Magazine article The Futurist

A Requiem for Lost Futures: We Grieve for Unattainable Futures Just as We Grieve for Unalterable Pasts

Magazine article The Futurist

A Requiem for Lost Futures: We Grieve for Unattainable Futures Just as We Grieve for Unalterable Pasts

Article excerpt

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. …

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