Sorry You Are Gone….

Over my lifetime I’ve encountered death in an unwelcome variety of forms, from Holly, a gorgeous, funny little 4 year old who I looked after, to friends, relatives and worst of all, my Dad. Grief is an odd and complex emotion which I’ve found to be strangely different with every relationship lost. Sometimes unexpected, either because I’ve felt nothing more than a momentary sadness followed by the guilt of lacking a greater pain, to the other extreme of being tripped up by memories for years to come.

2016 has seen an unwelcome spat of celebrity deaths. Our connection with these people represents another form of relationship and a different type of grief. Although the relationship itself is one-sided (or what is technically known as ‘parasocial’) it’s ever present in our lives defining elements of who we are: our values, beliefs and attitudes, in the same way as our friends do.

I’ve been saddened by all the celebrity deaths this year from David Bowie to Carrie Fisher, but the sadness has been momentary, not really what could be considered grief. In contrast I was shocked by the emotion I felt when Prince died. Although I owned a couple of his albums and saw him in concert I never glorified Prince. So why did I feel grief?

“Grief is the normal and natural emotional reaction to loss or change of any kind.”

Emotional reaction

Music has a deeper impact on our brain than almost any other daily occurrence. It’s experienced unconsciously in the primitive brain, which is also where we experience emotion most intensely. As scientist Koelsch says “music-evoked emotions involve the very core of evolutionarily adaptive neuroaffective mechanisms.” Consequently music forms very deep emotional pathways in the brain.

The loss of a constant 

When we’ve seen someone on our screens throughout life, their parting leaves a gap. Prince was a musician whose music I valued from early in life. We had a common room at school where we played Prince at any given opportunity. As hormone charged teenagers his sexuality and graphic lyrics represented a forbidden excitement that forged a strong connection in our psyche and undoubtedly influenced our self-image and identity. Unlike some musicians who came and went, Prince was prolific and consistent over the years. The connection may have changed as we aged but it never waned, so when he died there was an abrupt feeling of loss.

The loss of connection 

Celebrities connect us in the same way as friends. Prince represented a web of relationships from school through to family. This mirrors the death of someone we love; someone who holds people together and also preserves elements of our past that form our identity.

The loss of great talent

Celebrities ‘typically’ have talent and their loss represents a sorrow of ‘greatness gone’. Prince was an outstanding, extraordinary musician both as singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. He had an incredible vocal range, amazing capability to span music styles and was constantly innovating. His loss leaves me questioning whether anyone like that will ever exist again.

Loss too soon or ‘untimely death’

When celebrities die young it evokes a greater level of emotion. Prince was only 57 when he died, this engenders a feeling of wrong doing, that he was taken too soon. It also acts as a stark reminder of our own mortality which in itself evokes a lot of incredibly deep emotions.

The loss of exemplary personal traits

Prince fulfilled many of the personality characteristics we seek in a leader. He was humble while confident in his abilities; generous and kind, a philanthropist and humanitarian who was deeply concerned about the state of the world; able to put creative thoughts into action; always physically and mentally active and strongly determined. Most emotionally arousing of all he had mystique. He was an introvert who defied norms and expectations creating a degree of secrecy, excitement and wonder. The loss of such a role model is sad at a personal level but also feels like a blow to the world at large.

This is not meant as an ode to Prince simply an illustration, each and every person who dies represents a loss of some sort to someone. Each connection and relationship is unique and the grief encountered depends on the depth of the connection, the breadth of impact that person had on our lives and the hole that they will leave. What it reminds us is that we are human, we love and care about other humans and it’s ok to feel sadness when someone is no longer here, whether they were someone we knew or a person who represented part of who we are.

Roll on 2017 – Happy New Year!



Levitin,D.J. and Grafton,S.T. (2016). Measuring the representational space of music with fMRI: a case study with Sting. Neurocase, 0, 1-10

Koelsch, S. (2010). Towards a neural basis of music-evoked emotions. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14, 3, 131-137

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Eat, Drink & Be Merry…

I’m conscious of my need to get back into the swing of blogging so I’m taking the easy route and using exerts from my ‘yet to be published book’. This week, given the lead up to Christmas indulgence it’s all about food…..

In November 2014, 2.1 billion people were classed as overweight or obese, which is a staggering 30% of the global population and the numbers are continually increasing. Research commissioned strategic experts McKinsey estimates that ‘obesity is only set to rise, with an increase to 50% of the global population by 2030.’

But why, after all no one wants to be overweight? WHO (the World Health Organisation) states that ‘the fundamental cause of obesity and being overweight is an energy imbalance between calories consumed and calories expended’. So this should be a simple problem to solve: eat less (fewer calories consumed) and exercise more (more calories expended). Simple!

