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How do our brains handle grief? | Mary-Frances O'Connor | TEDxUArizona

Apr 24, 2024
Thank you, When I explain the neurobiology of


, I like to start with a familiar example, but for this example to make sense you must follow a premise, and the premise is that your dining room table has been stolen. I'm not sure why your dining room table was stolen, but it doesn't matter for the example to work, so one night you wake up in the middle of the night and realize you're thirsty, so you're going to get up. and you go to get a glass of water, so you walk down the hall and you know, it's practically dark and you walk down the hall and you're crossing into the kitchen through the dining room and right when your hip hits the dining room, it doesn't.
how do our brains handle grief mary frances o connor tedxuarizona
You don't hit the dining table but you feel it good, you feel that space where the dining table should be now. This is actually something that is very difficult for a neuroscientist to explain. We understand how sensation works. We know that there are peripheral nerves and they are captured. information from the real world and send it to our brain and that's when you feel the dining room table. What is more difficult to understand is how the absence of something draws our attention in that way. Well, it's because you're not actually walking in the world or rather. you are actually walking in Two Worlds at the same time, on the one hand of course you are walking in the world of real furniture that we can all agree on, but you are also walking through a virtual reality that your mind takes decisions.
how do our brains handle grief mary frances o connor tedxuarizona

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how do our brains handle grief mary frances o connor tedxuarizona...

After hundreds of thousands of days of experience, this is how you can walk around the house when it's practically dark. That means you could think of it as sort of Google maps of your brain. I don't know if any of you have used it. Google Maps, but sometimes Google tells me to turn right and then I realize it's a bike path. I can't turn there, so the brain is also trying to understand what the real world is like and what we expect it to be like. and the mistake that happens when they don't match, no one expects their dining room table to be stolen and no one expects their loved one to die, even when someone has been sick for a long time, no one really understands what it will be like to walk through this world without that person that is so ingrained in our understanding of the world know that I have been studying


