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Making Everything Out of Nothing

by Keen Huei Liew

art by Nava Himelhoch


Much of the way we think about modern-day science, along with the way we view the world, has been shaped by the Renaissance, a period of time between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries that is often credited for bridging the gap between the Middle Ages and modern civilization. During the Middle Ages, thought was dominated by religion, particularly Christianity [1]. Because of the power and influence the clergy exerted over society at the time, most experiences that could not be explained by theology became attributed to mysterious forces of enchantment—a sort of “magic” [1]. For example, epilepsy was considered a sign of demonic possession that warranted religious intervention, rather than a neurological disorder due to disturbed nerve cell activity [2]. At the end of the fourteenth century, however, the Renaissance advanced more “scientific” views about the disease. Physicians began viewing epilepsy as a disease of the brain rather than a supernatural curse, identifying plausible biological mechanisms for epileptic attacks and suggesting more rational treatment plans [2].

Along with revolutionizing the way people thought about disease and medicine, this period of time is marked by a plethora of scientific discoveries and new methods of obtaining information about the natural world. In Novum Organum (Latin; “The New Instrument”) (1620), Francis Bacon laid the groundwork for modern scientific investigation, emphasizing the use of repeated and procedural methods of obtaining scientific data [3]. Robert Hooke published the first systematic account of the microscopic world in Micrographia (1665), which included the discovery of the biological cell and sparked public interest in microscopy [4]. Andreas Vesalius provided accurate anatomical illustrations of the human brain in his book De Humani Corporis Fabrica (Latin; “On the Fabric of the Human Body”) (1543), advancing the understanding of brain morphology and functioning of the nervous system [5].

Scientific efforts have proven vital for better understanding the world around us, but these advancements in knowledge actually also led to an unexpected effect—complicating the way in which we situate ourselves within this world. The transition from religious-based perspectives to scientifically grounded explanations for common phenomena has fundamentally altered the way we derive meaning from the world around us. The tools of scientific discovery provide us with the means to answer questions related to human existence, and yet also raise a whole other plethora of questions related to those answers. Science has forced us to reconsider what it really means to exist. What is our purpose in life? Where do we go after we die? What makes us as human beings different from any other living being on this planet? The unanswerability of some of life’s biggest questions, whether due to the lack of scientific evidence or inconsistencies in religious explanations, has led people to reflect deeply on the very foundations of their lives: death, freedom and responsibility over their actions, purpose and commitment—a mental state more commonly known as an existential crisis [6].


What is an Existential Crisis?

The term “existential crisis” is characterized by profound reflection of one’s place in the world, where an individual questions whether their life has any meaning, value, or purpose [6]. In essence, it occurs when inner conflict arises between an individual’s desire to lead a meaningful life and the perception that their existence is empty and meaningless [6, 7]. These ponderings can manifest themselves in many ways, including high anxiety levels, despair, and loneliness [8, 9]. In the nineteenth century, the emergence of a more secular worldview propelled a cold, mechanistic view of the world, undermining the traditional religious framework that had guided the public’s moral compass and promoted social cohesion [10]. Without moral absolutes established by a higher power to determine right from wrong, people began to lose their sense of community and belongingness that was once rooted in the common belief of a single, “true” higher power. The newly mechanized working conditions created by the Industrial Revolution also brought about an increasingly impersonal social order, eroding the close-knit social bonds that tied traditional society together. Furthermore, the automation and lifeless conformism of the machine age also gave rise to feelings of emptiness and boredom. Taken together, the experience of alienation, dissatisfaction, and anxiety left many in a futile search for a stable and enduring sense of truth to the meaning of life [10].

These social transformations laid the foundations for the rise of existentialism, an intellectual movement that attempts to provide an answer to the pressing question of existence [10]. Proponents of the existentialist movement proposed that human beings should consciously create meaning in their own lives. More specifically, we as human beings have self-awareness (more on that later) and are fully responsible for who we are and what we do—we have the capability to interpret and give meaning to the situation we are in. This primary tenet of existentialism is best summarized by the phrase “existence precedes essence,” coined by philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. It forwards the idea that humans are always in the dynamic process of constructing who they are as life unfolds. Rather than having a predetermined nature that establishes who we are, we are simply thrown into “existence” as blank slates that must define ourselves through personal choices and actions throughout our lives [10].

