By Chris Haring

Dr. Mary-Frances O’Connor, a leading researcher in the field of grief, explains the neurobiological origins behind a deeply personal, emotional experience.

Anyone who’s experienced the death of a loved one knows grief can often be a uniquely intimate experience and that, despite some fairly universal themes, no two sets of circumstances are perfectly parallel.

In her TEDxUArizona talk titled How do our brains handle grief? Dr. Mary-Frances O’Connor – an associate professor of psychology at the University of Arizona and a leading researcher in the field – attempts to better understand why we experience those losses in such a complex fashion by delving into the process’ intricate neurobiology.

When a loved one dies, our brains change epigenetically

Grief, Dr. O’Connor explains, is a complex emotional journey that mirrors the learning process. Just as our brains process sensory information from the external world, she says, they construct an internal virtual reality based on our accumulated experiences. This virtual world, which the doctor likens to the “Google Maps” of our brain, is deeply rooted in our “attachment neurobiology.”

This phenomenon binds us to our loved ones, the doctor says, by fostering an enduring belief that they will always be there for us – and we for them. The resulting bond is so powerful that when a loved one dies, we continue to yearn for their presence, driven by neurochemicals like oxytocin, which makes it so challenging to truly accept their permanent absence.

“Attachment bonds” are not unique to human beings

To understand the origins of this attachment bond, Dr. O’Connor draws from research on animals like voles, who form lifelong bonds. These bonds lead to epigenetic changes in the brain, altering how genes express in regions like the nucleus accumbens, as this same brain region activates during grief.

Dr. O’Connor emphasizes that this attachment bond is specific to the particular individual who died. This uniqueness explains why it takes time and numerous experiences before we can subconsciously predict their absence more often than their presence.

“Continuing bonds” ensure that our connections are never completely broken

Remarkably, however, our brains can transform our relationship with our deceased loved ones through “continuing bonds,” which enable us to stay connected with the dead in various ways, such as “feeling” their presence: a testament to the enduring power of our attachment neurobiology.

Whether we lose somebody close to us in a sudden, traumatic event, or they are diagnosed with a terminal illness and can choose Death with Dignity, we all unfortunately experience grief. As findings from researchers like Dr. O’Connor continue to unravel the science behind the emotion, we hope that a better understanding leads to more open and honest conversations about death, dying, and choosing one’s own path at the end of life.

Watch the video below:

How do our brains handle grief?

Dr. Mary-Frances O’Connor
Published: May 28, 2023