According to Roman Catholicism, existence begins at conception. But that's far from a universal idea. Some indigenous cultures in the Amazon Basin, for example, don't have a cultural take on life before birth.
But no matter what we're taught about these existential questions, it seems that we're naturally inclined to believe we are immortal, according to a new study published in Child Development. The researchers arrived at this conclusion after speaking with nearly 300 children aged 5 to 12, from two different cultures in Ecuador.
Some of the children were raised in urban, Roman Catholic households, while others came from communities steeped in indigenous Amazon culture. The researchers showed the young participants photos of a woman, a pregnant woman and a baby. In an attempt to understand the children's understanding of "pre-life," or existence before conception, they asked the kids to describe the illustrated baby's thoughts and feelings before it was conceived, while it was in the womb and after it was born.
Despite their different backgrounds and cultural norms, the children came up with surprisingly similar answers. The kids acknowledged that a baby's body was formed during its mother's pregnancy, but they also believed that the essence of its being, including its hopes, desires and emotions, existed prior to its conception.
"Even kids who had biological knowledge about reproduction still seemed to think that they had existed in some sort of eternal form," said lead researcher Natalie Emmons in a statement. "And that form really seemed to be about emotions and desires."
Emmons and her colleagues think that, regardless of what religious or spiritual beliefs they adopt later in life, humans may be naturally inclined to form notions about immortality and believe that some part of cognition remains outside the human body. Why that inclination evolved, and what role it might have played in the genisis of global religions, however, are questions that reach beyond the study and, perhaps, human understanding.