Don’t sneer, national mourning is a fundamental part of human bonding. Here's the neuroscience
The funeral of Queen Elizabeth II saw hundreds of thousands of mourners line the streets of London to pay their respects to Britain's longest-reigning monarch.
On 8 September 2022, Queen Elizabeth II died at the age of 96. At the time of writing, the UK is in the midst of a prolonged period of national mourning.
Regardless of your thoughts about the monarchy, it’s undeniable that countless people are genuinely saddened by the Queen’s passing, and are experiencing profound grief.
However, grief is a very complex and demanding process. so, why are so many experiencing grief, something taxing for our bodies and minds, over the loss of someone that so few of us have met? (Although nearly a third of Brits say they saw the queen in the flesh in their lifetime). Rather than an anomaly, such grief is actually commonplace. Because of how our brains work.
Humans are incredibly social creatures. It’s the basis for our dominance of the planet. We form emotional connections and investments in other individuals like no other species. But despite what many assume, this need not be a mutual thing. It’s entirely possible for us to become deeply emotionally invested in someone who doesn’t even know we’re there. Our brains are just that good at forming connections with others.
Dedicated neurological regions for social connections exist, like many of those found within an area of the brain called the striatum. As well as that, all the information we possess about another individual, the information which allows us to form and maintain strong emotional links to them, is stored as activity within our brain, in regions like the medial prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex.
Usually, this information is obtained via the senses, thanks to the things we see, hear, and learn about another person. But it’s no great leap to have this information largely generated by more ‘internal’ processes, like our imagination. It ultimately all ends up as neurological activity, in any case.
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It's hardly uncommon. Anyone who’s ever had a powerful adolescent crush on someone from afar, or who’s felt like a podcast host is a close personal friend, will know what it’s like to be in a parasocial relationship.
This is a relationship that is entirely one-sided, with all the emotional investment directed from one person towards another, with the latter being largely oblivious to the whole thing. Parasocial relationships are the basis of celebrity culture, and every sort of fandom.
After all, it’s entirely possible for people to develop deep and powerful emotions for individuals who don’t even exist. Taking this into account, it doesn’t seem so odd that people would develop genuine emotional connections and affections for a real individual who was a consistent part of their world, and represented them and their country for multiple decades.
Accordingly, they would also experience grief when that person dies. And because human sociability is so important, we’re often keen to express, or share, that grief with others, who feel similarly. It’s another way of bonding, of reinforcing our remaining connections, at a time when we’ve lost one.
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Humans are not just social. We’re also hierarchical; we instinctively care about status, about being looked up to by others, and looking up to others in turn.Being particularly low status, at the bottom rung of the social ladder, so to speak, or to be cut off from others entirely, is known to cause a lot of stress and anxiety for a social species. It actively causes the release of stress chemicals, like cortisol, from the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, the fundamental neurological network that controls levels of stress chemicals in our body.
And there are few species more social than humans. Our powerful brains can easily recognise high-status individuals, so in an effort to become one ourselves, we learn from others and the examples they provide, and often end up mimicking them. So, from back in the early days of our species, where aspiring to be like the best hunters or warriors was a useful survival trait, to the present day, we’re often inclined to look up to, to want to be like, and identify with, the visibly more successful members of our society.
In the case of the Queen, there’s a lot of this at work. In the UK, it was a commonly held belief that she was the best of us, that she represented us to the world, with grace, dignity, and decorum. So, many people identified with the Queen, felt that she was ‘on our side’, and so on.
Yes, she was immensely privileged and wealthy, but that wealth was also ‘ours’ in a way that the vast fortunes of folks like Jeff Bezos are not. Of course, many will also point out that this representation of the Queen is almost entirely a fictional construct, maintained by established interests to maintain the status quo, and behind closed doors, things were very different.
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The thing is, even if this 100 per cent true, those ‘closed doors’ are key. The vast majority, living busy lives with concerns and priorities of their own, will only know or see the portrayal of the Queen presented to them. It’s entirely reasonable for them to look up to and admire this ‘portrayal’, and experience heartache when it’s gone.
And because we value status so much when around similarly-minded people, it can lead to one-upmanship in the expression of grief, hence we’re seeing much overt, even competitive-seeming, expressions of grief. Because for many, it’s not enough to just be sad, they’ll need to be the saddest.
Change in an uncertain world
While the death of a high-profile and beloved individual often leads to widespread public mourning, the Queen’s passing is affecting us on an even more profound level. Because the Queen was visibly the (nominal) head of British public life for seven whole decades.
For someone living in the UK, she was just ‘there’. All day, every day. On our money, our stamps, in the anthem, involved in all our laws and politics. She was essentially inescapable. This means that, regardless of your actual feelings towards her, for British people under 70 (i.e., the large majority of us), the Queen has been a reliable part of our everyday existence, our whole life. Prime Ministers and politicians come and go, but the Queen was part of our world, like the white cliffs of Dover.
So, her death means that something about our world that seemed reliable and unchanging… isn’t. The world is suddenly, and fundamentally, more uncertain. And the human brain doesn’t like uncertainty; it causes stress and discomfort.
We maintain a ‘mental model’ of how the world works. This is where our brains combine our memories, our understandings, our beliefs, our attitudes, our assumptions, and everything else of use, in a vast complex network. This allows us to simulate, and therefore predict, how the world around us works, or will work in certain situations, which guides our behaviour, thinking, decisions making, and more.
When something challenges or disrupts the mental model, our brain doesn’t like that. It effectively undermines everything we think and do, which is why people are stressed by change, or uncertainty (which renders our mental model ineffective, because we can’t figure out what’s going to happen). It’s also another aspect of why grief is so devastating; our mental model of the world includes the people we’re close to, and when we lose them, all our assumptions and expectations about the world are lost too, massively increasing uncertainty and stress.
If someone truly did admire and love the Queen, it may well be a double whammy. Not only is someone they were emotionally invested in gone from the world, but their wider understanding of how the world worked inevitably would have included the Queen being the head of the UK state. As she had been their whole lives, more likely than not.
So, even if you were utterly ambivalent about the Queen, you may still find yourself reacting to her death with sadness or unease. Because she was a reliable part of everyday life. And when something you rely on is no longer there, that’s distressing in its own right.
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Dean is a neuroscientist, author, blogger, occasional comedian and all-round ‘science guy’. He is the author of the the popular Guardian Science blog ‘Brain Flapping’ (now ‘Brain Yapping’ on the Cosmic Shambles Network with accompanying podcast), the bestselling books The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain, and his first book aimed at teens, Why Your Parents Are Driving You Up the Wall and What To Do About It.