When I was in my 20s and early 30s I never gave even occasional thought to becoming a parent. Near as I could tell there was little emotional/intellectual upside and BIG downside. Not to mention the $400,000 (currently) it cost to raise a kid and send them to a decent college.

But at some point something changed in my brain, something no one explained to me or prepared me for – unlearning happened. My mother’s favorite saying, “Kids make me n’ern (crazy),” faded away and became replaced by new learning supplied by the likes of Penelope Leach and T. Berry Brazelton (popular baby doctors in vogue at the time). Becoming a father produced vasopression-flooded dreams filled with avid curiosity, great mystery and small exciting adventures. Who was this being I’d helped bring into the world? Whom was I going to spend many years helping her become?

Associations Make it Happen

The brain is a massive, matrix-like, associative organ and it learns by making and strengthening connections between nodal points (neurons). Literally. Neurons that fire during any learning experience fire together in groups and become wired together. This is the well-known Hebb’s Rule. The next time any single neuron in the group fires, they will all fire – until they no longer do. This unwiring or disconnectivity is called unlearning and without it, we would all very quickly run out of usable network space in our matrix-brains. New learning would be extremely difficult, if not impossible to accomplish. These neurons that wire together can be thought of as the arterial connections you can readily see on Google Maps.

When we love a person or a pet or a place, over time, in stages, these connections grow in massive complexity and begin to look like the streets of Manhattan. Many, many experiences with the beloved begin to make more and more connections and take up more and more real estate in the brain, resulting in increasingly detailed neural maps.

Map by Michael Albert

Unlearning is most active and clearly evident as children go through developmental stages – from puberty to adolescence, for example. Subjects and skills we mastered in elementary school like reading and multiplication consolidate and take up less space in the brain. More neural real estate becomes freed up for learning middle school subjects like history and algebra. Leaving home and going off to college involves substantial unlearning as kids begin the work of transforming from a learned history of being our children into strong, integrated,  independent young adults.

Grief as Unlearning

When our kids do go off to college, or a partner dies or a relationship results in separation or divorce, our neural map – the connections we’ve built over time with that person – needs to begin to unravel. Until and unless they do, building a new or different, sustainable relationship becomes more than a little challenging. This is partly why rebound relationships have relatively short lifespans – too much neural real estate still contains connections holding memories of old emotional habits and routines with the previous partner. The successful, active dissolution of those memories literally retracts and disconnects the neurons in our brain from one another. This essential process, similar to unweaving a cloth tapestry, is unlearning.

Unlearning is vital for living a happy, healthy life. As Ephron Rosenzweig, Carol Barnes and Bruce McNaughton at the University of Arizona have discovered, it is essential that we unlearn in order to make room for new memories. That’s why it’s important for all of us, but especially children, to actively grieve. Because their networks are significantly less mature, devoting large tracts of neural real estate to sustaining ungrieved losses early in their lives can significantly compromise and delay normal development. Depending upon the nature and the number involved, ungrieved losses can compromise impulse control and immune function, leading to frequent illness and even early death. Those seemingly random, impulsive thoughts we have of jumping off a cliff or running our car into a tree or into oncoming traffic – my suspicion is that those thoughts are very likely connected to ungrieved losses – unlearning looking to happen.

We sometimes think of people who’ve suffered great losses as dying of a broken heart. Their dying might be more accurately described as the result of a broken brain – and however that may impact the heart. Very often, if it actually doesn’t kill us, our grief unlearned, turns our heart into our strongest organ.