The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living

The way to get people to think about death is to imagine that by doing so they will never die. Recognizing this universal character trait will lead to more productive planning outcomes.

If the title sounds familiar, it is taken from a sculpture of a dead 14-foot man-eating tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde created by the British artist Damien Hirst.

Hirst sought out a shark that he said was, “big enough to eat you.” Staring into the jaws of a real shark produces an emotional reaction, and the visual power of the once-living animal sitting motionless in green liquid makes the work psychologically and visually powerful. Without the evocative title, however, it’s unlikely that the shark would be sitting in the living room of its owner, billionaire hedge-fund investor Steve Cohen.

Why the emotional response? Humans possess two systems that process information that can be simplified as the limbic and frontal cortex areas of the brain. Most real estate in our brain is shared with other animals and is the end result of evolution. This limbic system cares most about two things – reproduction and survival. Since we need to be able to survive to pass on our genes, our brains are programmed to do whatever it can to keep us alive.

A healthy fear of death is a good trait to pass genetics on to future generations. Like many emotional responses driven by our limbic system, the overwhelming fear of one’s own death is not as valuable in a world in which we are less likely to be eaten by a wild animal or bludgeoned to death by our neighbor.

What does a client think of when an advisor brings up estate planning, life insurance, annuities, charitable planning or long-term care? Each of these perfectly reasonable planning topics forces a client to acknowledge their own mortality. And our brains will do whatever it takes to avoid thinking about the possibility that we are going to die.

I sat down with Professor Russell James of Texas Tech University to discuss his research on the impact of accepting our own mortality in financial planning. Unlike other types of objective information, people respond to reminders of their mortality differently. James points out that these responses fall into two categories: avoidance (ignoring the problem) and symbolic immortality (imagining a life after death).