“Give sorrow words: the grief that does not speak, whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.”
—William Shakespeare, Macbeth
The last decade has seen great strides in understanding some of the brain science behind emotions like sorrow and joy—at least of the mechanics. Using the latest technology, scientists can see some of what goes on materially in the brain when we have certain feelings, but there is much more to explore. One area that begs further study is that of grief and bereavement. How can we use the discoveries of neuroscience to help those who are grieving avoid the pitfalls that often lead to depression? First it’s important to understand some of the ways bereavement affects us.
Study after study shows that supportive companionship is good for the body, mind and spirit; it lengthens life and improves its quality. But the wrong kind of companionship can be worse for us than no companionship at all. Destructive relationships increase stress and reduce healing time. This has been demonstrated on a physiological level in at least one American study by a husband-and-wife team of researchers, psychologist Janice Kiecolt-Glaser and immunologist Ronald Glaser. They found that people in high-conflict relationships healed at 60 percent of the rate of those in low-stress relationships. At the same time, they found that after interpersonal conflict, the body releases a protein that produces inflammatory reactions in autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease. “Moreover,” the Glasers noted, “inflammatory activation can enhance development of depressive symptoms.”
Results like these should not surprise us. Common sense alone might suggest that we should look for comfort among those with whom we are most comfortable. Klein notes that “the mere presence of someone who is familiar and trusted can ease sadness. This is caused by neurotransmitters like oxytocin and the opioids that are released in moments of tenderness.”
But could it be good for us in the right doses? Klein thinks so. He makes an interesting observation about the value of darker moods like sadness. “As unpleasant as they might be,” he says, “they’re programmed into the brain and can actually be very useful. When we have lost something, when a relationship ends, or when we have failed to reach a goal, the organism responds with sadness—a signal that we should relinquish a possibly senseless goal. Depression is a natural energy-saving program. When we feel drained of energy, we pull back and reflect, and in the end we often attain a new strength and clarity.”
Does this mean we shouldn’t work to replace negative mental images with positive ones? Of course not. The neurobiological sciences consistently find that we have the power to reinforce the positive in our brains and bring about practical neurological changes to prevent grief from declining into debilitating depression.
Whatever our loss, however, allowing sorrow to spiral into clinical depression is not a healthy option. The stress hormones that can be beneficial in the short term can turn on us in the long term, eventually affecting the hardwiring of the brain. “In the process,” says Klein, “the brain loses its adaptability.” Even worse, “if this condition is prolonged, the consequences can be devastating: gray cells shrink. . . . Other parts of the brain lose so much matter that they just shrivel up.”
The science behind Klein’s statement involves the process of neurogenesis. Over the last decade, neuroscientists have discovered that the adult brain can continue to produce new neurons in some areas of the brain. One of the most important of these is the hippocampus, which is crucial for learning and memory and is also linked to emotion and mood. Science has found that while some activities seem to boost neurogenesis in the hippocampus, long-term depression seems to inhibit it. When sadness spirals into depression, neurogenesis halts, and over repeated episodes of depression, some areas of the brain actually shrink. While there is still much study to be done on the link between depression and neurogenesis, it is blatantly obvious that depression is not a good state of mind.
So what can we do to keep our minds healthy even during long periods of grief? Because neurogenesis and depression are incompatible states, reason compels us to pursue those activities that are known to increase neurogenesis. Researchers suggest that this boils down to exercise in three key areas: the body, the mind and the heart.
Anyone who exercises regularly knows the feeling of well-being that results from sustained physical activity, so it’s no surprise that exercise has repeatedly been found to promote neurogenesis in that crucial region, the hippocampus. One study by the Salk Institute in California found that while “exercise increases hippocampal neurogenesis and improves learning,” these benefits can be realized by old and young alike, because “maturation of newborn neurons [is] not affected by aging.”
Even before neuroscience began to lay bare the inner workings of the brain, studies told scientists that those who love learning for learning’s sake tend to be happier than those who don’t. New discoveries continue to underscore the benefits of learning. According to Martin, “research shows that better-educated people tend to experience lower levels of unpleasant emotions like anxiety, anger and depression, and fewer physical symptoms such as aches and pains.” He suggests that this is because “the knowledge and problem-solving skills provided by education can liberate us from irrational worries that would otherwise leave us prey to anxiety.”
From a scientific standpoint, learning picks up where exercise leaves off in the process of neurogenesis. After birth, new brain cells either become integrated or die off, but according to Rutgers psychology professor Tracey J. Shors, “the formation of new memories seems to directly enhance the likelihood that new neurons will remain in the brain, even after the experience is over. These findings fit loosely with the phrase ‘use it or lose it.’” So mental activity is just as important to neurogenesis as physical activity.
There is a third contributor to the dual ends of encouraging neurogenesis and preventing grief from devolving into depression. It brings us right back to where we began: the importance of the right kind of companionship.
According to Princeton researchers Alexis Stranahan, David Khalil and Elizabeth Gould, “in the absence of social interaction, a normally beneficial experience can exert a potentially deleterious influence on the brain.” One of their studies found that even exercise could not encourage neurogenesis if the subjects were living in isolation. In other words, both exercise and social interaction were required for neurogenesis to take place.
As for giving sorrow words? One doesn’t like to contradict Shakespeare, but experts say some people simply don’t need to talk about their grief. That doesn’t mean they don’t have other grief-related needs, however. We just may need to step away from our cell phones and e-mail, and reach out to touch someone in the old-fashioned way instead. For if there’s one adage that applies to the bereaved and their supporters alike, it would be the tried and true “Actions speak louder than words.”
1 Daniel G. Amen, M.D., Change Your Brain, Change Your Life: The Breakthrough Program for Conquering Anxiety, Depression, Obsessiveness, Anger, and Impulsiveness (1998). 2 Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn, The Empty Room: Surviving the Loss of a Parent at Any Age (2004). 3 T.J. Wray, Surviving the Death of a Sibling: Living Through Grief When an Adult Brother or Sister Dies (2003). 4 John Bowlby, Attachment and Loss (1980). 5 Jeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D., and Sharon Begley, The Mind and The Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (2002).