The debilitating pain we sometimes feel at the loss of those we love is an evolutionary mystery. It could all come down to what happens in our childhoods
17 November 2021
“TIS better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” wrote Alfred Tennyson. Try telling that to someone in the throes of grief. “It’s so awful and so debilitating. People don’t eat and they don’t sleep, and they don’t function,” says Randolph Nesse at Arizona State University. Aside from the overwhelming emotional pain and sadness, grief is bad for our physical health too: those who have been recently bereaved are more likely to have health problems and even die in the weeks and months following a loss.
Evolution is famously all about survival (see “Why does evolution happen?”). So if grief is so debilitating that it leaves us unable to cope with life, why did we evolve this trait? “It doesn’t make that much sense for people to be so dramatically impaired for so long,” says Nesse.
One popular explanation starts with childhood. When we are young and vulnerable, forming strong attachments and staying close to others is a smart survival move. The reactions of children separated from their mothers – an intense “protest” phase, followed by a withdrawn period known as “despair” – are also seen in grieving adults. More recently, neuroimaging studies have backed up this idea. When grieving people think about the deceased, a reward centre in the brain associated with social bonding lights up.
The protest phase of loss is also characterised in behaviours like grieving people needing to find or see the body, thinking they have seen the deceased alive and even believing in ghosts.
This “searching” behaviour for someone you know is dead might sound pointless, but it may have been different in our …