Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Posts Tagged ‘mortality

Death 101: Life Lessons from the Only Degree in the US and Canada Devoted to the End

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David Swick writes in The Walrus:

IN EARLY 2020, Jade Rabley was enjoying a fun job in the big city, working in HR for an entertainment company in Toronto. But, as the COVID-19 pandemic struck, she felt she had cheated herself because she wasn’t doing what she truly wanted to. So she went back to King’s University College at Western University, in London, Ontario, to further her study of death.

Almost six years earlier, at twenty-four, Rabley had walked into her first-ever class in the university’s department of thanatology, a discipline whose name comes from the Greek word for death. The class was part of a conglomerate of first-year courses that had piqued her interest. The auditorium was bland and dreary; she expected the class to be equally sombre. But the course was thrilling, the professor gentle, and the discussion deep. Anyone who gains a thorough understanding of loss, dying, and grief, the professor once noted to her class, can comfort people who are suffering. Rabley believed that she was being granted integral wisdom. Except there was an uncomfortable reality: at the mere mention of death, she felt physically ill.

Throughout her first year, she hung in, feeling an increasingly strong pull to pursue a vocation that embraces death: a job in a caring profession, perhaps as a psychotherapist. Instead of quitting, she took more courses. In one, Children and Death: Theory and Interventions, that most unsettling subject was presented so warmly that, instead of feeling repulsed, Rabley felt inspired. “I can be absolutely terrified and not talk about death,” she said, “or I can educate myself and others and make a difference.”

Before COVID-19, it was easier to think of death as abstract, as only for people later in life or facing illness. But, for more than two years, we have all lived with constant reminders of what Leonard Cohen meant when he sang, “We are so lightly here”: masks, shutdowns, a grim daily count of the dead, the wary way we walk around one another. Truth, like the mask, is literally in our face.

It’s no wonder anxiety is up. Cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, in his 1974 Pulitzer Prize–winning book, The Denial of Death, declared that the fear of death is the basic force unconsciously lurking behind our actions, both as individuals and as civilizations. Social scientists in the decades since have proven him right. And behaviours during the pandemic have matched what is expected to arise when death becomes hard to deny. Shopping is up. TV watching is up. Drinking is up. These outlets allow us to focus on something—anything—other than the stark fact of life.

Instead of succumbing to distractions, Rabley turned to . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

24 April 2022 at 8:00 pm

Posted in Daily life, Education

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Death of a microbe

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Trigger warning: This video shows, in vivid detail, the final minutes and ultimate death of a living creature. Though it was but a microbe, it did have life, and that life ended. Ask not for whom the bell tolls.

Written by Leisureguy

21 January 2021 at 4:09 pm

Posted in Daily life, Science, Video

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Dread of dying

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Woody Allen has often talked about the puzzle of how we face mortality. We know that we shall die, yet people carry on and make plans and in general live life with a focus on quotidian concerns. How does that work?

Philosophers and scientists have long been interested in how the mind processes the inevitability of death, both cognitively and emotionally. One would expect, for example, that reminders of our mortality–say the sudden death of a loved one–would throw us into a state of disabling fear of the unknown. But that doesn’t happen. If the prospect of death is so incomprehensible, why are we not trembling in a constant state of terror over this fact?

Psychologists have some ideas about how we cope with existential dread. One emerging idea–“terror management theory” –holds that the brain is hard-wired to keep us from being paralyzed by fear. According to this theory the brain allows us to think about dying, even to change the way we live our lives, but not cower in the corner, paralyzed by fear. The automatic, unconscious part of our brain in effect protects the conscious mind.

But how does this work? Psychologists Nathan DeWall of the University of Kentucky and Roy Baumeister of Florida State University ran three experiments to study existential dread in the laboratory. They prompted volunteers to think about what happens physically as they die and to imagine what it is like to be dead. It’s the experimental equivalent of losing a loved one and ruminating about dying as a result.

Once the volunteers were preoccupied with thoughts of death and dying, they completed a series of word tests, which have been designed to tap into unconscious emotions. For example, volunteers might be asked to complete the word stem “jo_” to make a word. They could make a neutral word like job or jog, or they might instead opt for the emotional word joy. Or, in a similar test, they might see the word puppy flashed on a screen, and they would instantaneously have to choose either beetle or parade as the best match. Beetle is closer to puppy in meaning, but parade is closer to puppy in emotional content. The idea is that the results represent the unconscious mind at work.

The results, as reported in the November issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, are intriguing. The volunteers who were preoccupied with thoughts of death were not at all morose if you tapped into their emotional brains. Indeed, the opposite: they were much more likely than control subjects to summon up positive emotional associations rather than neutral or negative ones. What this suggests, the psychologists say, is that the brain is involuntarily searching out and activating pleasant, positive information from the memory banks in order to help the brain cope with an incomprehensible threat.

Written by Leisureguy

23 October 2007 at 2:35 pm

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