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Fear of Death: Natural But Impressive Companion of Life

The finale of October is Halloween, a day on which ghosts and monsters are the main characters. It is certain that humans have been interested in the concept of fear and death for a long time. Humans are very contradictory, however, in that they always possess a fear of death but at the same time enjoy it by watching zombie movies or by doing extreme activities like bungee jumping or skydiving. If science continues to develop, will humans see the area of death under the control of themselves? The Sungkyun Times (SKT) now scrutinizes the relation between fear and death, people taking pleasure from the fear of death and their psychology, and the modern medical experiments challenging death.

Fear and Death: Their Inseparable Relationship

Location of the Amygdala in the Brain/brainmadesimple.com

Fear and the Mechanisms of the Brain
Fear is an emotional reaction based on unpleasant feelings that occur when people predict that distressful situations are coming or when those situations actually happen. It results from the defense system of the brain against external stimuli. Fear can be either innate or acquired through various experiences. Research on fear mechanisms within the brain at the scale of cells and particles precede any other research on memory. Scientists have actively examined the formation, hardening, and regeneration process of fear memories, but unfortunately most of the current research on fear only investigates acquired memories. Amygdala, an organelle located in the inner cerebrum, is the backbone of the manifestation of fear and the memory of fear. In fact, patients who have lost the amygdala in an accident cannot feel emotions, especially fear. They can only feel fear when a mild electric shock is given to the amygdala area for an operation.

Fear of Death
Research has shown that humans are born with only two innate fears, the fear of falling and the fear of loud sounds. Considering that underneath these two fears lies the survival instinct, however, it can be seen that humans are born with the fear of death as well. According to one experiment, a rat that had damage to its amygdala played in front of a cat until it was caught and eaten by the cat. It seems obvious that the emotional and behavioral responses to fear of death are also affected by the amygdala, but it is uncertain whether the amygdala is the center of the fear of death or other organelles in the brain activate the amygdalais. Animal models where the fear of death can be reproduced and measured should be developed to get the exact answer, but it is hard to make that kind of animal model due to ethical problems.

Terror Management Theory
Death arouses fear, and fear brings about stress, but this also works as a driving force of life. Terror Management Theory (TMT) is an idea suggested by some social psychologists named Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, and Sheldon Solomon to explain the 14 15 influence of the fear of death on the living. They carried out more than 500 investigations over a period of about 30 years, based on the opinion of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker that humans pursue a valuable life in order to cope with the fear of death. TMT explains the psychological mechanism and phenomena to deal with the fear of death and demonstrates psychological phenomena such as dignity, intergroup bias, and religious acts.
Among the animals with a limited lifespan, only humans are conscious of the fact that they will die someday. This causes an ontological anxiety and existential fear which allow humans to be synchronized with psychological reactions in turn. That is, the fear of death is the motivation for living. The theory also insists that humans can be free from the fear of death through culture, a symbolical system of meaning and value which is unique to humans. Humans pursue imperishability by supporting the culture they belong to and by becoming a part of it, think that the society will last forever even after they die. The standard of value within a culture also becomes the criteria of one's dignity, and people can resolve the anxiety of death through high dignity.

A Cartoon Referencing TMT (The Denial of Death)/agoodgoodbye.com

Challenging the Fear of Death
People Enjoying the Thrill of Extremity
As told in TMT, a fear of death can be the power that enables humans to live on, but some people regard it as something more than a mere motivation to live and relish the pleasure by challenging it. Extreme sports, leisure sports that can cause people to go into ecstasy thanks to the adrenaline secreted during those activities that might lead to physical injury or even death, are typical examples of challenging the fear of death. Their origin is obscure, but they began to spread within society around the 1970s in reaction to the increase of stability in modern society. The range of extreme sports is very broad, from mild ones such as rollerblading to intense ones such as skydiving. As society has developed, however, some people have started to drive themselves to even more drastic extremes than ever before. In 2012, for example, skydiver Felix Baumgartner succeeded in jumping from 39,045 meters above ground, which was higher than the ozone layer. Indeed, many people lose their lives due to the vertiginous challenges that go beyond imagination. In Moab, Utah, for instance, many people enjoy a rope swing at the huge arched rocks, tying a rope around the rock and their bodies, jumping down towards the ground, and swinging just like a pendulum. Some people have even made a large slingshot and shot themselves into the air like a bullet. Casualties reported by the sheriff's office such as the case of a man who made a parachute jump himself and was found dead, also demonstrate the riskiness of the extreme activities that have gone way too far.

A Person Enjoying a Rope Swing on an Arched Rock/langweiledich.net

Why do people take on life-risking challenges?
Generally, many people take pleasure in extreme situations because they can feel catharsis through the satisfaction aroused as the tension during intense conditions is eased. There are also several other approaches besides catharsis for the reason why people push themselves to the limit.

