I am a cognitive neuroscientist and freelance journalist. After receiving my doctorate in 2015, I took up writing while I continued research on the side with colleagues at George Mason University. Since then I’ve written more than 100 nonfiction articles—some reaching over a million views—about science, technology, politics, and philosophy for publications including The Atlantic, The New York Times, Scientific American, BBC Future, Slate, HuffPost, Quartz, Aeon and others. In that time, I have also been an author on five academic papers published in peer-reviewed journals such as Human Brain Mapping, Acta Psychologica, and Cognition & Emotion. In 2017 I was hired to assist in developing Season 2 of the YouTube Premium psychology-based series Mind Field, whose premiere attracted over five million viewers.
I am the creator of the blog Mind in the Machine hosted by Psychology Today, which has received over one million views. I’ve made media appearances to discuss my articles on Fox News Radio, Newstalk National Radio Ireland, and other shows and podcasts. I have worked with The Atlantic and The Huffington Post to create scripts and videos adapted from my articles. At my website, www.bobbyazarian.com, you can view selected works and my CV.
You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Motivation for Writing the Book: Cognitive Dissonance from existential anxiety and inconsistent worldviews
The first time I really thought about death, my little four-year-old body became paralyzed with terror. My grandfather had just died after a drawn-out battle with cancer. While it’s hard to remember exactly what was going through my head back then, I know that an awareness of mortality was gradually setting in, which presented my parents with the impossible task of explaining death to me in a way that would be comforting. My mother told me that my “pa-paw” had gone to a beautiful, calm, and happy place where he would be united with his loved ones, forever, and ever, and ever. Except that additional “ever” didn’t console me. That night, I lay in bed in pitch darkness and tried my best to grasp what forever meant. But every time I thought I had a grip on eternity, it slipped further away. The largest number of years I could imagine failed to make a dent in infinity, and this filled my underdeveloped brain with an existential angst that I couldn’t shake. The idea of living forever was even more unsettling than the idea of finality in death—but only barely. I would later find out that this fear had a name—apeirophobia—and I would end up being the first journalist or scientist to really write about it,
I suspect that singular moment changed the course of my life. Not long after, I gradually began to develop an aversion to religion that I didn’t keep secret. I begged my mom to stop making me go to Sunday school, and she obliged. I had learned that praying to Jesus was the way to Heaven, but my father was a Muslim from Iran. “Does that mean daddy is going to Hell, mommy?” This time, she had no answer. While the cognitive dissonance created by the concept of an eternal afterlife may have turned me off to Christianity, my newfound fascination with existential matters motivated me to think metaphysically, and to explore other religious philosophies later in life, like Buddhism and the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, the Hare Krishna holy book. My death anxiety was kept at bay, but it was still there, always bubbling beneath the surface.
This eventually led me to science for answers to fundamental existential questions, and I became obsessed with evolutionary theory, cosmology, quantum mechanics, and the study of consciousness. My fascination with these topics cast a magical aura over the science section at Barnes & Noble, and I found myself quickly reading all of the modern classics, like Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, Roger Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind, and Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. Unlike the holy books, these epic works had no inconsistencies or self-contradictions. They explained natural phenomena in a way that didn’t violate the physical laws we live our daily lives by. While many mysteries were resolved, these books revealed new ones — deeper philosophical puzzles that were only beginning to be explored. Rather than provide absolute certainty, they sent me down a rabbit hole, and started me out on a majestic intellectual journey that brought existential comfort like I had not felt before.
Ultimately, after earning a degree in biology, I would pursue a PhD in cognitive neuroscience at the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study, a unit of George Mason University dedicated to studying the brain, mind, and complexity, using an interdisciplinary approach that brought together neuroscientists, physicists, and computer scientists. It was founded as the sister school to the Santa Fe Institute, the world’s mecca of complexity science, and had a number of external professors from Santa Fe — mostly studying the origins of life — who would become my mentors. Krasnow would allow me to explore the philosophical and existential questions that I was so passionate about in an environment that was intellectually and scientifically rigorous.
Eventually my graduate studies would expose me to something called Terror Management Theory, which elegantly explained so much of human behavior in terms of an unconscious and ongoing attempt to relieve the existential terror that is quietly festering in all of us. After earning my doctorate and following my desire to become a science journalist, the ability of the theory to explain current events constantly amazed me. Its explanatory power must have been similarly obvious to both editors and readers, because all the Terror Management Theory-related articles I was pitching were getting published at reputable outlets and shared widely across the Web. I was even contacted by literary agents who were interested in the subject. As time passed, and the predictions of the articles proved true, it became increasingly obvious to me that there was a lot to unpack, and I became involved in brain imaging research investigating the theory. The more I learned, the more it became obvious that it wasn’t just me — we are all primarily driven and controlled by our existential concerns.
