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© GINA SANDERS / BIGSTOCK
Widow receives grief counseling.

We grieve for unattainable futures just as we grieve for unalterable pasts.

The manner in which we experience trauma, and how we remember the past, can determine our ability to visualize the future.

Individuals who had lost a spouse or a loved one and who were suffering from “complicated grief” showed tremendous difficulty envisioning a future for themselves without their loved one, according to Harvard researchers Don Robinaugh and Richard McNally. Those individuals were better able to envision a future with their departed spouse, even though that future was impossible. Robinaugh and McNally’s study further highlights the complicated interrelationship between memory and the mental process of visualizing the future.

Psychologists have long known that traumatic life events can affect the way we remember the past. Sigmund Freud’s theory of repressed memory suggested that the conscious human mind blocks the recall of traumatic events.

While some scientists have refuted much of Freud’s work (indeed, many people remember trauma acutely), we do know that people recall things differently, depending on the context they are in and what they are specifically trying to do. We alter our memories constantly depending on where we are, what we’ve just been through, and the circumstances under which we are being asked to remember.

For their study, clinical psychology graduate student Robinaugh and psychology professor McNally worked with 33 volunteers who had lost a spouse. About half were suffering from complicated grief, a psychological state marked by severe emotional distress and feelings of attachment for a lost loved one. Robinaugh and McNally asked some of the subjects to recall or imagine important events from their own life with the deceased, such as being together on a wedding day, a child’s birth, etc. They asked others to recall events from their own life that did not include the deceased.

Previous research on complicated grief has shown that sufferers face difficulty recalling aspects of their own life, but can more easily recall episodes involving their lost partner. Robinaugh and McNally took this research to the next level and asked the grieving participants to imagine future events or tasks for themselves, and also to imagine future events or tasks with their spouse. The participants could more easily picture undertaking future events with their spouse than without, even though these futures were impossible.

Robinaugh and McNally’s work supports a growing body of research showing that we actually grieve for the future as though it is the past. In his 2010 paper, “The Proactive Brain: Using Analogies and Associations to Generate Predictions,” neuroscientist Moshe Bar provides a partial explanation for why this is.

“Both real and simulated memories could be helpful later in the future by providing approximated scripts for thought and action,” he writes [emphasis added]. In other words, how we remember predicts what we’re going to do next.

Robinaugh agrees. “When you lose a loved one, a major aspect of what you are losing is all the moments that you imagined you would have with that individual in the future,” said Robinaugh in an interview.

“Samuel Johnson described the experience of bereavement as ‘a whole system of hopes, and designs, and expectations … swept away at once and nothing left but bottomless vacuity,’” Robinaugh noted. “Our findings suggest that, for individuals who experience complicated grief, this system of hopes and designs and expectations is held on to for a long time after the loss, even as the future (as it could realistically occur) remains difficult to perceive.”

In the years ahead, it may be able possible to measure the “trauma” of a spousal death, a breakup, a forced career change, or other stressful event on the basis of how established that relationship was in a person’s perceived future. That could help individuals protect themselves from depression and complicated grief.

“Being mindful of the way in which we are perceiving the future can certainly have a large impact on how we react to the negative events in our lives. Perhaps most notably, I think maintaining an ability to think flexibly about the future may be very valuable when recovering from stress or loss,” said Robinaugh. —Patrick Tucker

Sources: Donald J. Robinaugh (interview). “Remembering the Past and Envisioning the Future in Bereaved Adults With and Without Complicated Grief” by Donald J. Robinaugh and Richard J. McNally, Clinical Psychological Science, March 18, 2013. “Mourning That Vexes the Future” by Peter Reuell, Harvard Gazette, May 10, 2013. “The Proactive Brain: Using Analogies and Associations to Generate Predictions” by Moshe Bar, TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences, Vol. 11, No. 7.

[edited October 21, 2013]