A guest post by Ginette Paris. The following is excerpted from her acclaimed book Heartbreak: New Approaches to Healing - Recovering from lost love and mourning. Read Part I.
§ The neuroscience of bereavement
Much of neuroscience implies ultra-specialized research in the lab which is then communicated in its specific jargon. For example, when referring to the human capacity for compassion, neuroscientists define compassion as “shared neural circuits for mentalizing about the self and others”. I translate their jargon to explain how heartbreak messes with our brain. I use the metaphors of crocodile, puppy and wise human to differentiate the three levels of reactions and explain how to move from one level to the other.
a) The crocodile psyche (reptilian brain)
Nobody can control the brain, yet we can relate to its instinctual reaction with more or less wisdom. Faced with an instinctual threat—a scorpion in his shoe, a snake in his path, a car about to hit him— the brain of a trained Buddhist monk, just like anybody's brain, responds with the ultra-quick startle reflex that is the result of the activation of the reptilian brain. The difference between his reaction and that of the abusive partner who hits and shouts, consists in the monk's capacity to prevent the reptilian reflex from flooding the whole limbic circuitry. Heartbreak is the perfect occasion to learn this discipline and avoid going to prison. I explain this process in simple terms, using the metaphor of the “crocodile psyche”.
b) The puppy psyche (mammalian brain): why am I a pathetic beggar for love?
Mammals possess a layer of brain over the crocodile: the limbic or emotional brain, keeper of a permanent unconscious memory of every past situation, context, symbol, image, object, odor, sound, or personality type that has ever provoked fear. This primal mammalian level of feeling, based on non-conscious memories, does not mature. It remains with us all our life and as a result heartbreak triggers regression to limbic memories. Every heartbroken individual, without exception, experiences the archetypal fears of the orphan lost in the dark forest. Our limbic/emotional brain is responsible for a repertoire of reactions that belong to the survival instinct of the little mammal.
To become conscious of the irrational don't-leave-me-or-I'll-die fear poses a logical challenge, because to overcome the fear, one must learn to survive without the partner, which is precisely what one is terrified of! The bereaved is like a patient who has been shot by an arrow-Cupid’s arrow-but is afraid to let the doctor pull it out. Living with an arrow sticking out from your chest makes life impossible.
The person who just lost his or her most important relationship emits signals of distress similar to those of any other abandoned mammal. Our whimpers and meows, howling and growling might take the form of repeated phone calls, obsessive emailing, stalking and harassment. Whatever the form in which we express our distress, the state of alarm is chemically identical to that of the abandoned pup or baby.
§ The “jump” to the highest levels of functioning: the wise human
To reach beyond the reactivity of the crocodile and the limbic panic of the lost pup, one has to jump to the higher functions of the human brain. Neuroscientists find that jump essential to adaptation to any new situation after a trauma. Our higher functions include not only the rational function, which is the territory of behavioral-cognitive approaches, but most importantly, the symbolic function, responsible for the development of art and the humanities. Since the stepping up in the higher functions of the brain is what makes the difference between those who learn something from their heartbreak and those who remain lost in the desert of neurotic patterns of attachment, it becomes crucial to adopt a perspective that goes beyond the behavioral cognitive. Science now supports the idea that the exercise of the symbolic function impacts emotions and it demonstrates how fictional outcome can create new synaptic connectors. In other words a change in the content of the imagination can change the electrical activity in the brain.
One of the most stunning recognition of the power of symbols is from the philosopher turned neuroscientist, Douglas Hofstader (2007): “An "I " is a strange loop in a brain where symbolic and physical levels feed back into each other and flip causality upside down, with symbols seeming to have gained the paradoxical ability to push particles around, rather than the reverse”.
I develop this approach in my book, along with the neuroscientific evidence which supports that strategy.
Dr. Ginette Paris is core faculty in the M.A./Ph.D. Mythological Studies program at Pacifica. Her book Heartbreak: New Approaches to Healing - Recovering from lost love and mourning oscillates between the point of view from a teacher/researcher, therapist, and subject.
"Ginette Paris is a master of metaphor. And when you are shattered by lost love only metaphor begins to reach through your bewildered mind to speak to your aching heart." -Sandra Lee Dennis, Ph.D.