Why do people do what they do? What serves as the motivating force that drives our behavior? For several years I have been on a quest to answer these questions. Most recently, that quest led me to the book The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life, by psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski.
The book explores how our fear of death influences our behavior patterns. If this theme sounds familiar, that might be because many a philosopher has mused on the conscious and even subconscious impact that fear of death plays in our lives. In the 20th Century, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker wrote prolifically about this. Sadly, his ideas were never taken particularly seriously during his lifetime, though his book Denial of Death did earn a Pulitzer Prize after his death.
Becker’s work was rediscovered by Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski in the early 1980s. The three professors spent their careers testing Becker’s ideas experimentally, eventually expanding them into what they today call Terror Management Theory. The Worm at the Core outlines this theory, and explores several lines of their research.
I enjoyed reading the book, and wish I had read it sooner. Someone first recommended it to me in May of 2019. I had just published an article titled Awakening to the Traumacene in which I made the case that many of the antisocial behaviors we see today, including those that result in both social and environmental detriment, emerge from nervous system dysregulation caused ultimately by psychological trauma. One social media commenter offered praise for the article and suggested Terror Management Theory might expand my thinking in useful ways. He was right.
For the last few years I have been fascinated by the workings of the human nervous system. I have been particularly interested in the phenomenon of stress, the impacts it can have on our nervous systems, and how those impacts show up as psychological and physiological signs and symptoms. Writings and recorded interviews by Gabor Maté, Bessel van der Kolk, Stephen Porges, and Peter Levine, among others, inform my understanding of these topics, and informed the Traumacene article I mentioned above.
If I were to summarize my learnings so far, that summary would read something like this: Our nervous system evolved to keep us safe. To that end, it gathers sensory data from our surroundings and creates the mental model we use to navigate our world, a model that will hopefully allow us to avoid danger, find adequate food and water, and eventually pass on our genes by reproducing. If incoming data suggests a threat is near, our nervous system shifts into its instinctual fight/flight mode to deal with the threat as best it can. If the threat proves insurmountable, it shifts into a freeze/faint mode to minimize pain and suffering. When our nervous system fails to discern an immediate threat, we can remain in a more relaxed state that Stephen Porges calls social engagement mode. Here we can build and maintain nourishing relationships with others and, generally, feel good.
Terror Management Theory relates directly to our nervous system’s core function. In my summary above I said our nervous system evolved to keep us safe. I could just as easily say that our nervous system evolved to avoid death. The difference between these statements revolves around whether I want to focus on what our nervous systems evolved to achieve (safety) or avoid (death). Six of one, a half dozen of the other.
Where Terror Management Theory really adds value to my understanding of our nervous system is its experimental research that attempts to discern the behavioral impacts that fear of death can have in people’s lives. The Worm at the Core summarizes some of this research, though certainly not all of it. One memorable example was a study of several judges who were tasked with setting the bail of a woman who was arrested and jailed for prostitution. The woman was fictitious, so all of the judges saw the exact same file even though they worked in different jurisdictions. Some of the judges read material that caused them to think about death right before they set the woman’s bail, while others did not. The judges whose death fear was triggered set her bail hundreds of dollars higher than those who had not been coaxed to think about death.
The role that a fear of death plays in the daily workings of our nervous systems is worth deeper exploration than I can offer here. I originally intended for this post to be much more thorough, but as its word count surpassed 1,000 and as my release date crept closer, I realized that was destined to be a bigger project. So I settled for this short summary to tease folks with, even as I continue working on that article. I have no idea when it will be done, but will certainly post it here for those who are interested. In the meantime, if you have not read The Worm at the Core, I recommend it. There is a lot in this book worth thinking about.
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