PI_handout - Death and “Existential Dissonance” (Burris...

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Unformatted text preview: Death and “Existential Dissonance” (Burris and Sani) – A Brief Review *As near as we can tell, humans differ from other species primarily in terms of their greater capacity for abstract thought. *Among other things, this enables us to become aware of the fact that, as physical beings, we are 1) “trapped” in time: physical existence begins at conception and ends at death the “death” side of this is the focus of Terror Management Theory (TMT) 2) “trapped” in space: only saints and gods can be more than one place at one time of course, continued physical existence requires that the body is capable of maintaining its separateness (from predators and parasites, for example) Together, these form part of “the human condition” that existential philosophers ponder. *There is another consequence of our capacity to self-reflect, however: We can become aware of the fact that we are conscious. 1) Under everyday conditions, we experience consciousness as being IN the body, but NOT THE SAME as the physical body. 2) What happens, however, when space and time cues from the outside world are minimized, yet a person is still conscious? The body and the passage of time are no longer relevant: Consciousness tends to be experienced as an expansive “IS”. In other words, the “me-self” tends to recede into the background, but the “I-self” remains. This is called “pure I”. Because the “pull” of the outside world is so strong, most people have a clear sense of the spatial and temporal limitations of physical existence. Some people are also chronically aware of “pure I,” and others are not. Fabio Sani and I have developed a scale that demonstrates this – the scale you completed in class that asked you about your “gut” reactions to physical death and to the possibility of existing before you were physically conceived. We’ve also shown that “pure I” can be increased by optical/acoustic brain stimulation. Existential dissonance – typified by a sense of disorientation – results from the conflict between awareness of ourselves of physical beings and awareness of “pure I: Are we stuck in the body and finite, or are we boundless and eternal? There are two ways to reduce existential dissonance: 1) Focus on “pure I” and turn attention away from reminders of spatial and temporal limitations (the so-called “high road”; or 2) Accept spatiotemporal limitations as a “given” and squash awareness of “pure I” (the so-called “low road”) *From the perspective of Existential Dissonance Theory (EDT)… Awareness of one’s impending physical death not only evokes anxiety (TMT): It is also disorienting (because it conflicts with “pure I” awareness TMT claims that the psychological effects of awareness of physical death are unique, whereas EDT proposes that they are not -- We have research showing that increased awareness of physical conception produces similar effects The two strategies for reducing existential dissonance, when related to death, can look like this: “High road”: seeking out experiences and/or adopting beliefs that are consistent with the idea that the conscious self is eternal and only temporarily constrained by the physical body – for example, the Hindu idea of Maya (the external world and the sense of separateness are illusions) “Low road”: accepting spatiotemporal limitations as a starting point and often denying the implications of “pure I” (you are not God)… but then attempting to transcend time by connecting to something bigger, such as a god or ancestors/descendants and/or attempting to extend one’s sense of self beyond the physical body by means of identity markers (places, objects, people, etc. that become “part of who we are”) Identity markers can: -- assist in the grieving process by preserving memories of the deceased other (but also, thus, become a focus of squabbles and “turf wars”) -- makes us vulnerable to “little deaths” when identity markers are lost or destroyed (for example, if one’s cherished childhood home burns down) -- be targeted when there is intense hate for a deceased other (it’s not enough that the person is dead: his/her extended self must also be destroyed) ...
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This note was uploaded on 12/02/2010 for the course PSYCH 218 taught by Professor Burris during the Fall '10 term at Waterloo.

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