#1 Psychological Approach: the Opponent-Process Theory of Emotion
In one research paper on skydivers, psychologists Richard Solomon and John D. Corbit discovered that humans always feel two opponent emotions, such as pleasure and displeasure, simultaneously. Colligated with the law of diminishing returns, people tend to keep pursuing even newer and more extreme things. That is, thrilling and exciting activities become boring and unpleasant as they are repeated, and people go for more intense challenges for much bigger pleasure.

#2 Born to Be Brave: Genetic Difference
The brave and the cowardly are decided depending on the sensitivity of the amygdala, the organelle of the brain that deals with fear, which is determined by genes. Representative genesare Serotonin Transporter Genes (STG) which transports serotonin, the happiness hormone, and COMT genes which secret dopamine, the delight hormone. If mutation occurs in these two genes, people can feel fear more easily because emotion regulating ability decreases. If those two genes are innately strong, on the other hand, people cannot feel fear well so they relish intense situations.

#3 Addiction Beyond Pleasure: the Secretion of Dopamine
The human brain feels the fear of death, but at the same time, it has a reward mechanism as well. In extreme conditions, the brain secretes dopamine to feel happiness, satisfaction, and security. Some people, for this reason, think that coping with the fear of extremity can bring about a positive psychological outcome. Due to the high addictiveness, however, people become addicted to dopamine secreted through the reward system of the brain stimulated by extreme sports. They become so obsessed with the natural drug given by the body that they continuously pursue extreme thrills in spite of the fear of death.

Rush on an Unexplored Field, Death in the Medical World
Research on the Principle of Death: Near-Death Experience

The number of people undergoing NDE is increasing/evangelicaloutreach.org

A near-death experience (NDE) is an incident in which people undergo an impending death through revival after cardiac arrest (CA) resuscitations. Actual research on NDEs began in the 1970s by Raymond Moody and Elisabeth Kübler Ross, and the International Associationfor Near-Death Studies (IANDS) was established by medical scientists in 1978. In terms of the development of neurobiology, the “dying brain” theory is the most supported one today. According to the theory, as the ceasing speed of the brain differs in parts, people can go through NDEs when the undead parts of the brain perceive that partial function cease. In 2008, Awareness during Resuscitation (AWARE) study, the biggest NDE study so far, was carried out under the direction of Dr. Sam Parnia at Southampton University, in the United Kingdom(UK). 2,060 CA patients from 15 hospitals in the UK, the United States (US), and Austria were examined to investigate the relation between CA and awareness and to develop the methodology to check the accuracy of reported visual and auditory perceptions during CA. 140 out of 2,060 subjects survived after CA, and nine patients among them certainly remembered the NDE. One case was observed under the use of auditory stimulation during CA, and interestingly, awareness and perception was detected within a three minute period after the heart stopped beating. Given that the brain usually ceases to function within 20 to 30 seconds after the heart stops, it was an exceptional case indeed. Although the limit of the study exists in that only a few patients recalled the NDE, the AWARE study was a research that demonstrated the need to sustain study on the NDE. As the emergency medicalservice system developed nowadays, people who experience imminent death are increasing as well.

Attempts to Overcome the Barrier of Death

ReAnima is the final project of Bioquark./ifeboat.com

Bioquark, a life sciences company in Philadelphia, is planning on a clinical trial of inserting stem cells into the spinal cord of a patient who has been declared brain dead. Protein mixture injections, electrical nerve simulations conducted directly on the brain, and laser treatments will be carried out together. The trial has been designed to revive the dead brain by making the cerebral nerve grow and connecting them with these technologies. Unlike the past, in modern society, patients who were declared brain dead or in a coma can still be alive thanks to developed medical techniques, but they are usually referred to as “living cadavers” since they are pronounced dead in many countries. This trial of Bioquark is a part of their ReAnima project, which is to challenge on reviving dead person, whose brain is dead but heart still beats, through the potential of current biomedical techniques. Scholars are quite skeptical with the experiment since the trial was never tested on animals and there are no precedents to tell whether the test might be successful or not. Furthermore, there is a dispute over the degree of revival when the patients are brought back to life, and even some people are concerned about the possible realization of zombification. Ethical problems such as how to get the participation approval for the trial from dead people also exist. Despite all the concerns and controversies over this, the trial of Bioquark will be implemented in South America at the end of this year if possible. Even though the result of the experiment is still uncertain, the trial itself will be of significance in human history in that it will attempt to actually challenge the area of death and cope with the fear of death using the developed biomedical techniques synthetically. The consequence of the test might give the clue that can provide the answer to death, an unexplored area which has aroused vague fear so far.

Life and death are just like two sides of the same coin. If one side is up, the other is down; they are incompatible. Death has always been an area of darkness to science, but thanks to technological development, humans have just started to explore this unknown area. When the exploration is finished, maybe someday in the far future, humans might be free from the fear of death.

박민주  minju5142@naver.com

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