Despite the deeply philosophical nature of these existential considerations, an interdisciplinary branch of research that bridges traditional existentialism and neuroscience has emerged during the last couple of years. Existential neuroscience aims to investigate the neural correlates of how people cope with these existential issues and analyze our attempts to find purpose in our lives through a scientific lens [11]. Research in the field has produced compelling evidence that our brains are actually equipped with defensive mechanisms against existential anxiety, and suggests that the brain is responsible for creating the sense of meaning and purpose that is vital to our human experience [11].


Self-Awareness and Metacognition

Before we dive into the science behind why we humans want to create meaning and significance for our lives, it is useful to first explore how we perceive existence in the first place. Although most, if not all, animals are considered conscious (being able to sense and respond to external stimuli), humans possess the distinct ability to be self-aware, or in other words, being able to construct a complex representation of the world and the self [12]. For example, newborn human infants display consciousness by attending to sights and sounds in their surroundings [13]. However, they are not considered self-aware because they (presumably) do not reflect on their thoughts and are only aware of events occurring in present time, and are still unable to exert control over their behavior [14]. This concept of self is thought to only be established later on, supported by cognitive development and social interaction [15]. It is only at around 18 months of age that children seem to learn to recognize themselves in the mirror, which implies the ability to perceive that the image in the mirror is a representation of themselves [12]. It is also around this time when children develop theory of mind (ToM), where they are able to differentiate their own thoughts and feelings from someone else’s and reality [16]. As children develop cognitively, they realize that what they know could be different from what someone else knows, become able to form theories of what someone else knows, and become aware that their own knowledge is not a simple reflection of reality [16]. In other words, self-awareness refers to the fact that we are not only able to think, but also realize that we are able to think about our thoughts and the thoughts of others.

This higher-order understanding of the self as an actor in the world facilitates many actions that seem to come naturally to us, including situating ourselves in social contexts, identifying the emotions we are experiencing, and being sensitive to how others might be affected by our actions [12]. This capacity for self-awareness provides the information we need to monitor and exert control over our actions, a process known as metacognition [14]. Through metacognition, we control our behavior to adjust our interactions with the world, allowing us to reflect on and learn from past experiences, solve problems that arise in the present, come up with abstract thoughts of the future, and develop goals for self-fulfillment [12]. Metacognition develops around the same time, or slightly later, as self-awareness does [17]. Children begin to develop problem-solving skills around age five and are able to use strategies such as making comments directed at themselves, repeating certain behaviors to verify the accuracy of their results, and assessing the overall quality of their performance [17]. In summary, the twin human capacities for self-awareness and metacognition facilitate much of our goal-directed behavior [12].


Terror Management Theory

This human capacity for self-awareness, along with other highly developed cognitive abilities including abstract and self-reflective thought, is vital for helping us navigate the material and social world more flexibly. However, this intellectual sophistication also comes with some drawbacks, including allowing us to comprehend that we are alive and will inevitably die. Because death cannot be anticipated or controlled—we cannot possibly tell when we will die or what comes after death, all we know is that it will happen eventually even in the absence of immediate danger—it creates anxiety [18]. In fact, Ernest Becker argues in The Denial of Death (1973) that the main driving force behind most human action is the active avoidance and denial of their mortality [18]. Becker’s writings on the centrality of death in the daily concerns of humans eventually led to the inception of a social theory called Terror Management Theory (TMT) [19]. According to TMT, the awareness that death is inevitable and unpredictable conflicts with an innate need for self-preservation, resulting in an irresolvable paradox which could generate paralyzing terror [20]. If not properly managed, this terror poses a major challenge to the pursuit of goal-directed behavior necessary for survival [11]. What is the point of doing anything if we are all just going to die anyway?

Despite extensive research into the psychological and behavioral repercussions of mortality awareness, researchers are only just beginning to explore the neural correlates of this phenomenon. A common way to investigate the brain is through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a neuroimaging technique that measures changes in blood flow as a proxy for brain activity [21]. An fMRI study conducted in 2012 compared the brain activation caused by death-related thoughts to that of pain-related thoughts [22]. The researchers found that cognition about mortality, in comparison to pain, produced greater activation of the amygdala and rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC) [22].

