The Grieving Brain by Mary Frances O’Connor

The Grieving Brain by Mary Frances O'Connor Book Review


The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss

In this fascinating and insightful book, neuroscientist and psychologist Mary-Frances O’Connor delves into the workings of the brain to explore the ‘mechanics’ behind feelings of love and loss.  Her aim is to move beyond the ‘what’ of grief (what does it feel like?) and understand the ‘why’ of grief (why does it hurt so very much?).

Cutting-edge neuroscience has enabled neuroscientists to study brain activity and to discover which regions of the brain are most active in certain social and emotional situations.  These observations are helping them to understand why the death of someone close to us feels so deeply painful and disorientating.  Mary-Frances hopes this research will help people to better navigate the often difficult journey through grief and grieving.  She believes that understanding grief ‘through a neurobiological lens can enhance our understanding, create a more holistic view of grief, and help us engage in new ways with the anguish and terror of what grief is like’.

O’Connor explains how we encode love through the creation of ‘attachment bonds’.  These bonds ensure that we build strong and enduring relationships.  They motivate us to return to our loved ones and stay close to them.  Reinforcing this, the brain works as a ‘prediction machine’, and prediction is key to much human behaviour – for example, they left for work and came home at the end of the day yesterday, and the day before that, and therefore it is reasonable to expect that they will do so today too. 

But when someone dies, our brains have to come to terms with the absence of that person.  That they no longer exist goes against the rules which the brain has learned over a lifetime.  We may know that they cannot return, but our brain is still telling us that they will.  As O’Connor notes, ‘Grieving requires the difficult task of throwing out the map we have used to navigate our lives together and transforming our relationship with this person who has died’.

This heart-wrenchingly painful problem that the brain has to solve ‘necessitates learning to live in the world with the absence of someone you love deeply, who is ingrained in your understanding of the world’.  And ‘painful’ is an apt word, since O’Connor’s neuroimaging work has shown that the parts of the brain that are activated when people think of their dead loved are very similar to those which light up when people experience physical pain.

So how do we start to overcome the utter disorientation of acute grief?  Forging new bonds and neural pathways, and having our attachment needs met in new ways and by different people, can eventually help to lessen feelings of loss.  O’Connor suggests that ‘seeing grieving as a type of learning may make it feel more familiar and understandable and give us the patience to allow this remarkable process to unfold’.

And, she emphasises, we do need patience for this process.  It takes time and gentle but meaningful effort.  It requires learning to ‘flexibly move attention’ from thinking about the past to focusing on the present and future.  Doing this, O’Connor suggests, can help to change the ‘hard drive’ of the brain and the wiring of our synapses.  Our brain starts to understand that the patterns and predicted outcomes of our past life are no longer applicable.  Restoring a fulfilling life in this way does not mean there is an end to grief, but rather that we are adapting to, and living alongside, it.

But whilst research shows that the majority of people are able to do this, there are a minority who are not.  O’Connor looks at ‘complicated grief’, where the bereaved fail to adapt over time to the loss, and she explores why this might be.  This research is in its infancy, but it is helping to shape the support offered to those who are struggling to get beyond their loss, such as Complicated Grief Treatment and Therapy. 

Whilst this book gives us an insight into current research, and goes into some detail of the relevant science and technology, is it also full of really interesting and touching stories and observations.  O’Connor draws on a lovely analogy when she compares the frequent and often uncontrollable tears she shed after the death of her father, to intense afternoon rain showers in tropical climates.  You know that they are going to come, she reflects, but you also know that they will pass.  ‘There is no point in cursing these showers, no point in being upset when the rain falls’ at an inconvenient or inappropriate moment.  Accept that they will come, and this acceptance can bring relief – the relief of no longer having to fight something that is inevitable and that will pass.

O’Connor also looks at research that shows that the grieving should have permission to not feel sad all of the time.  It concludes that engaging in activities that engender positive emotions are very effective at reducing sadness and grief.  ‘Positive emotions change cognitive and physiological states’, leading to an upward spiral.  So go to see a film with a friend, or enjoy a night out with others.  Don’t worry about feeling judged for not behaving in the ‘right’ way, or guilty that you are not thinking about and grieving for your loved one all of the time.

Finally, as Mary-Frances says, we cannot change mortality, or the suffering that accompanies loss, or the intrusive thoughts and waves of grief, but ‘if we have great courage, we may be able to learn to respond to these indisputable circumstances with greater skill and deeper understanding’.

Through this really interesting, thought-provoking and engaging book, O’Conner imparts this knowledge and understanding to a wide audience and helps us all to better navigate love and loss.

We have lots of interesting and helpful books about grief and bereavement on whiteballoon, as well as useful resources, including links to organisations that provide bereavement support.  Please go to whiteballoon Bereavement Support.

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