A belief in human immortality—that our bodies die but our spirits continue—is a common thread that connects nearly every religion and spiritual practice. The persistence of this belief across time and borders has intrigued researchers: just why is the idea of immortality so pervasive? Is it something we’ve passed down through the ages in the teachings of religion and society? Or could it be something intrinsic and hardwired? A surprising new study conducted with children suggests the latter—that a belief in human immortality is strongly intuitive.
For the study, published in the journal Child Development, researchers from Boston University interviewed 283 children and got a glimpse into their young minds regarding their ideas about prelife—life before conception.
Most religions teach of an afterlife, but few express any beliefs or ideas of a prelife. If researchers could ask children questions about what might happen during a prelife, they could explore immortality while avoiding any preconceived ideas and cultural beliefs.
The child participants came from two distinct cultures in Ecuador: the first group was from an indigenous Shuar village in the Amazon Basin. Lead researcher and postdoctoral fellow Natalie Emmons chose these children because their culture has no set prelife beliefs. Emmons also believed that these indigenous children—who have constant birth and death exposure through hunting and farming—would be more inclined to lean toward an earthy, must see it to believe it type of rationality regarding prelife.
The second group of participants included children from an urban area near Quito, Ecuador, most of whom were Roman Catholic (which teaches that life begins at conception). If cultural beliefs were going to sway the results at all, thought Emmons, both the indigenous and urban children would lean away from the idea of life before conception.
During the study, the children looked at drawings of a baby, a young woman, and the same young woman while pregnant. They were then asked questions about their abilities, thoughts, and feelings during each stage: as babies, as fetuses, and before conception.
Both groups of children gave strikingly similar answers. They reasoned that their physical bodies didn't exist before birth, and that they didn't have the ability to think or remember. And yet, both groups believed that their emotions and desires were present before birth.
Emmons said that the children didn’t even realize they were contradicting themselves. Even those who understood the biology of reproduction seemed to believe that they had existed in some sort of eternal form—and that form consisted of emotions and desires.
For example, the children generally answered that they didn't have eyes during prelife, and therefore they were unable to see things before birth, and yet they reported that they were happy about getting to meet their mother soon, or sad that they were separated from their family.