UCL Institute of Mental Health


Workshop - Death Salience

07 June 2021, 12:00 pm–4:30 pm

The unique workshop will focus on “death salience”, a notion referring to the awareness of one’s own death and includes psychiatrist, philosophers and scientists.

This event is free.

Event Information

Open to







Maria Thomas

We want to test whether this notion may point to a fruitful avenue of experimental research that can inform policy – notably in the areas of decision-making capacity and assisted dying.

The workshop will be chaired by psychiatrist Tony David (Director UCL Institute of Mental Health) & cognitive neuroscientist Steve Fleming (Wellcome Trust - Royal Society Sir Henry Dale Fellow, UCL). We will be welcoming five speakers, who will present relevant elements from their own research in this context:

  • Susana Monsó (Messerli Research Institute)
  • Shihui Han (Peking University)
  • Alexandra Pitman (UCL)
  • Quentin Huys (UCL)
  • Lasana Harris (UCL)

More information about the speakers and their presentations can be found below.

The workshop is part of a cluster of interdisciplinary research workshops examining policy issues in assisted dying and decision-making capacity which have grown out of the Mental Health and Justice Programme (funded by the Wellcome Trust).


Please book your free ticket on Eventbrite here. Your Eventbrite ticket includes a link to the Zoom meeting.

About the Speakers

Dr Shihui Han

Dr. Shihui Han is a professor at the School of Psychological and Cognitive Sciences and a principle investigator at PKU-IDG/McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Peking University, China. He investigates how sociocultural experiences shape neural mechanisms underlying social cognition and emotion and how these effects help to understand human social decision-making and behavior. He proposes a Culture-Behavior-Brain (CBB) loop model of human development to characterize cultural influences on human behavior and brain and an asymmetric race processing (ARP) model to understand racial ingroup favoritism in social behavior. He publishes over 200 research articles and a book titled "The Sociocultural Brain". He is the founding chief editor of the journal "Culture and Brain" and an associate editor of "Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience".


Thoughts of death influence human behavior and mental health, but how the brain responds to thoughts of death has not been fully understood. I'll present a number of brain imaging studies that investigated how the brain responds to reminders of mortality, changes its resting state activity, and affects the brain activity underlying subsequent behavior. These studies showed that, relative to reading emotionally neutral words/sentences, reading words/sentences that generate death-related thoughts decreased the activity of the salience network consisting of the anterior cingulate and insula and reduced the connectivity between the cingulate cortex and other brain regions during a subsequent resting state. Thoughts of death also dampened the speed of learning reward-related objects and cingulate responses to loss feedback during a subsequent reward learning task. In addition, the decreased resting-state cingulate connectivity mediated the association between salience network deactivations in response to reminders of mortality and suppressed cingulate responses to loss feedback. These brain imaging findings reveal neural activities that characterize thoughts of death and advance our understanding of the effect of thoughts of death on human behavior.

Dr Alexandra Pitman

Dr Alexandra Pitman is an Associate Professor in Psychiatry in the UCL Division of Psychiatry and an Honorary Consultant Psychiatrist at Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust. Her research interests are in the epidemiology of suicide and self-harm, the impact of suicide loss and of a friend or relative’s attempting suicide or self-harming, and the influence of loneliness and social isolation on suicide risk; applying this to the development of suicide prevention approaches. Her clinical role is in the veterans’ mental health and wellbeing service for London and South East England (Op Courage), funded by NHS England. Recent research funding includes grants from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (to investigate mediators of suicide risk after suicide bereavement), and the UCL Institute of Mental Health (to investigate peer influences on self-harm). She co-leads, with Professor Sonia Johnson, the UKRI-funded Loneliness and Social Isolation in Mental Health research network. She is a Patron of the Support After Suicide Partnership.


