By Tom Jacobs
New research suggests children have a strong sense they existed before they were conceived.
We’ve all ruminated about the possibility of life after death. But what about the notion of life before birth—or even conception?
While Christian theology denies such a thing is possible, the concept that life precedes physical fertilization is a given for people who believe in reincarnation. But is such an idea learned? Or is it based on an innate feeling about our own immortality?
Newly published research that analyzes answers given by two groups of children—one urban, one rural—suggests the latter. It finds youngsters intuitively believe that their own existence, at least in the form of feelings and wants, pre-dated their conception.
“Even kids who had biological knowledge about reproduction still seemed to think that they had existed in some sort of eternal form,” lead author Natalie Emmons, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at Boston University, told the institution’s news service. “And that form really seemed to be about emotions and desires.”
Very early on, it seems we develop a feeling that we existed before our bodies came into being. From there, it’s an easy leap to believe we will continue to exist after our bodies fall away.
Emmons and co-author Deborah Kelemen interviewed two sets of children in Ecuador—one in an urban area outside the capital of Quito, where the population is overwhelmingly Catholic, and another in an indigenous Shuar village in the Amazon basin. They were curious to discover whether the Shuar children, who grow up in a natural environment and learn early on about the cycle of life and death, would have different assumptions than kids raised in an urban setting.
Both groups were divided by age into four blocks (ages five-six, seven-eight, nine-10, and 11-12). All were shown three drawings: One depicting their mother before they were conceived, a second showing their mother while she was pregnant, and a third featuring the child as an infant.
While looking at the image of their pre-pregnancy mother, the kids were asked specific questions about their “pre-life capacities.” After answering such questions as “Could you be hungry?” and “Could you feel sad?” they were asked to explain the reasoning behind their answers.
Surprisingly, the researchers found the urban and rural children gave pretty much the same answers. By ages seven and eight, they rejected the notion that they had “bodily capacities” such as sight or hearing before conception.
But at that stage of development, urban children endorsed the idea that their emotions functioned during the pre-life period 70% of the time. Rural kids did so 55 percent of the time. The notion that they felt desires before conception (such as the wish to be born) was endorsed by rural seven- and eight-year-olds 62 percent of the time, and their urban counterparts 46 percent of the time.
“Rural children never provided spiritual responses, confirming that religious cultural scripts were not responsible for their response patterns,” the researchers write. Rather, their beliefs—like those of their urban counterparts—seem to reflect “an unlearned cognitive bias, rooted in intuitive conceptions of personhood.”
The results suggest that, despite belief among most scientists that the mind is a product of the brain, we possess an intuitive sense of self that is distinct from our bodies. Very early on, it seems we develop a feeling that we existed before our bodies came into being. From there, it’s an easy leap to believe we will continue to exist after our bodies fall away.
Perhaps religion developed, in part, to codify these deeply felt beliefs.