The amygdala is a region of the brain that is involved in processing fearful and threatening stimuli, as well as activating the appropriate behavioral responses to handle the threat [23]. The rACC plays an important role in responding to socially-based threats, anticipating aversive stimuli, and its activity is also associated with anxiety levels [22]. Taken together, amygdala and rACC co-activation in this instance may represent our subconscious response to the threat aroused by reminders of our impending mortality.

Perhaps the most fascinating observation, however, is the strong activation of the caudate nucleus (CN) after reminders of death. Unlike the amygdala and rACC that are involved in threat processing, the CN is most associated with habitual and repetitive behaviors [21]. Interestingly, a recent study has also linked CN activity with attachment to others [24]. Research has suggested that reminders of death can spontaneously activate attachment cognition: the motivation to affiliate oneself and form relationships with others [22]. Perhaps born out of the evolutionary drive to survive and reproduce, relationships have the ability to provide comfort and relief in times of stress and anxiety [19].

Overall, activation of the amygdala, rACC, and CN suggests how reminders of death could trigger a sense of threat in us and proposes several interesting defensive mechanisms in the brain against such death-related thoughts. Now that we have covered the basics of existential anxiety, we can now begin to learn about the ways that we cope with it.


Cultural Worldview Defense

TMT asserts that in order to alleviate the stress that comes from the realization that death is ultimately unavoidable, humans have designed various elaborate measures to remove the awareness of impending death from conscious thought [18]. These measures have been conceptualized as proximal and distal coping mechanisms [11]. Proximal coping refers to the early, immediate reaction towards and suppression of a thought about death, which includes the activation of several brain regions like the amygdala and rACC. By contrast, distal coping addresses the problem more indirectly by modifying the way people view their lives and themselves, making individuals feel special and significant. Most TMT studies have focused on two distal coping mechanisms: identifying with cultural worldviews and enhancing self-esteem [11].

The first distal coping mechanism is the defense derived from the collective construction and maintenance of cultural worldviews [18]. Cultural worldviews are phenomena or actions that are prescribed value with the purpose of imbuing the world with meaning and order [19]. Adhering to these cultural worldviews offers solace by providing people with a shared understanding of how the world works and a direction towards how to organize and direct their lives. It also devises a form of symbolic immortality: the belief that aspects of one’s being would endure even after one’s physical death [19]. Some examples of these constructions of symbolic immortality include inventing belief systems that explain the significance of life, being part of larger social collectives, and creating works that can have lasting influences on others [18]. By actively participating in or identifying as part of social groups, one’s sense of connectedness with the rest of the world is strengthened [19]. Furthermore, because people are cognizant that they would eventually perish, their association with worldviews and institutions larger than themselves allows them to feel like they are involved in something greater that transcends physical death [20]. In sum, TMT posits that subscribing to created cultural symbols enables us to feel that we are part of something meaningful and permanent.

Assuming that adhering to cultural worldviews acts as a key source of protection against conscious thoughts about death, then evoking death-related concerns should result in heightened protection of these worldviews [18, 25]. This phenomenon is called worldview defense, which is when people tend to feel more closely affiliated to and agree with the opinion of people who share the same worldviews. At the same time, they are also more likely to disagree with and feel disdain for those who challenge or have different worldviews [18]. A study induced death-related thoughts in American participants before presenting two essays, one pro- and one anti-American, for them to read [26]. The researchers found that these participants gave more positive evaluations of the pro-U.S. essay and more negative evaluations of the anti-U.S. essay compared to the control participants, who had pain-related thoughts instead [25, 26]. A different study found that participants with higher death cognition also displayed greater defense of their religious beliefs [27]. Overall, these behavioral studies highlight the relevance of cultural worldviews in buffering our anxiety surrounding the unknowns when it comes to death.


Self-esteem

The way we respond to and adopt these worldviews as individuals has important implications for how we perceive value and purpose in our actions. According to TMT, the second distal coping mechanism involves the perception of self, termed self-esteem, which functions as a personal characteristic and influences how we feel about ourselves [19]. As each culture ascribes different values to certain actions, people that live by their culture’s prescribed standards of behavior are rewarded with the sense that they are a valued member in their society [19]. Because cultural worldviews are symbolic constructions created by people rather than absolute representations of reality, self-esteem is highly dependent on the culture that the individual is surrounded by and the extent to which the individual believes in the validity of the worldview [20]. Cultural worldviews and self-esteem are thus heavily tied in with existentialism—the environment in which we exist influences our personal choices and the value of our actions, which ultimately affects our personal evaluation of whether our lives have purpose and meaning.

