Grieving as a form of learning: Insights from neuroscience applied to grief and loss

Mary Frances O'Connor, Saren H. Seeley

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Recent grief research suggests that the influential cognitive stress theory should be updated with evidence from cognitive neuroscience. Combining human and animal neuroscience with attachment theory, we propose that semantic knowledge of the everlasting nature of the attachment figure and episodic, autobiographical memories of the death are in conflict, perhaps explaining the duration of grieving and generating predictions about complications in prolonged grief disorder (PGD). Our gone-but-also-everlasting model emphasizes that grieving may be a form of learning, requiring time and experiential feedback. Difficulties before loss, such as spousal dependency or pre-existing hippocampal volume, can prolong learning and predict PGD. Complications such as avoidance, rumination, and stress-induced hippocampal atrophy may also develop after loss and create functional or structural mechanisms predicting PGD.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)317-322
Number of pages6
JournalCurrent Opinion in Psychology
StatePublished - Feb 2022


  • Bereavement
  • Grief
  • Neuroscience
  • Nucleus accumbens
  • Prolonged grief disorder
  • fMRI

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)


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