Hearses, coffins and the meaning of life

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

By Wray Herbert

In the darkly funny film classic Harold and Maude, Harold is a 19-year-old who is obsessed with death and dying. He repeatedly fakes his own suicide, drives around in a hearse, and attends strangers’ funerals as a pastime. At one of these funerals he meets Maude, a 79-year-old with the same morbid hobby, and in one of the most unlikely romances on film, the melancholy young man and the vivacious concentration camp survivor fall in love. Maude’s life ends with her suicide on her 80th birthday, but it’s not a depressing death. Indeed, the final scene shows Harold putting aside his morbid ways and embracing life anew.

Harold and Maude is one of the cleverest films to wrestle with existential themes, but the interplay of morbidity and zest for life is a recurring theme in art and literature. And in real lives as well: People who have close brushes with death often report a sharpened appetite even for the ordinary stuff of daily life. Facing one’s mortality appears to give new meaning to being alive.

But why would this be? It’s not obvious. One can imagine becoming negative and fearful when faced with life’s fragility, or reckless, but that doesn’t seem to happen. What cognitive crunching transforms morbidity into hope, mourning into joy? In other words, what was taking place in young Harold’s neurons when his soul mate’s death lifted his spirits out of the doldrums?

Some new science offers one possible explanation for this cognitive phenomenon. A team of cognitive scientists at the University of Missouri, headed by Laura King, decided to look at the death-and-zest interplay in terms of mental heuristics. Heuristic is just scientific jargon for the ancient, deep-wired rules that shape many of our thoughts and actions, and the Missouri scientists were especially interested in two of these rules. The so-called scarcity heuristic states: If something is rare, it must be valuable. This explains, for example, why we prize gold, even though steel is much more useful. The flip side of the scarcity heuristic, often called the value heuristic, states: If we desire something very much, it must be scarce.

Neither of these cognitive rules is necessarily correct or useful all the time, but they are both powerful—powerful enough to explain the common intertwining of morbidity and zest. Because scarcity and value are so tightly linked in the human mind, King and her colleagues reasoned, the mind might interpret death as a scarcity of life, which according to the theory should enhance its perceived value. They decided to test this idea in their laboratory.

The experiments were fairly straightforward. In one, for example, the researchers had a large group of volunteers complete word-find puzzles—those grids of letters with words embedded in them. For some of the volunteers, the embedded words were death-related, like tombstone and coffin, while for others—the controls—they were pain-related, like headache. Then all the volunteers completed three widely used measures of life’s meaning and purpose. The findings were simple and unambiguous: Those with death on their mind found life more meaningful and, well, simply better. They valued life more when primed by funerals and hearses.

So that’s the scarcity principle at work. But the scientists wanted to test their idea the other way around. That is, if it is indeed the heuristic mind finding meaning in death, then loving and embracing life should also enhance awareness of death’s constant presence. They tested this idea in an ingenious way. They approached strangers on the streets of Columbia, Missouri, and asked them to read a brief prose passage. Some read about how valuable the human body was if the organs were traded on the market—in the neighborhood of $45 million, the equivalent of “400 Porsches, 265 houses, or 45 luxury yachts.” The idea was to spark thoughts about life’s monetary worth. Others read about how the body was made up of common chemicals with a total value of about $4.50—the equivalent of “a Big Mac Value Meal at McDonald’s.”

Then they had all the volunteers do a different word test, this one requiring word completions like coff__ and de__. These words could be completed with either death-related words like coffin and dead, or with neutral words like coffee and deal. The idea was to see how much the two different groups of volunteers were thinking about death and dying. And the findings, reported in the December issue of the journal Psychological Science, were again clear: As the value heuristic would predict, those who were imagining themselves as the $45 million bionic man were also focused on the inevitability of dying—much more than those primed to devalue life. Valuing life made it seem scarcer and thus more fragile.

So the reality of death does not render life meaningless. Indeed, the opposite. And what’s more, when we embrace life, death is not pushed out of awareness; it lurks just outside of consciousness, easily accessible. That’s a psychological reality that Maude knew well from experience, and 19-year-old Harold was just beginning to sense.

For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit the “Full Frontal Psychology” blog at True/Slant. Excerpts from “We’re Only Human” also appear regularly in the magazine Scientific American Mind. Wray Herbert’s book on the heuristic mind will be published by Crown in fall of 2010.

posted by Wray Herbert @ 11:37 AM