Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Working Towards Research in Death-Anxiety

 This is not meant to be really specific or scientific writing and I have lots of information to fill in the details. Here is just a summary where I've compiled what I've been studying so far. It's all been independent work on the side of my normal school work. I hope to be accepted into the undergraduate research opportunities program at the U so I can put this information to use and start to figure out my own research projects.

For thousands of years humans have tried to answer a wide range of questions about what happens before, during, and after we die. Many of these answers are rooted in philosophy, religion, and psychology. In 1986 a group of experimental psychologists and sociologists designed Terror Management Theory. This theory states that human behavior is motivated by unconscious death concerns. Our mind has mechanisms that keep death thoughts from affecting our conscious while our subconscious processes the anxiety that is specifically heightened by death thoughts. TMT has evolved into a theory to distinguish between the proximal and distal defenses against our awareness of mortality.  Conscious death reminders pose a unique psychological threat for human beings. We are constantly surrounded by reminders of death from day to day; death thought awareness could even be constant. This potential for anxiety leads our mind to respond with motivated avoidance. With technological advances we are now able to study death anxiety in a new way. For an example, using neurofeedback and other brain imaging techniques we can study the interaction between different brain areas when people are subjected to death-thought awareness. If we apply neurology, cognitive neuroscience, and psychophysiology to the current studies, then we can create new more detailed research that could provide much needed empirical evidence to support Terror Management Theory and the theories being created that use TMT as a model.

Observing death-anxiety also gives us insight into specific areas of the brain and how it is affected by different types of anxiety. Because death is such a unique problem for human beings it would make sense that it affects us differently than other types of anxiety. Death-anxiety stems from a need to survive; some say death is an adaptive problem.  Looking at the fight or flight response it was once necessary for survival when our ancestors lived in a completely different environment than we do now. The left over effects of the fight or flight response are responsible for a lot of stress that human beings experience in their day to day life. Worrying about what could happen in the future, what should have happened in the past, etc. causes the same type of stress as if we were in actual physical danger. This relates to death-anxiety. A way we could study this could be to use a driving simulator. A participant would think that they are doing an attention experiment but towards the end an automobile comes out of no where and hits the participant ending the experiment. The next step is generally to have the participants answer questions or write about the feelings that were brought up. Some techniques commonly used now are word fragment tasks (ex: SK__L, can be “skill” or “skull”),  self reports, questioners measuring death thought awareness, and observing participants worldview and self esteem. These studies are off to a great start, but if there is a way to monitor the participants’ brain activity at the same time we could get even deeper insight into their responses. Also, the studies have not been done over long periods of time. In my research I hope to find new techniques to study death thought awareness and how it is impacting our cognition. I’d like to research how DTA influences consciousness- decision making, attention, self-attribution, subjectivity, stability of contents, and so forth. I also feel it could give insight to the connections between our subconscious and conscious processes.

Other topics to focus on:

Negative emotions have been linked to increased time perception. Does our constant DTA lead us to perceive longer periods of time? Having an end gives us a reason to perceive time. It would make sense that the anxiety surrounding a sudden end would have some kind of an effect.

TMT influenced the Mortality Salience Hypothesis. It states that the awareness of our mortality directly affects people’s worldview and self esteem. If mortality salience is influencing our decision making it is likely to trigger defensive responding. How much of an impact does this have on war, terrorism, and fighting in general?

Dispositional DTA studies how inducing people to think rationally about death vs. experientially could eliminate the effect of mortality salience. Evidence has shown that high levels of DTA could be a vulnerability factor for psychological problems such as anxiety, depression, and poor adjustment to life in general.

I would also like to research if DTA is a separate type of grief that we all experience every day that is not associated with a direct loss.

My research does not need to focus strictly on death thought awareness. It is the concept I would like to spend my life working on but I feel through this I can help contribute to studies focusing on stress, anxiety, the conscious/subconscious connection, and decision making; as well as studies to understand the inner workings of the brain. Right now most of the research involving death anxiety still lacks the empirical evidence to explain the theories. It is time to start observing it in a new way.