A dying individual's mind is ruled by happiness, not fear, for a new study has found that when faced with death, the brain instinctively moves toward happier notions and images.
The findings hold on to the belief that people are emotionally stronger when faced with their own or a loved one's death than they may have ever thought possible.
The study was led by Nathan DeWall, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky and co-researcher Roy Baumeister, of Florida State University.
"It again speaks to how resilient humans are and how this tendency to cope with threats is some sort of indicator of mental health," Live Science quoted DeWall, as saying.
The scientists believe that as humans became aware of death, they also evolved what's been called the "psychological immune system."
DeWall said that due to this mechanism, the thoughts and attitudes get inclined towards the positive, no matter how grim the events are.
According to him, this behaviour is normally an unconscious mental shift.
For the study, more than 100 healthy young adult volunteers were made to think about death as a reality. They were also asked to imagine the process of their own death, as well as what it might be like to be dead.
Another group of young adults was asked to think about an unpleasant event, like a trip to the dentist's office, but not death. The participants were then made to undergo standard word tests that tapped into unconscious emotional states.
In one test, participants were give a word stem - "jo-" for example and asked to complete it to form a word (i.e., "job", "jog", "joy").
The scientists said that the individuals asked to think about death were more prone than the other participants to choose the word "joy," as against more neutral or negative words.
During another word test, the researchers offered the participants a word and asked them to pair it with one of two other words. While one of the words was similar to the target word in its meaning, the other word was more emotionally similar.
For example, "puppy" might be paired with either "beetle" (another many-legged animal), or "parade" (not an animal, but fun, enjoyable, as puppies are).
Once more, people who were primed to think about death were much more likely to choose "parade" over "beetle" as compared to the other participants.
The researchers said that this suggested them to unconsciously prefer the positive emotion associated with that choice.
"People really don't know that they do this. It's actually very counterintuitive. This picks up on the idea that when people are confronted with their own mortality, these sorts of concepts -- positive emotion words -- become readily accessible to them," said DeWall.
The study is published in a recent issue of Psychological Science.