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'The search for meaning in the light of death' Q&A with Café Scientifique speaker Dr Philip Cozzolino

  • Date

    Mon 11 Nov 19

Cozzolino, Philip

Dr Philip Cozzolino from the Department of Psychology has spent nearly 20 years exploring the consequences of facing mortality, and what happens when we run away from it. Dr Cozzolino, who will discuss his findings at Café Scientifique on Wednesday gives us a glimpse of what to expect from his talk, ‘The search for meaning in the light of death.’

What drew you to researching mortality awareness?

I was always drawn to movies, music, and art that dealt with the human condition. I would consume Woody Allen films that - at their core - were existential in nature! So, when I eventually discovered social psychology as a potential path, and learned that I could study these ideas scientifically, I was hooked. I was excited to be able to add a novel approach to the field, and to provide some of the first evidence that death awareness could generate positive outcomes for people and even for society. That really kept me going!

Is it wrong to deny the reality of death?

Although avoiding thoughts of death (or even denying the reality of mortality) may be our default mode, it is not necessarily how we can develop the healthiest sense of self. We need to feel meaningful. It’s a core psychological need that we must satisfy. To believe that we have value, that we are capable, that we have purpose.

What have you found through your research?

My work (and the work of others) suggests that authentic conceptions of the self are more likely to flow from an honest acceptance of our existential reality. Avoiding/denying the reality of my death is no different than avoiding/denying the reality of my height, or of my receding hairline. Denying those and other similar aspects of my biological reality could lead to inauthentic (perhaps even delusional) conceptions of myself.

To own the process of self-discovery, we must come to terms with death, facing it head-on, rather than running from it at all costs. Much of my work shows that doing this, owning and facing our existential reality and integrating it into our lives, leads to better outcomes for individuals and for their communities. This will all be discussed in more detail in my talk.

What would you advise to people struggling with the concept of death?

Most of us are likely struggling with this process. It isn’t easy, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible and it certainly doesn’t mean that it isn’t beneficial. At some point, we have to make a conscious decision to face the truth and to accept our mortality. It is after all, the surest part of who we are. It is also what allows us the opportunity to grasp the time that we do have here with gusto, and with agency, so that we can have a greater say in our pursuits of meaning, rather than having those pursuits largely dictated for us. To quote the brilliant modern-day poet, Eddie Vedder: “I know I was born and I know that I'll die, the in-between is mine”.

Are you excited about the Café Scientifique talk?

I’m looking forward to the talk. I gave a similar talk earlier this year at a pub in town as part of the ‘Pint of Science’ event. After nearly 20 years in higher-education, I much prefer these days to bring these ideas to non-academics.

What can the audience expect from your talk?

Hopefully, they will find it exciting, but also practical. I hope that it leaves them believing that awareness of our mortality is, in essence, a gift. If we handle that information well, and if we incorporate it into our lives, it can pay dividends for us that are, in some ways, immeasurable.

What do you hope to achieve?

My goal is to generate ideas and questions from people who may not know much about this sort of work, inspiring them to think more about their own lives and how they/we can better move toward healthy states of meaning.

‘The search for meaning in the light of death’ by Dr Philip Cozzolino as part of the Café Scientifique series will take place at Batte-Lay Tea Room, The Minories, Colchester on Wednesday 13 November at 7pm. Admission is free and all are welcome to attend. Spaces are limited (first come, first served basis) so please arrive early to ensure you have a seat. To keep up to date with upcoming talks, please visit the Café Scientifique Colchester Facebook page.