Unfortunately our brain and body are far more complex than the simple equation of energy in, energy out. A big part of the problem is we don’t factor in the way our ancient brain works, but research is increasingly pointing to how obesity is less to do with ‘will power’ and more to do with a mismatch between our brains and the modern world.

Our ancient ancestors main driver was to survive in a harsh environment. Salty, fatty and sugary food was scarce but all were critical to stay alive . Hence their brains evolved to reward us when they found food that was:

  • Fatty, fat stores enabled our ancestors to survive periods of famine
  • Salty, salt is lost through sweat and our ancestors were very active. Salt is essential to nerve functioning
  • Sweet, sugar gave our ancestors the quick energy injection that enabled them to escape danger.

Eating fatty foods, but even more so the scarcely found salty and sugary food (there wasn’t an abundance of salted caramel in the 5th Century BC), activated neurons in the brain such as the dopamine pathways that made them feel good, to encourage them to eat more of that rare food while it was available.

We have the same brain today but unfortunately the foods that contain fat, salt and sugar are abundant and when we eat these foods our brain rewards us. This feels good, particularly when we’re a bit low or stressed. So we do it again – and we are rewarded again and again and again, building stronger and stronger pathways in the brain, teaching us at a subconscious level, that when we eat ‘bad’ food it feels good and therefore is good.

If we’re hungry or perceive ourselves to be deprived (like when we’re on a diet or just ‘being healthy’) our brain experiences this as pain. As our brain evolved to avoid pain and seek reward, we come upon a new equation ‘the fundamental cause of obesity/being overweight is a reward / pain imbalance between eating fatty, salty sugary food and feeling deprived.’ 

The cruel twist of fate is that once someone is overweight, his or her sensitivity to dopamine dramatically reduces. This means that if you are overweight you have to eat much more of the foods that once made you feel good, in order to get that feel good factor again. So the ‘unhelpful’ pathways in the brain get strengthened even more which makes kicking the habit harder still. Meaning the harsh reality is that an overweight person will find it harder to eat less or stop eating unhealthy food than someone who is not overweight (Yi Zhang et al, 2013).

There are other significant physiological mechanisms, which influence weight loss and gain (which if people are interested, I can write more about another time) but for now, I don’t want to leave you with a fear of eating over Christmas. There are factors that help  undo these mechanisms, the easiest and most obvious being exercise. Not because it has the black and white effect that WHO would have us believe, but because it impacts the reward/pain equation.

Exercise not only counters our body storing fat, it also increases the levels of endorphins circulating in our brains improving mood, quality of sleep and reducing stress. Reducing stress, and reducing levels of cortisol specifically, prevents the build-up of fat around our abdomen. Decreasing stress also makes it less likely that we feel the need to relieve anxiety with food and as a result the primitive driver to derive pleasure and comfort from food is partially countered.

A study carried in Denmark (Andreasen et al., 2008) showed that exercise (although not in everyone) also causes changes in appetite regulating hormones, which suppresses hunger and it even impacts the expression of the obesity genes. The study involving a whoping  17,058 people showed that it didn’t matter if people had a genetic predisposition to being obese, if they were physically active, their weight was no higher or lower than people who did have the obesity gene.

If you find the pain of exercise and the pain of withdrawing from your favourite indulgences too much – try reading ‘The Happiness Trap’ . Such ‘Acceptance Based Behavioural Treatments’ have been found to significantly help, which makes sense given that they work with the way our brain is made up.

But although our brain and the environment are set up against us we are gradually improving our knowledge (science and techniques to deal with it) and adapting the environment (e.g. Jamie Oliver’s Sugar Rush campaign), so if like me you cannot resist all the temptations of Christmas, don’t lose hope.

Happy Christmas Everyone!


References and Links

The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris

Jamie Oliver’s strategy to combat childhood obesity

Evan M. Forman, Meghan L. Butryn, Stephanie M. Manasse, Ross D. Crosby, Stephanie P. Goldstein, Emily P. Wyckoff, J. Graham Thomas. Acceptance-based versus standard behavioral treatment for obesity: Results from the mind your health randomized controlled trial. Obesity, 2016; 24 (10): 2050

Andreasen, C.H., Stender-Petersen, K. L., Mogensen, M. S.,  et al.  Low physical activity accentuates the effect of the FTO rs9939609 polymorphism on body fat accumulation. Diabetes 2008;57 (1) 95- 101

Zhang Y., Kent Jr. J.W., Olivier M., Ali O., Broeckel U., Abdou R.M., Dyer T., Comuzzie A., Curran J.E., Carless M.A., Rainwater D.L., Göring H.H.H., Blangero J. and Kissebah A.H. (2013) QTL-based association analyses reveal novel genes influencing pleiotropy of Metabolic Syndrome (MetS). Obesity 21(10): 2099-111