Higher-order cognitive functions like self-esteem are extremely complicated and likely involve interactions between brain regions rather than being the result of a single area working in isolation [28]. An important brain system involved in supporting self-esteem is the efferent (outwards) connection from the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) to the ventral striatum [28, 29]. Studies have shown the mPFC to play a fundamental role in social cognition, including self-reflection, self-referential thoughts, and theory of mind, therefore serving as a key region in understanding self and others [30]. The ventral striatum is involved in motivation and reward-related processes [29]. Therefore, researchers have hypothesized that self-esteem arises when a person integrates information about the self (from the mPFC) with positive evaluation and reward (from the ventral striatum) [29]. Through perceiving themselves positively as contributors to a meaningful world, people can avoid seeing themselves as material beings that are fated to be forgotten and erased after death [18]. Following this line of thought, individuals with high self-esteem who actively participate in upholding these cultural worldviews would be able to enjoy the psychological protection it offers. On the other hand, people with low self-esteem might feel like they are not in line with societal norms (whether on purpose or not) and as a result, feel like an “outsider” and less connected to the people and world around them [19].

The earliest neuroscientific research into the psychological functions of self-esteem established that, in line with this theory, self-esteem provides a buffer against the fear of death [20]. In a study conducted in 1992, researchers gave participants positive feedback on a fictitious personality test to raise their self-esteem before presenting a graphic video depiction of death-related scenes [31]. Participants that had enhanced self-esteem reported less anxiety in response to these vivid images of death compared to control subjects that had neutral feedback on their personality test [31]. A more recent study found higher self-esteem to be correlated with higher functional connectivity between the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (vlPFC) and the amygdala [32]. This finding suggests that amygdala activation after reminders of death (as discussed above) may be modulated by the vlPFC [11, 32]. The vlPFC is thought to be involved in the regulation of negative emotions using positive reappraisal, which is when one reinterprets negative emotional stimuli in a more positive way or sees potential positive outcomes of adverse situations [33]. Thus, effective amygdala-vlPFC interactions can offer a neural explanation for why individuals with high self-esteem experience less anxiety about death and exhibit less defensive reactions toward mortality threats.

A second wave of research tested the hypothesis that weakening self-esteem would make it easier for the awareness of death to enter conscious thought [20]. Several studies have supported this hypothesis: a study in 2008 demonstrated that threatening participants’ self-esteem by telling them that they scored poorly on an intelligence test or were ill-suited for their desired career increased accessibility of death-related thoughts, but not of other negative or aversive thoughts [34]. Similarly, another study conducted in the same year showed that thinking about an undesired self also increased thoughts of mortality [34, 35]. These studies offer particularly compelling evidence suggesting that self-esteem plays a critical role in soothing existential anxiety by making us feel good about ourselves.


So, What Is The Point?

In a sense, existentialism and our very human existential crises have driven science. Our quest to find concrete answers to explain every small facet of life could all have been attempts to soothe our death-related anxiety. Maybe we are hoping that the accumulation of answers could take us one step closer to finding out the truth behind life’s most profound questions. From a TMT perspective, providing answers would provide a form of symbolic immortality since our discoveries would be able to influence others even after we are long gone. Being an active contributor to the collective pool of human knowledge could also raise our self-esteem. Nevertheless, the human drive to obtain these answers is very telling—our efforts to get to the answer tell us more about ourselves than the actual answers. Even if it took years, or even decades, many scientists have not wavered in their objective to answer the most fundamental questions in their field. To many scientists, the journey of scientific discovery is the most fun and fulfilling part of science.

The fact that we have found these defense mechanisms in the brain against reminders of death show that our fear of death is not unfounded, no matter how abstract death seems or how absurd existential crises might sound. Something universal has allowed us to form meaningful relationships that make up a large part of the human experience. Whenever we ask ourselves what is the point if we’re all going to die anyway, it could be useful to think of ourselves as scientists in the pursuit of knowledge. The process of exploring ourselves through new life experiences and living through different stages of life matters more than the fact that it ends at some point. Maybe the fact that life even ends in the first place gives it that much more meaning.

Science gives us answers, but not what to do with these answers. It is up to us to interpret and derive meaning from what we know, and to try to make the most of the limited time that we have existing as tiny creatures on a giant rock spinning through space.


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