The medicalised context of bereavement
The medicalised context of bereavement

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The medicalised context of bereavement

2.2 Neuronal changes during grief

Recently medical researchers have been joined by neuroscientists determined to pin down precisely those parts of the brain that are activated by the experience of grief. Although this approach might be considered to be reductionist, it demonstrates the way in which some scientists are attempting to explain complex behaviour in neuroscientific terms.

Eight volunteers who had experienced the death of someone close in the previous year agreed to be studied as part of a research project conducted by American neuroanatomist Harald Gündel and colleagues (Gündel et al., 2003). As part of their study, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans were taken of their brains as they were shown photographs of the deceased person and given words associated with the person who had died. Their results suggested that it is possible to identify parts of the brain that are activated when a person is bereaved.

Reductionist, in this context, means that the body is reduced to its component parts, as if it were a machine.

Figure 1
Figure 1 An MRI scanner

Although this particular study was of only eight people, it indicates the way in which new types of investigative science may be able to throw light on complex emotional problems. This type of research is obviously of interest to drug companies and those who may want to prioritise and benefit from chemical solutions to emotional problems.

Activity 2: The benefits of scientific study?

Timing: 0 hours 15 minutes

What benefits, if any, do you think can be derived from studying the physiological and neurological effects of bereavement?


You may have seen many benefits of testing for the physiological and neurological effects of bereavement, or you may have seen none. Certainly, some social scientists have been very critical of efforts to quantify and measure grief in such a way. However, in terms of medicalised support for bereaved people, studies such as these may derive great benefit for some. As you will see next, there is much debate on the medical handling of grief, yet if science and medicine can provide possible solutions that make life more tolerable for some bereaved people, then studies such as this may well be of great use. But a problem arises when studies such as these are accepted wholeheartedly as the ‘factual truth’. ‘Truths’ about death, let alone grief, can be problematic, so assumptions about ‘facts’ within the discipline of physiology, and science more generally, need to be open to challenge.

This activity was not intended to make you feel that you have to ‘take sides’ in a pro-science versus anti-science debate. Indeed, there has been much criticism from both scientists and social scientists about the artificial disciplinary divisions that force people to choose to support one view over another. It is more productive, therefore, to consider how both scientific and non-scientific studies of grief can contribute to understandings of the experience of bereavement.

Indeed, this has been found elsewhere. American researcher Mary-Frances O'Connor (2005) brought together some of the information that is generated in neuroscience research, such as Gündel's imaging study, and matched it to the various ways in which bereavement and grief have been studied by social scientists and psychologists. In the end she was left with questions rather than answers, pondering ‘What can bereavement teach us about the brain? And what can the brain tell us about bereavement?’ (p. 905).


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