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Remember this: Dark thoughts can be good for you


Joshua Hart, assistant professor of psychology, and Daniel Burns, professor of psychology
Joshua Hart, assistant professor of psychology, and Daniel Burns, professor of psychology

Looking for a way to improve your memory? Think about dying. It might help.

A new study by Joshua Hart, assistant professor of psychology, and Daniel Burns, professor of psychology, suggests having an awareness of mortality can put you in a contemplative state. Harboring these “deep thoughts” may help you to process information better, which in turn could enhance your memory.

The study appears in the latest issue of Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.

“We don’t know exactly what death is, what it means or what it will be like,” said Hart in explaining how people react when thinking about their own mortality. “We just know that it happens to everyone, and that we don’t particularly like it. There are few other topics that seem to engage people’s attention in the same way — people can even get bored by sex after a while, but death continues to inspire.”

Previous studies have typically focused on the negative aspects associated with dark thoughts such as death. Research has also shown that “survival processing” - thinking about how items in a word list could be used for survival in a grasslands scenario - improves memory for the list item.

So combining their areas of expertise – Hart specializes in death awareness while Burns focuses on memory - the researchers conducted three separate experiments to see if there was a cognitive benefit to thinking about death.

In the first study, a group of 40 Union students were asked to describe their emotions while thinking about death or a mundane topic such as watching television. In the second experiment, researchers upped the ante by conducting an online poll of 166 adults, asking either about death, or about how study participants would react if they learned they were paralyzed, another aversive topic. Finally, a group of 91 Union students were asked to jot down their emotions about death or another anxiety-inducing ordeal, dental pain.

Across all three studies, the results indicate that when people are reminded of their own mortality, they tend to produce more complex thoughts. This in turn triggers a host of psychological processes that ultimately enhances their memory skills.

“Death is a uniquely self-relevant, troubling, abstract problem that makes us think more deeply,” said Hart. “And being in this contemplative frame of mind, we process information more deeply, which improves our memory.”

Researchers believe their new study could have far-reaching theoretical implications. But they caution people shouldn’t get carried away with their own mortality.

“The effects we found were modest, so it’s not like thinking about death all the time is going to make people into geniuses,” Hart said.