By Terrence McCoy
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After moving frequently, Bering followed his mother to Florida, landing at Florida Atlantic University as an apathetic English major. But a Miami Heraldarticle about chimpanzees being temporarily housed at Parrot Jungle in Miami sparked in Bering a passion for anthropology and evolution. He called the director of the Orangutan and Chimpanzee Conservation Center and offered to volunteer. Soon, he was spending several days a week and every weekend in Miami, babysitting and changing the diapers of baby chimps. He attributes his curiosity about evolution to holding a chimp's hand in his own and noticing their similarities.
At FAU, Bering hunted for faculty members who would indulge his interest in chimps and found Bjorklund, who immediately hit it off with the precocious undergraduate. "He made me an offer I could not refuse," Bjorklund remembers of Bering's request that the two of them professor and undergraduate collaborate on a study on the minds of chimps. Soon, they were regularly driving from Boca Raton to Miami to test the ability of human-reared chimpanzees to imitate their human handlers. This work, which suggested that chimps might actually be able to learn some of what are considered uniquely human abilities, had big implications for the scientific debate about nature versus nurture and attracted the attention of the PBS show Scientific American in 2001. During filming, Bjorklund enjoyed the spotlight, while Bering, still shy, stayed in the background away from the camera.
After graduating in 1997, Bering earned a master's degree in experimental psychology at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Then he got the news that his mother had only months to live. Returning to FAU to pursue his doctorate with his old adviser while tending to his mother became an obvious choice.
Bjorklund remembers Bering approaching him with the idea for a study on the science of belief in the afterlife and realized that it was a logical next step for his own work in evolutionary psychology. And besides, he says, "Jesse would have done something like this anyway."
For Bjorklund, given his background, there was a natural way to test their new ideas on children.
To find out if human beings come into the world with afterlife beliefs (pre-installed, as it were, by evolution), Bjorklund and Bering knew they'd have to ask kids about their concepts of souls and death. At any time, that would be a tricky proposition. But this was shortly after 9/11, and the scientists knew they'd have to be especially sensitive.
Hoping to avoid the words die and kill when speaking with their young test subjects, they decided the best way to do it was to represent death in a puppet show. Specifically, a predator's taking of prey, something Bjorklund and Bering figured kids witness on television frequently.
They chose a predator that Florida schoolchildren would be sure to know: an alligator. Choosing a mouse as the prey, they say, was more or less random.
Finding the children was easy: FAU's on-campus laboratory schools the Karen Slatterly Early Child Care Center and the Alexander D. Henderson University School agreed to participate, and no one, they say, raised concerns about the nature of the experiment.
Bering and several undergraduate research assistants showed their puppet show to almost 200 children ranging in age from 4 to 12. (To provide an adult perspective, 20 undergraduates at FAU were also tested.) The experimenter, a puppet on each hand, would introduce a child to the mouse and the alligator, mentioning that mice just happened to be the alligator's favorite food. Then the show would begin.
The mouse strolled across a small puppet theater made up with a plastic tree and artificial grass, where the alligator hid. The mouse explained his woes: He was lost, sick, sleepy, hungry, and thirsty. After the mouse's brief soliloquy, Mr. Alligator emerged perfunctorily and ate the mouse. The end.
The script called for a quick and painless murder: "Uh-oh! Mr. Alligator sees Brown Mouse and is coming to get him!" the experimenter would say as his alligator hand puppet devoured the hapless rodent. "Well, it looks like Brown Mouse got eaten by Mr. Alligator. Brown Mouse is not alive anymore."
After each child had absorbed the mini-drama (no children seemed disturbed by the mouse's untimely demise, Bering says), the experimenter then got to the heart of the matter: After making sure that the child understood the concept that the mouse was no longer alive, he or she was asked a series of questions.
Will the mouse ever need to eat food again? Will he ever grow up to be an old mouse? Will he ever need to drink water again? Is he still hungry? Is he still sleepy? Can he still hear the birds singing? Can he still smell the flowers? Does he still want to go home? Is he still scared of the alligator?
Between ten and two dozen questions were asked in several different experiments, with a structured progression. Early questions were about bodily processes (Does his brain still work?), while later questions concerned sensory perceptions (Can he still taste the yucky grass he ate?) and emotions (Does he still love his mom?).
Even the youngest children, they found, understood the physiological concept of death. Nearly all of the 4- to 6-year-olds, for example, understood that a dead mouse no longer needed to eat or drink and would never grow old and that his brain no longer worked. Older kids were just as clear on the concept. But on perceptual and emotional issues, the children of different ages diverged. Older children were much more skeptical that a dead mouse could continue to perceive and care about things.