The Isolated Mind

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 Ãmile 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.

More like this

If the brain's putative purpose is to make predications and behave accordingly, such behaviors being strategic, with strategies being reactive to counter strategies, the most effective of which would come from our biological peers, then of course we have a socially oriented brain. And we could never have felt alone, or conceived of aloneness, if we didn't.

Some other unfortunate effects of "a shift in attention from the communal to the individual experience"? "Quant," which can ultimately become a solipsistic exercise, has managed to elevate finance -- a relatively private enterprise -- over economics, which is a social (and political) science. Narrowcasting, which appeals to private (or at least finely segmented) political dispositions, has trumped broadcasting "in the public interest" (that quaint and decidedly old-fashioned phrase). Electronic games played with or against a computer seem to be proxies for team sports and other social experiences. Environmental degradation -- impairment of the commons or communal -- an enduring problem of human civilization is presently becoming acute while individualism is in the ascendancy. Who couldn't use a mood elevater? Absent that, a few more active synapses might help, too.

I think it's our basic problem-solving methodology; to simplify a complex problem, (for example, a mathematical equation), we isolate the unknown (variable), and solve for that element.

Any therapist will tell you that applying propositional logic as a problem-solving technique, to cope with uncomfortable feelings, is a fairly typical avoidance mechanism. Also known as "rationalizing".

Feelings may be driven by biochemical processes, organs, and structures in the brain and human body, but their behavior certainly isn't going to be modeled by simple math or logic. . . ("if only I had had a chance to really tell him how I felt before he died. . . " if p, then q). We want to believe this when we're grieving. We want to feel better. We may even be taught a simple "mythology" about how our feelings work. But the facts are much more complex, and the system. . . is much more complex, whether we're talking about a single human's brain-part, or the dynamics of how a family interacts. Learning to "let go" of these simple rationalizations are part of the focus of the modern therapeutic approach to overcoming personal trauma. Another part is to encourage the patient to form and strengthen those social bonds, much of this having to do with the dichotomy between trust and isolation. Ultimately, life (and the uncomfortable feelings that sometimes come with it) is not a problem to be solved, but an experience to be lived.

(that doesn't mean that I think that science and math can't inform in this area - I believe they can, but I agree that isolation is probably the wrong approach. Abstraction seems to work for large-scale complex systems.)

By Neil Prestemon (not verified) on 04 Feb 2010 #permalink

Both you and the article note that grief has become a more of a private affair without a shred of evidence. The article quotes a couple of anthropologists who give a sentence with no context or meaning.

Perhaps more people are grieving in isolation, but many of the communal grieving rituals listed in O'Rourke's article are still happening and are happening in large numbers. Many of these are linked to religious communities so perhaps your disconnection from those communities means you don't regularly observe that. Note, I'm saying those communities are generally superior, but perhaps that these beneficial communal mourning rituals are something that hasn't found a consistent place outside such communities.

The electro/chemical neural network as described by Rebecca Saxe "lights-up" areas in the frontal cortex not only when we think of others, but when we think of ourselves in the future. Ramachandran describes Rizolatti's work on "Mirror Neurons." Ramachandran's amazing example is the when we see another person in an activity, such as responding to an injured arm, the same areas light-up in the head of the injured party "and" in the head of the observer! Obviously without feeling the pain. However, if you artificially deaden the appropriate nerve in the observer, he will "feel" the pain as well! The electro/chemical neural networks are extended to others with the light through the our eyes (metaphor not intended). That is the psychosis observed in prisoners in solitary confinement; or the grief associated with the loss of a loved one we will never see again. In my career as a police officer, I have responded to many people in crisis threatening suicide. They are almost always emotionally isolated with little or no contact with others; and they don't see themselves in the future.

By Jack Leon (not verified) on 04 Feb 2010 #permalink

This beautifully written article reminded me of a line Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dallowway."

"It is the privilege of loneliness; in privacy one ma do as one chooses. One might weep if
no one saw."

By OftenWrongTed (not verified) on 04 Feb 2010 #permalink

Beyond simply connection within social networks...

I've actually been tangentially involved with some work in social psych in my (undergraduate) lab work with an interdisciplinary translational drug abuse program, and one of the big soc psych contributions to this program of study is that of contributing factors to behavior with social inclusion and exclusion. My understanding of all the work is still kind of vague, though, since I'm new to the program and in on a different part of the program.

This, then, leads me to wonder if the isolation of the grieving process could be related to the same mechanisms that underly responses to social exclusion; if there is a social exclusion process that follows from internalizing rather than externalizing grief, and what (individual) impacts could be influenced by re-socializing grieving.

With the rise of psychoanalysis came a shift in attention from the communal to the individual experience.
But that switched back with the Frankfurt School (e.g., Marcuse's Eros and Civilization). Sure, a lot of psychoanalysis concentrates on the individual, but there are plenty of psychoanalytic social analyses of melancholia and mourning.

By Karl Steel (not verified) on 07 Feb 2010 #permalink

I'm having trouble with this - Becker's book is one of my favorites, but the dependency on the hero myth for immortality is NOT a modern construct, this is why there have always been wars, because soldiers think their own immortality is assured.

Here's something people might find interesting: There is hyper-scanning work being done which involves a number of individuals being scanned simultaneously while they interact with one another.

By Nicholas Bowman (not verified) on 10 Feb 2010 #permalink

Participating in a New Orleans second line (jazz funeral) will convince, anyone of the benefits of grieving publicly, both for those closest to the deceased, the rest of the community, and even a stray visitor. Being out with others and physically moving, would seem to be much better then being home alone battling your emotions.

Maybe, this public ritual, allows the emotion to flow through the network more quickly and to spread much further, thereby dissipating the negative effects, rather than leaving them bottled up within an individual or a small network of family and friends.