Risk of suicide and of suicide attempt are elevated after the suicide of a friend or relative, identifying suicide bereavement as both a genetic and environmental risk factor for suicidality. Quantitative and qualitative work suggests that these exposures have important influences on decision-making, particularly where there is strong identification with the person who died by (or attempted) suicide. Theoretical models of suicidal behaviour describe suicidal thoughts as a necessary but not sufficient cause for a suicide attempt, and identify the acquired capability for suicide (comprising reduced fear of death and increased tolerance for physical pain) as necessary for transitioning from suicidal thoughts to suicidal acts. This presentation will consider the evidence describing reduced fear of death after exposure to the suicide death or suicide attempt of others, to consider where there may be opportunities to intervene before or after the acquisition of capability for suicide as part of suicide prevention efforts.

Susana Monsó

Susana Monsó is a Lise Meitner post-doctoral research fellow at the Messerli Research Institute in Vienna, where she currently leads an FWF-funded project titled ‘Animals and the Concept of Death’. Her work has appeared in journals such as Erkenntnis, Synthese, Mind & Language, and Philosophical Psychology. She is currently finalising a book on how animals experience and understand death.


Humans have traditionally conceived of themselves as the only animals with an understanding of mortality. I will argue that this stems from two anthropocentric biases: the assumptions that the only proper way of understanding death is the human way and that the only proper way of emotionally reacting to death is the human way. These two biases need to be left aside if we want to truly assess the extent to which other animals might understand death, and the multiplicity of ways that death may be present in their lives. At the same time, however, I will argue that there is a set of necessary and sufficient conditions that any creature (human or otherwise) needs to meet in order to be credited with some understanding of death. As I will show, these necessary and sufficient conditions can be easily met by many nonhuman species.

Dr Quentin Huys

Dr. med Quentin Huys is a Clinical Associate Professor in Computational Psychiatry at the Division of Psychiatry and the Max Planck UCL Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing Research at University College London, and an Honorary Consultant Psychiatrist with the Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust. His main research focus is on computational psychiatry (mainly on computational models of decision making in depression, anxiety and addiction).


Thoughts about death – memento mori – can have diverse effects. A focus on the unavoidability of the future pain and loss can induce sadness and hopelessness. Alternatively, a focus on the fleeting nature of our temporal resources can induce an urge to act - 'carpe diem'. Here, I will approach these different components from the point of view of computational cognitive neuroscience. Briefly, decision-making involves complex assessments of potential future outcomes. These can rarely be performed in their fullness, and instead must be approximated. Work in decision-making has identified a number of ways in which aversive events or expectations can profoundly affect the contents of thoughts, and thereby the choices we make. Here, I will review some of these decision-making algorithms and attempt to relate them to aspects of death salience in the context of psychopathology.

Dr Lasana Harris

Dr. Harris is Associate Professor in Experimental Psychology at UCL. He completed his undergraduate education at Howard University, USA, and received post-graduate training at Princeton University, USA. He has held positions at New York University, USA, Duke University, USA, and Leiden University, the Netherlands, before coming to UCL. Dr. Harris is a social neuroscientist who takes an interdisciplinary approach to understand human behaviour. His research explores the neural correlates of person perception, prejudice, dehumanization, anthropomorphism, social learning, social emotions, empathy, and punishment. This research addresses questions such as: How do we see people as less than human, and non-human objects as human beings? How do we modulate affective responses to people? How do we decide right from wrong?


People are biological creatures. Making this biological reality salient reminds people of their mortality, and takes the focus away from a target’s mind, resulting less mental state inference—dehumanisation. When mortality is made salient, people often behave in ways to preserve the status quo. When minds are less salient, people reduce attributions of responsibility and agency because such attributions depend on agents with minds. Here, I discuss the interplay of mortality salience and dehumanisation. Specifically, I examine how making minds less salient in legal contexts by emphasising the biological underpinnings of behaviour can change legal decision-making, mitigating responsibility judgments and punishment decisions, and reducing the reliance on brain networks underlying logical reasoning. I then discuss how dehumanisation may interact with mortality salience to drive legal and moral decisions when discussing people as biological beings. Finally, I consider the implications for the Mental Health Act and decisions regarding mental fitness.