Since its creation by social psychologists in the 1980s, Terror Management Theory (TMT) has influenced a number of fields, including neuroscience, psychology, sociology, political science, and philosophy. But the premise of the theory has its origin in a Pulitzer Prize-winning work of nonfiction literature called The Denial of Death, written by the Jewish-American cultural anthropologist, Ernest Becker. Becker’s big idea was that most of human activity and creativity is motivated by our fear of death. He astutely recognized that humans have a unique awareness of their own mortality. While all animals are biologically programmed to survive and reproduce, Homo sapiens are capable of abstract thought and reflection. These higher cognitive processes allow us to see that death is not only inevitable, but can occur at any time for reasons that cannot be controlled or predicted in advance. This conflicts with our natural desire to live, and that paradox causes profound terror and anxiety. Becker believed that humans invented culture to serve as a buffer for this persistent fear. By adopting cultural worldviews that instill life with meaning and value, one can effectively manage the subconscious dread that steadily hovers just below the threshold for consciousness.
According to TMT, cultural worldviews further mitigate the fear of death by providing paths to immortality. For example, most religions offer a path to literal immortality through the belief in an afterlife, a place where the conscious spirit can persist after the physical body is gone. Nonreligious cultural worldviews — like political ideologies and national identities — provide paths to “symbolic immortality.” This type of immortality refers to the feeling that one is part of something larger that will ultimately outlive the individual, such as a great nation or a movement with a collective identity and pursuit.
Another way to achieve symbolic immortality is to leave behind some kind of legacy, which can be biological or cultural. Through children, we pass on our genes, but that is apparently not enough. In every culture on Earth, progeny is given the family name, even though there is no real utilitarian value to the tradition. Once we recognize that the fear of death drives much of our behavior, it is no longer surprising that humans dedicate a great deal of their time and effort into achieving accomplishments that will help them be remembered by society long after death. Wealthy families like the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts donated enormous amounts of money so that they could have their names displayed on important buildings. They were philanthropists, but their good deeds always came with that one crucial stipulation. We could call it vanity, or narcissism, but it is deeper than that. It is human nature to want to be immortalized. While this most often motivates people to do great things for humanity, it is unfortunately also what drives the atrocities of terrorists and mass shooters. Dylann Roof, a young white male from South Carolina, might never have achieved fame or acknowledgment by society for any type of intellectual or physical accomplishment, but by shooting up a church of African Americans in a brutal massacre, he immortalized himself in white supremacist culture. In a way, symbolic immortality is physical immortality, since when you are remembered by society, an electrical pattern that represents your essence physically lives on in the brains of future generations. The figures of history exist in all our minds, some at higher resolution than others. The more you know about a person, and the more you have read their direct words, and understood their way of looking at things, the more intricate and accurate your neural representation of them will be. If you are an Einstein buff, or obsessed with Sylvia Plath, you’re essentially harboring their soul in your synaptic circuitry.
Of course, no matter how logical or intriguing a theory might sound, it is merely speculation if it makes no testable predictions that can be confirmed or disconfirmed by experiment. What might be most impressive about TMT is how much success it has had in the laboratory. Hundreds of empirical studies have provided support for the theory by confirming something called the mortality salience hypothesis. According to the hypothesis, if we do in fact adopt cultural worldviews to curb a fear of death — as TMT posits — then reminders of our mortality should produce actions that serve to strengthen faith in our worldviews. For example, death reminders should motivate individuals to invest greater support for groups to which they belong, and, conversely, to act more aggressively towards those with different cultural worldviews and national or ethnic identities. In other words, mortality salience should promote tribalism, and scientists have come up with some very clever ways of demonstrating this concept.
A particularly amusing experiment, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, weaponized hot sauce to measure the effects of death reminders on aggression toward dissimilar others. Students were broken into two groups and asked to write an essay about their own death or a control topic. They were then presented with someone who did or did not disparage their political views, and asked to decide on the amount of mouth-burning hot sauce their disparager would have to consume. In line with TMT, participants in the mortality salience condition allocated twice as much hot sauce to those who criticized their worldview.
Unfortunately, the effects of mortality salience go beyond wishing your ideological opponent a burning mouth. A 2006 study published in the same journal by the same research group found that Iranian students who were given death reminders were more supportive of martyrdom attacks against the United States, while those in the control condition opposed them. Similarly, mortality triggers made American students who identified as politically conservative more supportive of extreme military attacks on foreign nations that could kill thousands of civilians.
