Prelife reasoning: our belief in immortality starts young

A child who participated in the study of prelife reasoning in Ecuador examines the three images researchers used to help them visualize the time before and after they were born.
A child who participated in the study of prelife reasoning in Ecuador examines the three images researchers used to help them visualize the time before and after they were born.
courtesy of Natalie Emmons/Boston University

Is the desire for immortality something we learn as we grow older and fear death, or a core, universal intuition that we have from early in life?

Given the diversity of cultural and religious teachings about what happens after people die, it can be hard to sift out what beliefs about the afterlife are learned and which, if any, are universal. What about before life begins, psychology researchers at Boston University wondered? Do human beings share common, universal beliefs about prelife—before conception?

To find out if people believe they existed before they are born and before they were even conceived, the researchers studied two groups of children: an urban population from Connocoto, Ecuador who were largely Catholic, and children from the Shuar village in Ecuador’s Amazon basin. Neither group had explicit prelife teachings, such as reincarnation. The Catholic religion, for example, teaches that life begins at conception. The Shuar children do not have cultural teachings about prelife.

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What the researchers found was that all the children—but especially younger ones—were likely to believe that before they were conceived, they had existed in some way, whether it was as a “little worm” or a “drop of blood.” While they generally didn’t believe they would have had the ability to see, eat, or think during those prelife times, they did tend to think they had emotions and desires.

The children, who ranged in age from 5 to 12, were shown three drawings: a newborn baby, a pregnant woman, and the same woman before she was pregnant. They were asked to imagine that they were the baby and that the woman was their mother, before and during her pregnancy.

Then, Natalie Emmons, the postdoctoral researcher who led the work, asked a series of questions to the children about what abilities they would have had at each stage of life, such as “Could your eyes work?”, “Could you be hungry?”, and “Could you feel happy?”

In the study published in the journal Child Development in January, Emmons and psychologist Deborah Kelemen reported that across the two groups of children, they saw the same patterns. Overall, children did not believe that before they were conceived they had abilities such as being able to see, to be thirsty, or to have a heartbeat. They also didn’t tend to believe they could think or remember things. But overall, they did believe they had emotions and desires before they existed.

This belief diminished with age, but the differences suggest that children do have a core intuition that they exist in some form—the desire for immortality may be something we simply can’t escape.

It also suggests that the core abilities that they think exist at that time are emotions and desires.

“They’d say, ‘I wish, I desired to be born,’ or ‘I knew that I would be created,’” Emmons said. “How could you know that if you weren’t made yet? That’s the kind of logic they were using.”

The effect diminished with age, but the fact that it existed in young children in two different cultures, suggests it may be a widespread intuition. In particular, the Shuar children were chosen because they live a subsistence, hunter-gatherer lifestyle, which exposes them to the biological cycles of life far more than people in urban environments.

It’s hard to know how deeply-seated the concept is that a version of oneself has always existed. The five- and six-year-olds in the study were excluded, for example, because they had difficulty even conceptualizing the prelife period “before they were in the tummy,” Emmons said. But she thinks the result shows how important and central emotions and desires are in our conception of what a person is.

The study’s finding that children have illogical intuitions about their prelife period also fits into a broader research program led by Kelemen, which probes questions like whether it is in human nature to try and find purpose in nature.

“I think as part of our social reasoning, we are so motivated to infer goals and desires and emotions to social agents that we really can’t switch it off,” Emmons said.