from the perspective of the brain and over time I thought about having to match a world where we believe our loved one should be. and the current reality in which they have died, you could almost think of grief as a form of learning since I published the first neuroimaging study on grief in 2003.
how do our brains handle grief mary frances o connor tedxuarizona
I have often been asked why I have dedicated so much of my career to study grief. and grief I think often people are just curious, but they may also want to know if they can trust me, they may want to know if I too walked the Dark Night of grief and loss and knew pain when I was in the eighth. In grade four my mother was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. There were cells in every lymph node the surgeon removed, so we knew they had already traveled to other parts of her body. What I didn't know because she was a girl is that she was she.
how do our brains handle grief mary frances o connor tedxuarizona
I only intended to live all year round, but I did know that the pain came to our house. My mother's oncologist described her as her first miracle. She lived another 13 years, a respite from the universe for my sister and me, and what that meant was when she died when she was 26 and already in graduate school. I became comfortable with people who were grieving when I interviewed people and they cried uncontrollably. I understood and then tried to listen very carefully to what they were telling me, what they were feeling and thinking, and compare that to the brain images I was seeing on the neuroimaging scans, so the question that has plagued me for much of my career It's why grieving takes so long, why it's so hard to understand that this person is really gone and that and what that means for our lives, well the brain is fascinating, we can actually hear two streams of information at the same time. time, even when they cannot be true.
I call this the missing but also eternal theory, on the one hand, the brain has a The memory system has the hippocampus and we can have the memory of being at the bedside when a loved one dies or receiving that horrible phone call in the middle of the night or being at a funeral or a funeral, we know the reality of what happened. but we also have the neurobiology of attachment and when we form a bond with someone it comes with a deep belief, the belief that I will always be there for you and you will always be there for me and that is not something that goes away when someone dies and this desire for reuniting with our loved ones this longing for our loved ones is so intense as an example, you know, I was recently on a trip to London with my partner and we actually made a plan, what would happen if we separated?
We got on the subway but the other one didn't get on. What are we going to do? How are we going to meet again? The answer turns out to be to go to the nearest Starbucks because they always have Wi-Fi. We have two flows of information. On the one hand, we know reality, we have memories of what happened and on the other hand we have this deep belief that our loved one is out there. This is how we can do things like pick up the phone and text our loved one to sell them something and then realize we can't do it anymore.
Grief requires us to resolve these two streams of information that cannot both be true, so where does this enduring attachment come from? Eternal belief comes in handy when you fall in love. with your spouse or when you fall in love with your baby, we actually have to talk about love before we can talk about grief and a lot of what we know about the neuroscience of attachment actually comes from animal neuroscience, which is why there are these little mouse mice. field. Voles are these rodents that run around the grasslands of North America and the fascinating thing about them is that they bond for life.
Once one vole has fallen madly in love with another, they will prefer to spend time together than with any other vole they know. By Zoe Donaldson at the University of Colorado Boulder has shown that when this link occurs, epigenetic changes occur in the brain, meaning that the genes around the proteins around a particular gene fold differently because they had this link, so epigenetic change occurs. in a very specific region of the brain called the nucleus accumbens which is deep in the middle of the head, it turns out that this region is also important in grief and loss, other research by Oliver Bosch at the University of Regensburg has found that when these pairs are separated -Actually, you can see that there is less oxytocin binding.
Oxytocin is you know that hormone that we associate with breastfeeding and attachment. Oliver has shown that you have less oxytocin binding in the nucleus accumbens when you separate these pairs of bound voles in mine. Neuroimaging study of grief. I asked bereaved people to come to my lab and participate in studies and asked them to bring a photograph of the person who died when they entered. I interviewed them about what the experience has been like and the guy. of the longing they still feel for the person who died. I take that photograph and scan it into a computer and that way I can show it to the person wearing glasses while they are lying in the neuroimaging scanner, this means I can see the brain activity that occurs when they look at their deceased loved one while they have that wave of pain and interestingly, that same region of the nucleus accumbens is also activated when we look at human pain and in fact, the more longing I have been told they experience for their loved one correlates with the amount of activation of the nucleus accumbens.
What we see, it is not the moment since the loss that correlates, it is that longing, that thirst, that hunger for our loved ones. that are so important to us. I really want to clarify that this attachment bond is very specific to us and only when you think about it this way does it mean that it is difficult for that person to know that it is gone, but generally the brain is very good at learning, I can understand when people are gone. gone. I teach a class on the psychology of death and loss and teach it every fall.
It's about 150 students and I teach it in kind of an amphitheater style, uh, in a classroom, you know how it is when you teach a class or if you've ever taken a class, you have the same seat every time you come to class. and as a teacher we get to know oh, this is the student who always knows the answer or this is the student who always talks too much at the end of the semester everyone leaves and the next fall I walk into that classroom and I never expect to see that one student in that seat.
I like all my students, even the ones who talk too much, but I don't have any attachments. bond with them and that is not the experience that people who are grieving have. The widow of a dear colleague who died told me, you know, I feel like he's going to walk through the door again, he feels like maybe he's gone on a trip. It takes a lot of time and, more importantly, a lot of experiences before we can predict its absence more often than its presence, so if there is an attachment bond, then it means that there will be pain, whether it is the pain of death of your mother or the death of your spouse.
I'm thinking of an example: When we have that death, when we have that experience, our brain is also wired to transform our relationship with our deceased loved one through something that psychologists call continuing attachments. continued bonds mean we are still in communication with that person. I don't know if voles actually talk to each other when they've been separated, but I know from research in our lab that it's very common for humans to do this. I'm thinking about the example of the woman. who on her way home from work felt like her late husband was playing the specific songs that were playing on the radio specifically for her or another woman who told me she felt like her husband was giving her the words to say later of her death when she was having a conversation with her son because he should have been the one there having that conversation our neurobiology of attachment allows for continued attachments it also allows us to connect with living loved ones and perhaps even form new attachments an older man to whom interviewed for a research study He told me that he had fallen in love with his high school girlfriend, they had two children.
I think there was a fence somewhere and then he told me that she had gotten sick and cried when he told me that he had taken care of her. and that she had died, he told me that he had recently gone to dinner with another woman, a woman who he thought was very different from his wife, who brought out different parts of his personality, but who felt very energized when had dinner with her and you know he told me something that I will never forget, he said he was very good then and he is very good now and that to me is what our brain allows so if we have this bond then we know that we are we are going to have pain and we also know that our brain can help us through that experience understand what life is like now so that we can find ways to reconnect and create meaningful activity in our lives.
Neuroscience is not the common way people think. grief and grief, but neuroscience really is the conversation of our times and I think the most important thing is that we keep talking about grief. I think it is important that I share my grief experience with you and ask you about your grief experience. how do we really understand what grieving is like if grieving can be considered a form of learning then it really doesn't matter how long grieving takes because learning never ends we know that we are going to feel the absence of our loved one as real as the absence of a dining table, this is ingrained in us from the epigenetics of evolution from powerful chemicals like oxytocin and our brain is also able to divert our attention to the present moment and the present moment is full of possibilities, the present can be full of pain and suffering, but it is also the only place where we can experience love and joy, it is the only place where we can notice the barista's really sweet smile for no apparent reason or the puppy running through the park just doing what he does.
The brain is there to help us understand what is happening, what our life is like now, to enable continued bonds, to help us connect with loved ones who live with love, and to restore us to a meaningful life, thank you.

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