At a certain age, when alumni magazines arrive (and they will), one starts first by opening to the necrology. Who didn’t make it as far as me, after all? There’s a poignancy to it—knowing that at any age we’re vulnerable—but many of us felt a kind of immortality in our younger years that is only belied and effaced with the passing of time. The articles in the alumni magazines feature those who made it better than you, fellow students and faculty who made a genuine breakthrough. You should be proud of having the privilege, they seem to say, of having attended in her or his shadow. But once in a while, those self-serving articles do touch on the issues of the necrology where I always start. Boston University’s most recent edition boasts an article “You Are What You Feel” by Barbara Moran.
Intellectuals, in what I like to call the Spock Fallacy, frequently suggest that rationality is the whole story. Or at least the better part of it. If the left brain could only just subdue the right, and all decisions could be logical, wouldn’t this world be a better place? Better, maybe perhaps, but not human. We require our emotions for more than just feeling good. Studies suggest that thinking would be difficult, if not impossible, without them. So Bostonia profiles the work of Natalie Emmons, suggesting that ideas of immortality are more than just cultural relics. Perhaps our brains reason eternity for ourselves from some deep well we’ve not yet discovered. Emmons, and co-author Deborah Kelemen, are psychologists who study children’s idea of prelife—where we were before this. It is pretty difficult to imagine the world getting along without us. But the research suggests that intuition, rather than culture, gives us religious concepts such as immortality.
Substituting intuition for an actual essence, however, puts us in that odd place of using a word we can’t define. Scientists frequently fall back on intuition as an explanation for animal behavior that, in most instances, seems to suggest thinking that couldn’t have been acquired the usual way. How do salmon, fish that hardly seem like doctoral material, know to return home and swim upstream? How do newly hatched sea turtles know to crawl toward the water? Birds and butterflies to migrate? Instinct is a handy fallback, for sure. The research of Emmons and Kelemen suggest that children reason (note) prelife based on observations of actual life. The mind is the product of the brain. In my department at Boston University, another set of variables applied, focused mainly on surviving through the other end of the journey. It is with those in mind that I thumb through the necrology and hope, irrational as it may be to do so, that maybe the children are right.