It’s probably a similar memory from most of us: You’re a child lying in bed at night, and you suddenly find yourself trying to wrap your mind around eternity — the room begins spinning and keeps going until you can get the idea out of your head. For many of us, it’s about trying to comprehend how death means not existing any more. Forever. If you believe in an afterlife like heaven, it’s about being there forever.
It may simply be beyond our capacity to grasp the concept of infinity, whether that’s infinite time or space. If you Google “understand infinity” you’ll find a lot of people asking if we can understand it, and if not, why? George Mason University’s Martin Weiner told The Atlantic that it may be that it’s because the frontal lobe responsible for long-term thinking is one of the last to develop as we mature. And, of course, being able to plan beyond one’s lifespan may not be much of an evolutionary advantage.
There’s a fascinating wrinkle on top of this. For many, the idea of not being, and forever, is absolutely terrifying. For some who don’t believe in death, the thought of living forever is equally so. The latter even has a name: apeirophobia. And they may really be opposite sides of the same coin, says Wiener: “I suspect that, in apeirophobia, one comes to the ‘realization’ that after death you will live forever (if you believe this), and in simulating that experience in your mind, one realizes that there is no way to project ahead to ‘forever’ — and that experience is, inherently, anxiety-provoking. As such, the anxiety that these folks are feeling may not be much different than the fear of growing up, getting old, or death.”