Friday, March 21, 2014

Scientific Evidence of a Pre-life?

There is an unshakable belief by most humans, irrespective of religion or cultural background, that they have a soul or some essence of themselves which is immortal. The question of spiritual immortality has usually been approached from the point of view of what happens to us after we die. But the same question can be asked in a different form: if there is a spirit and it is immortal, where were we before we were born? Though most of the lay literature has been focused on life after death, there is a small but growing popular literature (1,2,3), as well as websites (4), on pre -life memories, usually by small children. This literature is all based on anecdotal stories and thus disregarded by scientists.

A paper has recently appeared, however, in Child Development (5) by a Boston University team which tried to study a child’s conception of the pre-life from which he/she came. Their aim was to find out where beliefs of an immortal soul come from, whether it is hard-wired in our biological make-up or learned through religious teachings, cultural influences such as books and movies, or simply intuition. Their reasoning was that by asking very young children about their pre-life, there would be fewer cultural and religious forces which would have influenced them (especially since Catholicism, the religion of one group, teaches that life begins at conception).

They interviewed 283 children, ages 5-12, from two groups, one from an indigenous Shuar village in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador which has no concept of a pre-life, and the other from an urban area near Quito, Equador (Catholic). They showed the children drawings of a baby, a young woman, and the same woman pregnant. They then asked the children a series of questions about their concepts of the baby’s abilities, thoughts and emotions during three periods: as a live baby, as a baby in the womb, and before conception.

The results showed that both sets of children had amazingly similar answers, despite their very different cultures.

“The children reasoned that their bodies didn't exist before birth, and that they didn't have the ability to think or remember. However, both groups also said that their emotions and desires existed before they were born. For example, while children generally reported that they didn't have eyes and couldn't see things before birth, they often reported being happy that they would soon meet their mother, or sad that they were apart from their family.” (6)

Natalie Emmons, one of the researchers is quoted:

"They didn't even realize they were contradicting themselves," said Emmons. "Even kids who had biological knowledge about reproduction still seemed to think that they had existed in some sort of eternal form. And that form really seemed to be about emotions and desires." (6)

The researchers tried to explain why humans might have evolved such a universal belief in eternal existence by hypothesizing it to be a “by-product of our highly developed social reasoning.” (6) But there may be two other explanations.

One comes from a now generally discredited study published by geneticist Dean Hammer, the director of the Gene Structure and Regulation Unit at the U.S. National Cancer Institute, and author of the 2005 book The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes. This study was never peer-reviewed and never published in a journal, but rather in a book form. The so-called God gene is VMAT2, which codes for a vesicular monoamine transporter which regulates the levels of the brain chemicals serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. Classic twin studies by Lindon Eaves and Nicholas Martin have previously shown that feelings of self-transcendence (of self-forgetfulness, the feeling of connectedness to a larger universe, and mysticism) are heritable. Hammer analyzed DNA and self-transcendence scores from over 1000 individuals and identified one particular gene, VMAT2, to have a significant correlation.

Why would humans evolve a biological mechanism for predisposition to mysticism, a higher being, and eternal existence? Hammer’s hypothesis goes something like this: Once humans evolved consciousness, and they observed their loved ones dying, they realized that they would soon die too. Those that had evolved an ability to believe in a higher being and an eternal life as a spirit would be less anxious and depressed about their own demise and would, thus, procreate more. The others would be faced with their own doom without any belief system to give them any sense of meaning or a predisposition to go on.

The other possibility of why most of us seem to believe in an eternal existence is simply that it is true.

3.     Coming From The Light  by Sarah Hinze.
4.     Light Hearts
5.     Natalie A. Emmons, Deborah Kelemen. The Development of Children's Prelife Reasoning: Evidence From Two Cultures. Child Development, 2014; DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12220
6.     Boston University. "Belief in immortality hard-wired? Study examines development of children's 'prelife' reasoning." ScienceDaily, 27 January 2014.