Instinct to Die
Instinct to DieI have observed my mom’s depression following her menopause and my friend’s suicidal phases during her PMS that would later cause her to go to a mental hospital. People facing unexpected biological and bodily distress say, “I can’t take this anymore. I want to die.” Why do our brains call for death? Is there such an instinct as a desire for death? That was my initial question.
My initial interest was in investigating the instinct for death when the body experiences pain. I have found the scientific explanation of near death experience which led me to investigate other ways the brain uses endorphins in enhancing pleasure or reducing pain. The brain is a complex mechanism that is sensitive in responding to the needs of the body. Though there are some counter-examples, the use of endorphins is generally beneficial for humans.
I found an interesting fact, which had been broadcasted by BBC. They say at the moment of dying, we feel good. When humans die, the beating of the heart stops which eventually ceases the blood flow into the brain. Then the brain perceives it as a sign of death. In response, the brain releases endorphins at maximum levels throughout the body. (4)
We are familiar with this hormone called endorphin. It is a neurotransmitter that is commonly generated when we laugh. Endorphins act like morphine relieving pain in human body. Why the brain releases maximum amount of endorphin at human’s last moment has not yet been resolved. But in point-of-view of evolutionary psychology’s, it might be a phenomenon of human’s instinct to overcome the fear of death.
Can this happen without actually dying? We can experiment by artificially ceasing the blood flow into the brain. For example, during the training of an air force pilot, the pilot enters into a machine that goes around and around to adapt to different air pressure. As this machine’s rotating speed increases, the pilot experiences the similar phenomenon as described above: There is not enough blood flow into the brain at some point—a fake death. Oftentimes, the pilot passes out. When s/he regains consciousness, the pilot describes the experiences the same way as those who have undergone a near death experience.
People with near death experience describe a very similar experience. They witness a bright spot in pitch darkness, and they pass through a bright tunnel towards that spot, and finally arrive at a place so bright as if they were in heaven. (5) But this can be considered as a type of hallucination due to an overwhelming amount of endorphins released. As described above, this is an evolutionary aspect of human’s overcoming of the fear of death.
Along the same lines, we can find other examples of the brain’s use of endorphin sometimes to reduce pain and sometimes to increase pleasure. For example, endorphin levels are high for both mother and baby to reduce pain during labor and delivery. (2) It is surprising to know that herbivores bit in the neck by carnivores cannot feel any pain for the same reason. They are called ‘god’s gift.’ When we immerse our hand into hot water, our brain releases endorphin to offset our pain.
In addition to reducing pain, endorphins increase pleasure. During the act of masturbation, it is reported that holding of breath intentionally or an infrequent breathing rate will cause orgasm sooner. This implies that the lack of oxygen in our brain releases a large amount of pleasure hormones.
Sometimes, the releasing of endorphins causes harm to humans. One example is runner’s high. When we exercise and sweat, we feel good because the brain releases endorphins. The bad news is that we can be addicted to this high and injure our joints due to excessive exercise. (1)
Human race has been evolved in such a way to free from the self from pain and fear. As a result of this evolutionary process, the brain has found the value of endorphins and has learned to use it in many different circumstances as described above. Nowadays, there is much research going on about these issues in the field of neuropsychology.
Does the endorphin encourage people to want to die? How about in the case of suicide? It has been reported that in the case of suicide of accident, there is no difference in endorphin level in the case of suicide or car accident. There is only high level of endorphins when humans die naturally. The brain does not encourage the death because only natural death is pleasurable.
Recently, I was horrified to hear that a Korean celebrity, Jin Sil Choi, committed suicide leaving behind her two sons after reading vicious comments about her on the internet. Suicide is also a form of death. My initial question in this paper had also been aroused by my friend’s constant suicide attempts during PMS. This led me to another question: Is the brain’s call for suicide a coincidence, or a foreshadow for body’s need of the endorphin quench as a last resort?
It is interesting to note that the result of blood test of a person who died from illness or age, there has been found a large amount of endorphin—a happy ending. However, It indicates going with the natural flow as a true god’s gift.
The study of hormone is my major interest for me at coming from a biology major. It is because humans’ behavior is dominated by the balance of hormone level in the body. Especially during a season like this, people with seasonal disorder or light deficit disorder need sufficient amount of endorphin to carry their days on.
Human’s instinct is very honest. At the moment of drowning, a person tramples down a safe guard to save a breath and survive. Extremely poor and hungry, a Korean singer, Rain, lived on ramen noodles to satiate his hunger for a couple of years and fought against poverty with all his might. His instinct to survive brought a fortune to star as a 'rookie racer' for the Hollywood movie Speed Racer produced by Joel Silver and directed by the Wachowski brothers. As a result, he has become a world star now featured in discovery channel. Because there is the brain’s instinct to live, to minimize the pain, and to maintain the comfort, the endorphin’s popularity in neurobiology field never fades and it takes a vital role in human’s daily life.
The brain uses endorphin in many different ways sometimes to relieve pain and enhance sexual pleasure. Although there are some evidences that support the evolution of endorphin, it is still unproven. But I still think it is likely a theory. One day, the research will bring more compelling evidence to support this theory.
The ironic intimacy between endorphin and death features tomorrow’s ever increasing possibilities on solving the mystery of human brain. My next question is as follows: Why cannot the brain release this pleasure hormone for those with depression and PMS? What blocks the release of this hormone in their neural mechanism? Brain knows the answer but we have not figured out everything. It would take a while to be answered, but hopefully, the more we approach to reveal the behavior of the brain, the better we can close the gap between the brain and mental health.
1. Boecker, Henning. “The Myth of Runner's High Revisited with Brain Imaging” Mar. 2008. University of Bonn. 2 Feb. 2009. <http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-03/uob-tmo030308.php>.
2. Lothian, Judith A. “The Birth of a Breastfeeding Baby and Mother” Winter 2005. The Journal of Perinatal Education. 07 Feb.2009. <http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1595228>.
3. Myers, Kathleen. “Near Death Experiences: Transcendental Apprehension or Cognitive Mayhem?” 04 May 2007. Serendip. 07 Feb. 2009 <http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/437>.
4. Percy203. “The Day I Died.” 21 June 2008. Youtube. 20 Feb. 2009. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j-sk2qW1tcc&feature=related>.
5. Ring, Kenneth. “The Greatest Gift.” Near Death Experience Research Foundation. 21 Feb. 2009. <http://www.nderf.org/Ken%20Ring%20Intro.htm>.
6. “Vision, Mission & Beliefs.” 16 January 2007. Childbirth Connection. 21 Feb. 2009. <http://www.childbirthconnection.org/article.asp?ck=10184#hormones>.