From these findings, it is easy to see how nations under attack or simply the threat of attack can quickly grow hostile towards those from outside cultures. For countries that are multicultural, existential threat can sow division incredibly fast. In support of this notion, a number of studies have shown that mortality salience can amplify nationalism and intensify bias against other groups. In a peer-reviewed study published in 1997, after Americans watched either a video that conjured up thoughts about death or a control video, they were asked to read a scenario about a car accident involving an American or Japanese driver and an American or Japanese auto manufacturer. The results showed that mortality salience produced a nationalistic bias in assignments of blame to the company and to the driver. In the control condition, no such bias was observed.
In light of the research, there should be little doubt whether the global nationalist surge we are currently experiencing — which fueled the Brexit movement and the rise of Donald Trump — is in many ways a result of the existential terror created by the string of deadly ISIS attacks in the preceding years, and increasing cultural fears over immigration. It is equally certain that the emergence of ISIS and similar Islamic terror groups were partially a result of the ongoing chaos in the Middle East, and its occupation by outside military forces. When existential threat looms, it creates a sweeping psychological condition that sets the stage for waves of both religious fundamentalist and far-right nationalist movements that encourage prejudice, intolerance, and hostility toward outside groups. Indeed, studies conducted just before the 2004 and 2016 presidential elections found that mortality reminders increased support for the candidate with the more nationalist message.
Given the current state of affairs in America and around the world, Terror Management Theory is more relevant than ever. The U.S. is more divided than it has been in generations. Terrorism is a growing threat, whether it is religious extremists or white supremacists. Mass shootings have become a regular occurrence. People have been driven to their ideological extremes, and tensions online and in real life are palpable. Since fear promotes aggression, and aggression promotes fear, a dangerous feedback loop has developed, and we are experiencing the self-amplification of that destructive cycle. As things stand now, we are headed down a dark path.
But there appears to be an alternative path. The mortality salience study I was involved in, published in 2017 in the journal Human Brain Mapping, showed something unexpected and quite remarkable regarding how worldviews can influence the way humans deal with existential fear. The experiment, conducted at a university in Beijing, measured how Chinese participants would respond to Koreans who treated them unfairly in an economic game after they had been exposed to death reminders. Based on prior studies, the mortality salience priming was expected to cause the Chinese participants to punish the Koreans more harshly than Chinese transgressors. But instead of the expected nationalistic bias, the opposite occurred. Mortality reminders actually attenuated the bias, such that Chinese participants were more benevolent toward dissimilar others than they were in the control condition. The participants performed the task in an fMRI scanner, and the imaging results supported the behavioral results by showing an attenuation in brain activity in those regions associated with punishment and discrimination. So how do we explain these counterintuitive results in light of Terror Management Theory?
It turns out, our study was not the first to find this effect. Based on previous literature, we believe that the mortality salience priming reduced discrimination and promoted benevolence because of the particular nature of the cultural worldview of the participants. Eastern cultures often put more value on social ties, and there is a concept of the “interdependent self,” which views the self as fundamentally embedded in a larger social world. Therefore, it is likely that under certain conditions, Eastern cultural groups defend themselves from existential threat by accepting and supporting others. Also, in our study, the participants were all females, and males and females are thought to defend against death differently. While males are motivated to display strength and independence, females often focus on showing concern and care for others. Additionally, existential threat may have motivated the Chinese participants to see the Korean participants only as Asians, focusing on their similarities rather than differences. These findings show that how we choose to deal with our fear of death critically depends on our cultural worldview. If the worldview emphasizes a sense that “we are all in this together,” existential threat can motivate compassion, unity, and love.
This should give us hope for the future. It means that there is a way to reverse the tendency toward tribalism and reduce the current chaos at home and abroad. If existential terror is sowing division, we can do something about it. There is an opportunity for all of us to de-escalate tensions and facilitate widespread unity and collaboration. So how exactly do we course-correct at this point in the game?
If we want to change our trajectory, our death anxiety buffers need revision. Our most popular cultural worldviews — the major religions, political ideologies, and national identities — divide us into categories, and emphasize our differences rather than our similarities and shared human interests. Our religions often conflict with what we know to be true about the real world, and therefore bring no genuine existential comfort. They are like alcohol, anxiety medications, or opiates — they provide some temporary relief of symptoms but do not address the underlying issue. Over the long term, they can actually make things worse.
The solution is a new cultural worldview that brings us together, and eases our existential fears without asking us to ignore logic and reason. Therefore, it should be spiritual, but also scientific. It is my passionate belief that the best path to spiritual enlightenment is through scientific enlightenment, as it is the only reliable source of spiritual truth. And it is our knowledge of science that can ultimately allow us to transcend mortality altogether.