Brain’s Unconscious Loss Processing May Support Grief Resolution

Brenda Patoine
August 23, 2018
animated cartoon brain

A whole-brain representation of the neural signature associated with processing the loss of a loved one. Activation of this signature in the absence of a conscious thought of the loss correlated with less severe grieving. (GIF courtesy of Noam Schneck; adapted with permission from Biological Psychiatry: CNNI 2018 in press.)

What might grief look like in the brain? Is there a neural “fingerprint” associated with thoughts of a loved one, conscious or otherwise? Does the frequency with which that fingerprint shows up have anything to do with whether or not a bereaved person is able to move on from the death of a loved one and resume normal daily activities?

As psychiatry grapples with how to differentiate “normal” grief from bereavement-related depression and otherwise complicated or prolonged grief, one young scientist is tackling these questions from an altogether different angle, looking inside the brains of people recently bereaved due to suicide to identify grief-related patterns of neural activity and to track how those patterns might affect grief resolution.

Noam Schneck, Ph.D. a psychologist and assistant professor at New York State Psychiatric Institute/Columbia University, set out to test the idea that the right amount of loss processing is critical to a healthy resolution of grief. Previous research has suggested that there is a Goldilocks effect with grief processing: too much conscious focus on the deceased may represent unhealthy rumination, and too little conscious focus suggests avoidance or denial. Both extremes are associated with “complicated grief,” described as an inability to adjust to the loss of a loved one over the course of the first year following the death.

Through an eloquent series of experiments using functional MRI, Schneck and colleagues discovered that the brain strikes the balance between these two extremes through unconscious processing, as if running a program at the neural level even when the bereaved person is not consciously aware of thinking about their loved one. In a paper in press in Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, Schneck reports that this unconscious processing by the brain correlates inversely with severity of grieving: people whose brains ran this program outside of conscious recollection of the deceased, showed less impairing and painful grieving.

Schneck’s team first identified specific brain patterns associated with thinking about the deceased loved one, discovering a neural signature indicative of attention to the deceased. Then, they employed a machine-learning technique to identify how often the same neural fingerprint appeared while participants performed an attention task in the brain scanner. Every 25 to 35 seconds during the task, participants were asked if they were thinking of their loved one, enabling the researchers to determine how often deceased-related brain patterns appeared even when the participants weren’t consciously thinking about their loved one.

“This research suggests that healing and growth may continue even when a person is not actively thinking about the loss,” Schneck said. “Specifically, during times when a person is engaged in another activity unrelated to grief and not even thinking about their loss, the brain continues to engage with the loss and potentially work through the mourning process.”

Schneck says he hopes the findings will advance the knowledge of how complicated grief develops, assist in identifying people at high risk for developing it, and pave the way for effective psychological interventions.

The study is ongoing, and researchers are currently recruiting participants who have suffered the loss of a loved one due to suicide, who are at greater risk for complicated grief. Information about participating can be found at the study website. This work was funded by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.