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We're All Gonna Live Forever! The Stories We Tell About Conquering Death

Shafts of sun ray light breaking through cumulus cloud
Andrew Holt
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Getty Images

"It is indeed impossible to imagine our own death," wrote Sigmund Freud in 1915. "And whenever we attempt to do so, we can perceive that we are, in fact, still present as spectators."

Humans have always struggled with this puzzle: we know that one day we will die, but imagining that reality feels unthinkable. Even in death we are somehow still there, off to the side, watching. Philosopher Stephen Cave calls this the "mortality paradox," and he says it's a problem we have wrestled with for thousands of years. Fortunately, we have come up with solutions: stories that assure us that death is not what it seems – that there are ways to live forever.

Cave says that all of these immortality stories can be boiled down to just four narratives, repeated over and over again in different forms. Each one presents a clever plan to cheat mortality, but raises new, unsolvable dilemmas.

This week: the problem of death, and the paths to escape it.

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, Parth Shah, Laura Kwerel and Thomas Lu. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can follow us on Twitter @HiddenBrain and listen for Hidden Brain stories on your local public radio station.

Additional Resources:

"The Epic of Gilgamesh," circa 1800 B.C.E

The story of Jesus and the empty tomb, Mark 16:1-8, circa 66-70 C.E.

"Reflections on War and Death" by Sigmund Freud, 1915

"Consciousness at the Crossroads: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on Brain Science and Buddhism," edited by Zara Houshmand, Robert B. Livingston and B. Alan Wallace, 1999

"Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization" by Stephen Cave, 2012

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
Laura Kwerel
Jennifer Schmidt is a senior producer for Hidden Brain. She is responsible for crafting the complex stories that are told on the show. She researches, writes, gathers field tape, and develops story structures. Some highlights of her work on Hidden Brain include episodes about the causes of the #MeToo movement, how diversity drives creativity, and the complex psychology of addiction.