Megan O’Rourke has a really eloquent and important article on the history of grieving in the New Yorker. She spends a lot of time on the life and death of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who invented the five stages theory of human grief. (It turns out the stages don’t really exist.) But I was most interested in this paragraph on the death of public funeral rituals – we no longer grieve with others, unless we’re grieving over Princess Diana or Michael Jackson – and how it was driven, at least in part, by the new sciences of the mind:
With the rise of psychoanalysis came a shift in attention from the communal to the individual experience. Only two years after Émile Durkheim wrote about mourning as an essential social process, Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” defined it as something fundamentally private and individual. In a stroke, the work of mourning had become internalized. As Ariès says, within a few generations grief had undergone a fundamental change: death and mourning had been largely removed from the public realm. In 1973, Ernest Becker argued, in “The Denial of Death,” that avoidance of death is built into the human mind; instead of confronting our own mortality, we create symbolic “hero-systems,” conceptualizing an immortal self that, through imagination, allows us to transcend our physical transience. (“In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die,” the young Nick Adams thinks in the last line of Ernest Hemingway’s “Indian Camp.”)
In other words, we became so focused on the internal mechanics of the mind – the private electrical events taking place inside our skull – that we neglected the social world, and the cultural web in which we’re embedded. How could a ritual compete with the id?
Furthermore, I think this emphasis on the primacy of the individual brain (at the expense of larger social structures) has only been exacerbated by the rise of modern neuroscience. With rare exceptions, the field is forced to study the brain in artificial isolation, so that we look at people all by themselves in brain scanners, or study them one by one in the lab. (It’s ironic that even the field of social neuroscience is forced to use experimental tools, like fMRI machines, that require isolation.) And so the mind becomes the brain and the brain becomes a collection of fleshy parts, like the insula and the PFC.
But we are not meant to be alone: The private events inside the brain depend, in larger part, on where we are and who we are with. It reminds me of something Nicholas Christakis, who studies human social networks along with James Fowler, recently told me: “The story of modern science is the story of studying ever smaller bits of nature, like atoms and neurons,” he said. “But people aren’t just the sum of their parts. I see this research as an attempt to put human beings back together again.”
Christakis, for instance, has done some interesting work on the widower effect, which is the poignant observation that the death of a spouse significantly increases the likelihood that the surviving spouse will also die. According to the data, the death of a wife in the previous 30 days increases her husband’s risk of death 53 percent, and the death of a husband increases his wife’s risk of death by 61 percent.
When I spent time with Christakis and Fowler last summer, Christakis told me about one of his patients, an elderly woman with severe dementia. She was being cared for by her youngest daughter, who was clearly exhausted. This wasn’t particularly surprising: there was a large body of research documenting the mental toll of caring for an ill parent. But then Christakis got a telephone call.
“The call is from the best friend of the husband of the daughter who is taking care of my patient,” Christakis says. “And he’s worried about how the husband is doing, because the husband is really stressed out.” For Christakis, the complaint was a revelation: “It might seem like an obvious idea, but I suddenly realized that the effects of illness aren’t limited to the primary caretaker. Instead, they cascade through the network, from person to person to person.” The stress of grief, in other words, was like an infectious disease.
The lesson is that no mind is an island; our neurons depend on the neurons of others. Even when the tools of modern science require us to be alone, it’s worth remembering that such loneliness is an artificial construct, a distortion of the lab.
By the way, if you’re interested in the power of social networks, I recommend Connected, by Christakis and Fowler.