Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Findings

womb

(Photo: Mopic/Shutterstock)

Intuitions of Our Immortality: Visions of Life Before Conception

• February 03, 2014 • 2:00 AM

(Photo: Mopic/Shutterstock)

New research suggests children have a strong sense they existed before they were conceived.

We’ve all ruminated about the possibility of life after death. But what about the notion of life before birth—or even conception?

While Christian theology denies such a thing is possible, the concept that life precedes physical fertilization is a given for people who believe in reincarnation. But is such an idea learned? Or is it based on an innate feeling about our own immortality?

Newly published research that analyzes answers given by two groups of children—one urban, one rural—suggests the latter. It finds youngsters intuitively believe that their own existence, at least in the form of feelings and wants, pre-dated their conception.

“Even kids who had biological knowledge about reproduction still seemed to think that they had existed in some sort of eternal form,” lead author Natalie Emmons, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at Boston University, told the institution’s news service. “And that form really seemed to be about emotions and desires.”

Very early on, it seems we develop a feeling that we existed before our bodies came into being. From there, it’s an easy leap to believe we will continue to exist after our bodies fall away.

Emmons and co-author Deborah Kelemen interviewed two sets of children in Ecuador—one in an urban area outside the capital of Quito, where the population is overwhelmingly Catholic, and another in an indigenous Shuar village in the Amazon basin. They were curious to discover whether the Shuar children, who grow up in a natural environment and learn early on about the cycle of life and death, would have different assumptions than kids raised in an urban setting.

Both groups were divided by age into four blocks (ages five-six, seven-eight, nine-10, and 11-12). All were shown three drawings: One depicting their mother before they were conceived, a second showing their mother while she was pregnant, and a third featuring the child as an infant.

While looking at the image of their pre-pregnancy mother, the kids were asked specific questions about their “pre-life capacities.” After answering such questions as “Could you be hungry?” and “Could you feel sad?” they were asked to explain the reasoning behind their answers.

Surprisingly, the researchers found the urban and rural children gave pretty much the same answers. By ages seven and eight, they rejected the notion that they had “bodily capacities” such as sight or hearing before conception.

But at that stage of development, urban children endorsed the idea that their emotions functioned during the pre-life period 70% of the time. Rural kids did so 55 percent of the time. The notion that they felt desires before conception (such as the wish to be born) was endorsed by rural seven- and eight-year-olds 62 percent of the time, and their urban counterparts 46 percent of the time.

“Rural children never provided spiritual responses, confirming that religious cultural scripts were not responsible for their response patterns,” the researchers write. Rather, their beliefs—like those of their urban counterparts—seem to reflect “an unlearned cognitive bias, rooted in intuitive conceptions of personhood.”

The results suggest that, despite belief among most scientists that the mind is a product of the brain, we possess an intuitive sense of self that is distinct from our bodies. Very early on, it seems we develop a feeling that we existed before our bodies came into being. From there, it’s an easy leap to believe we will continue to exist after our bodies fall away.

Perhaps religion developed, in part, to codify these deeply felt beliefs.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.