Science Research Grants Related to Immortality Announced

The Immortality Project at UC Riverside awards $2.4 million to study near-death experiences, beliefs in an afterlife and the ageless hydra

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The Immortality Project awards $2.3 million in science research grants.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Phenomena related to near-death experiences, immortality in virtual reality, and genes that prevent a species of freshwater hydra from aging are among the first research proposals funded by The Immortality Project at the University of California, Riverside.

Grants totaling $2.4 million will be awarded to 10 research teams from the United States and Europe in the scientific component of The Immortality Project, said John Martin Fischer, distinguished professor of philosophy at UC Riverside. The recipients were selected from among 75 proposals, which were reviewed by a panel of seven judges drawn from the disciplines of neuroscience, biological science, philosophy, and psychology.

The Immortality Project was established at UC Riverside in 2012 with a $5 million, three-year grant from the John Templeton Foundation to undertake a rigorous examination of a wide range of issues related to immortality. Fischer is the project’s principal investigator.

“The research should push forward the frontiers of knowledge about death and immortality in various ways,” Fischer said. For example, “I expect that we will advance our understanding of the prospects for increasing human longevity and of the ability of certain creatures (hydra) to achieve a kind of immortality by reproducing themselves; that we will achieve a more refined evaluation of the nature, significance, and impact of near-death experiences; and that we will gain a better understanding of the relationship between our ‘commonsense’ or ‘natural’ beliefs about personhood, religion, or the deceased and our views about immortality.

“Hamlet famously said about death, ‘No one comes back from that country.’  But one of the projects hopes that we can gain some insights about death and the afterlife from immersion in a virtual reality that depicts a kind of survival after death. The projects thus explore a fascinating and wide range of issues through, broadly speaking, empirical research into the great questions about death and immortality.”

The research teams include international collaborations, and some involve cross-cultural studies, Fischer added.

Preliminary results of the science research projects will be presented at a conference in June 2014. Final results, and the results of philosophy and theology research proposals to be funded in spring 2014, will be presented at a capstone conference in June 2015. Both conferences will be open to the public.

Research projects funded through The Immortality Project are:

  • “The Life-Review Experience: phenomenological, psychological and neuroscientific perspectives” — Dr. Shahar Arzy of Hadassah Hebrew University, Jerusalem, will examine the life-review experience reported in many near-death experiences, including its prevalence and relationship to life events.
  • “Afterlife beliefs and their cognitive mechanisms among the Chinese: Past and Present” — Melanie Nyhof, postdoctoral research fellow at the Fuller School of Graduate Studies in Pasadena, and Kelly James Clark, senior research fellow at the Kaufman Interfaith Institute at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Mich., in collaboration with researchers in China, will assess the influence of culture on afterlife beliefs in mainland China and with Chinese immigrants in the United States.
  • “The Immortality of Morality” — Kurt Gray at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Scott Allison at the University of Richmond, Virginia, will examine the psychological factors that dispose human beings to perceive immortality, and the real-world consequences of the link between morality and immortality.
  • “Mind-Body Dualism as a Natural Intuition that Supports Afterlife Beliefs” — Bruce Hood at the University of Bristol, England; Nathalia Gjersoe at the Open University in the United Kingdom; and Paul Bloom at Yale University will examine afterlife belief and the relationship with mind-body dualism in children and adults.
  • “Identifying and Characterizing the Genes of Immortality in Hydra” — Daniel Martinez of Pomona College, Claremont, Calif., will determine what genes are implicated in making the freshwater hydra effectively immortal, research that has implications for human medicine.
  • “Death and the Self” — Shaun Nichols of the University of Arizona, Tucson, and Jay Garfield of Smith College, Northampton, Mass., will explore whether the belief in the mutability of self reduces the fear of death and belief in an afterlife in Christian, Hindu and Buddhist cultures.
  • “A Multi-Centre Pilot Study of the Mind, Brain, Consciousness and Near Death Experiences during Cardiac Arrest” —Dr. Sam Parnia, director of resuscitation science at the Stony Brook Medical Center, N.Y., will examine the nature of human consciousness and mental processes during cardiac arrest and their relationship with brain resuscitation.
  • “Religious and Scientific Paths to Immortality: A Clash of Cultures?” — Tom Pyszczynski of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and Jeff Greenberg at the University of Arizona examine why some people embrace pursuing indefinite lifespan expansion while other people reject it, and how the prospect of being able to live indefinitely changes people’s investments in aspects of their religious and secular beliefs.
  • “Modeling Immortality in Immersive Virtual Reality” — Mel Slater and Maria V. Sanchez-Vives of the University of Barcelona, Spain, will investigate how direct experience of mortality, the possibility of post-death continued existence of the persona, and independence between the persona and the physical body might influence the beliefs, attitudes, character and behavior of people.
  • “The Role of Near-Death Experiences in the Emergence of a Movement: A Quasi-Experimental Field Study of IANDS” — Ann Taves and Tamsin German of the University of California, Santa Barbara will examine the role that near-death-experience-related accounts and experiences play in shaping and reinforcing the potency of afterlife beliefs in the near-death-experience movement.

The John Templeton Foundation, located near Philadelphia, serves as a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality. The foundation supports research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution and infinity to creativity, forgiveness, love, and free will. It encourages civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers and theologians, and between such experts and the public at large, for the purposes of definitional clarity and new insights. The foundation’s vision is derived from the late Sir John Templeton’s optimism about the possibility of acquiring “new spiritual information” and from his commitment to rigorous scientific research and related scholarship. The foundation’s motto, “How little we know, how eager to learn,” exemplifies its support for open-minded inquiry and its hope for advancing human progress through breakthrough discoveries.

Media Contact

Tel: (951) 827-7847
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Additional Contacts

John Martin Fischer
Tel: 951-827-1524

Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin
Tel: 951-827-1524

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