicating that afterlife beliefs emerge in the preschool years (Bering & Bjorklund, 2004; Bering et ah, 2005). In one of their key experiments (Bering & Bjorklund, 2004, Exp. 3), children aged 5 and 11 years and a group of adults were presented with a story enacted with puppets in which an anthropomorphized mouse was killed and eaten by an alligator. At the end of the story, participants were asked a set of questions about the continuity or cessation of the mouse's biological (e.g., growing old), psychobiological (e.g., getting sleepy), perceptual (e.g., being able to see), and mental (e.g., having desires, emotions, knowledge) processes. Most of the 5-year-olds responded that the mouse's biological processes would cease to function after death. However, 5-year-olds were significantly more likely than older children or adults to respond that the purely mental processes (desires, epistemic states, and emotions) of the dead animal would continue to function after its death. This reverse developmental trend-that is, younger children attributing more postdeath continuity to the mouse's mental processes than older children and adults-was replicated in a follow-up study by Bering et al. (2005) with Spanish children attending a Catholic school and a public nonreligious school.

Bering (2006, 2011) interprets the aforementioned findings as evidence that the human mind is predisposed to believe in a mental afterlife. In Bering's view, children are endowed with a natural tendency to attribute mental states to the self and to others (ToM), which is the source of their belief in a mental afterlife. Adopting a simulationist approach to ToM, Bering (2006) hypothesizes that when children and adults try to assess whether a particular process continues after death, they rely on their past experience. It is easy for them to recall past instances when their various biological, psychobiological, and perceptual processes were suspended (times when they were unable to breathe, see, listen, and so forth), so they can easily simulate the absence of these processes in their mind and apply it to a dead agent. However, since they have never previously experienced lack of consciousness, it is very difficult for them to imagine what it is like to be without thoughts, beliefs, desires, or knowledge.1

This inability to simulate mental nonexistence is, in Bering's view, "an impassable cognitive constraint" (Bering et ah, 2005, p. 588), which motivates children, and adults alike, to attribute psychological continuity to the dead. The ToM constraints account further suggests that sociocultural factors have a lesser influence on the development of afterlife beliefs. …

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