Excerpts from a new article at Aeon by Natalie Emmons:
We see faces in the clouds and we might just see Jesus in our toast: the fact that we see anyone at all tells us that the human mind is actively searching for agents, even in the most ambiguous of situations.
…Bering and his colleagues set their sights on what psychologists call ‘intuitive mind-body dualism’ as an alternative…The study deliberately included a cluster of children too young to have been exposed to much religious testimony at all, to see whether even they had an inkling that a part of an individual survives death.
…The researchers found that even from the youngest ages, children tended to respond that the dead mouse retained its mental faculties, such as the ability to experience sadness and know things, but that it no longer had bodily states, like the need to eat or drink. As the researchers reported in Developmental Psychology in 2004, this was consistent with intuitive mind-body dualism and confirmed that children reasoned about the mind differently from the body after death: it was only the mind that tended to be viewed as immortal. Notably, they found that younger children were more likely than older children to endorse the idea of eternal life.
…To evaluate whether children possess a deep-rooted, unlearned sense that there is eternal life, I had to find a new experimental approach. My solution was to develop a way of examining children’s intuitions about the prospect of eternal life that avoided the topic of death entirely. After much contemplation and correspondence with Bering, I decided that asking children about the time before biological conception might resolve the issue.
…Namely, children from both cultures had a persistent bias to judge that their emotions and desires – but not their intelligence or bodily states – remained intact during the time before pregnancy. What’s more, the intuition that one’s emotions and desires were eternal endured even as the children grew older, although older children judged they had fewer prelife capacities overall.
In addition to showing that eternalist beliefs are not learned, another significant finding from this work is that children did not think that they had intelligence during the time before conception. This suggests that children are not simply relying on intuitive mind-body dualism to guide their judgments. Rather, from early on, they are sensitive to different aspects of the mind and view only emotionality and desires as the essential core of an individual; these traits, rather than pure intelligence, are what humans intuitively embrace as so elemental that they are thought to precede our existence on Earth.