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Is the Afterlife All in Our Heads?

A nascent field of research explores what happens in the grieving brain.

Key points

  • Many grievers are comforted by the sense that their loved one is near.
  • By putting grieving people in an MRI, researchers are studying the grieving brain.
  • "Here, close, now" neural activity may explain our sense that our loved ones' energy lives on.
Andrew Neel/Unsplash
Source: Andrew Neel/Unsplash

Are they out there?

Spend any time with people in grief and you are likely to hear about moments when they felt...knew...that their loved one was present, just out of sight, behind the veil between worlds. You will also hear stories of things…happening. Inexplicable things. Things that feel important. Like signs.

Yes, even me.

The sense of our loved ones’ presence is enormously comforting to the many of us in grief who experience it. Because of that, and some other things I discuss with only a trusted few, my belief system since my husband's death has expanded in ways I never imagined it would or could.

Of course not everyone—not even everyone who is grieving—experiences this or believes it possible. As an atheist, I am surprised that there are people who believe in God, whom no one has ever seen, but will not entertain the possibility of an afterlife for people they knew. Even more surprising are people who are hostile to the very notion that some part of us continues when the machines we live in die.

Do we delude ourselves? Very well, we delude ourselves. But if the thought that our loved ones’ energy has simply taken another form brings us comfort, where is the harm in that? Not that I like when people say that; it feels patronizing about something that feels exceedingly profound.

Here, Now, Close neurons

But now I am having to reconcile my beliefs with what I learned in a new book, The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss, by neuroscientist Mary-Frances O’Connor. Grief is among the most recent human experiences to be put into an MRI, and this book looks at all researchers in this nascent field of study know so far about what happens in the brain in grief.

The very first chapters shot like an arrow to a painful point with the here, close, now theory of neural activity, which scientists believe explains the sense of our loved ones’ presence.

“All beings need certain things for survival,” O’Connor explained in an interview. “Food is one of them, and the brain developed a way to track when and where it was going to be able to find food. This was so important to survival that it was very well worked out that the brain could map where to go and when there would be food there and so forth.”

When we developed into “a new species of mammal,” she says, one that also needed a caregiver to survive, our brains evolved to keep track of that essential being. “It developed a different dimension, which was closeness,” O’Connor said. “The brain treats it as a dimension in a similar way we treat time and space. Closeness helps us to predict whether you will reunite with that person.

“We spend a lot of mental resources keeping track of where [our loved ones] are and when we’ll see them next,” O’Connor continued. “That closeness helps us to weather all the small emotional changes that the closeness dimension enables us to remember.”

Even when a loved one is out of our sight, we remain aware of them. Our brain develops processes for keeping track of where they are and when we will see them next. Our loved ones’ position in space and time takes up neurological real estate in our brains at all times.

When a loved one dies, those neurological processes don’t die with them. They keep whirring, trying to locate that loved one, and, when all else fails, locating them in…you know…the energy. That feeling that they’re with us. Watching over us. Or—in those moments that go from hopeful to heartbroken in a flash—are about to come through the door.

That feeling, researchers say, is all in our brains, our biology, our neurons.

Carrying them in our hearts and neurons

O’Connor finds this reassuring. Perhaps here, now, close is a way of carrying our loved ones forward into the rest of our lives.

“When they were alive our brain was creating those dimensions of here, now, and close, and so those dimensions live on in our brain,” she said. “They live on in us. We still have access to all that relationship knowledge and information. We have access to a part of them that was with us before and is still with us.”

Grief expert David Kessler says that when a loved one dies, a part of us dies with them, and a part of them lives on in us. Certainly, after 35 years with Tom, the person I am today has been strongly influenced by our relationship, and by Tom himself. He lives on in me in the music documentaries I still watch, my affinity for the Rolling Stones, my respect for hard work and a well-played guitar, among other things.

And now I know he also lives on in my here, now, close neuronal activity. Which is nice, but not as nice as the idea that he is out there, somewhere, living in what my late brother, Oliver, called the “parallel universe”—which is the belief I tentatively hold. I’m told it relates to quantum physics, but that just cramps my brain. I don’t understand it, so I stick with the squishier “belief.”

There’s a lot we still don’t know about the brain, and we are even more clueless about what happens after death. With this new research in a new field I don’t yet feel compelled to abandon my beliefs. Here, now, close neural activity in the bereaved research subjects was triggered in the MRI by words paired with photographs of the late loved ones. In other words, the here, now, close neurons reacted to an external event—a reminder of the loved one.

But what about the feeling that sometimes comes over us at random moments, without an obvious, triggering event? Is it also possible that those neurons are triggered because our loved one is, in fact, here, now, and close? Sure, there’s an argument against that—a subliminal trigger, beyond our consciousness.

Shame, stigma, and lost credibility

Do I sound ridiculous? I know. These things are uncomfortable to discuss, and we risk credibility when we do. In his fascinating book, Visions, Trips, and Crowded Rooms, Kessler writes that when people who work closely with the dying—psychologists, nurses, hospice workers—talk among themselves, away from the judgment of others, they will speak about the consistent behaviors they witness as people prepare to pass from our world. Dying people frequently have visions of loved ones who have passed; or a strong conviction that they are about to take a trip; or their rooms suddenly become crowded with visions of the deceased. These specific experiences are witnessed over and over, but discussion of this is done privately, in hushed tones—and in Kessler's book, which is a collection of interviews.

I know that for many people, neuroscience is a more logical and comfortable explanation of otherworldly phenomena than otherworldly explanations are. And certainly the here, now close research adds a new facet to my beliefs. But so far, for me, the two theories are not mutually exclusive, and so I will hold both in my thinking and wait and see. We’ll all learn the answer someday.

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