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Science in Summary : Unconscious Avoidance

by Shannon Bell

Image by Freepik

Hello, and welcome to the inaugural post of the Science in Summary series! With this series, we hope to make research more accessible and interesting by breaking down some of the most impactful, thought-provoking, and inspiring research out there. In this post, we summarize the insights, methods, results, and implications of the study presented in the journal article, “Ongoing Monitoring of Mindwandering in Avoidant Grief Through Cortico-Basal-Ganglia Interactions” (Schneck et al., 2018).

Avoiding reminders of our lost loved one(s) may be a familiar coping strategy to those of us that have experienced loss. Sometimes we consciously avoid situations that may intensify the grief in the early weeks and months, when we are still comprehending and processing. However, when this pattern continues, it can contribute to prolonged grief and the avoidance may take place in ways we aren’t even aware of.

In the study of focus here, researchers set out to demonstrate that avoidant grievers - those that exhibit prolonged avoidance of thoughts about their loss - can block arising thoughts about their lost loved one from reaching consciousness. Their results confirmed this process, as avoidant grievers were significantly more likely to monitor their thoughts and unconsciously suppress any that represented their loss.

Avoidant grieving is a style of grieving that aims to ease the pain of loss by simply avoiding any thoughts that might make it worse. Though the goal is to decrease the frequency of thoughts about loss, previous studies have found that, paradoxically, avoidant grievers often think more frequently of their loss than non-avoidant grievers (Bonnanno et al., 2005; Eisma et al., 2013); Eisma et al., 2014; Eisma et al., 2015). Avoidant grievers are constantly scanning their physical environment for potential reminders of their loss. However, even when there are no physical reminders of the person they lost, they must still contend with the random, spontaneous thoughts that can pop up when the mind wanders. To counteract this, the mind can scan for these thoughts and suppress them before the person ever becomes aware that they existed.

Mindwandering, however, accounts for nearly half of mental activity (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010), and the constant unconscious scanning for thoughts of loss may spur on additional reminders of one’s grief. The action of trying to suppress these thoughts about loss is considered an ironic process. In such a process, the mind unconsciously searches the mental state for unwanted or uncomfortable content, which the individual can then suppress before it reaches consciousness (Wegner, 1994). The irony of this process is that in constantly scanning one’s mind for reminders of loss, the mind often becomes preoccupied with these thoughts, meaning they occur more frequently and become more noticeable.

To determine how exactly this process occurs, researchers observed how well people were able to focus on a boring, repetitive task without directing their attention towards suppressing thoughts about their lost loved one. Subjects in this study had lost either a spouse or partner within the last 14 months.

Figure 1. The experimental set up. A) Includes words related to the deceased in different colors. The respondent has to identify the color of the word as quickly as possible. B) The participant views either pictures of the person, hears stories of the person, or must imagine what it would be like to be with the person. C) Provides a series of numbers, with the instruction that the respondent is to press the button for all numbers but “3”. After the block, the respondent is asked how much they thought about the deceased.  D) The same set up as C) but with probes attached to monitor brain activity (Schneck et al., 2018).

The pattern training tasks, shown in Figure 1A and 1B, were aimed at finding the pathways in the brain that are activated when a subject thinks about their lost loved one. Researchers were able to accomplish this using machine learning. The pattern expression tasks, shown in Figure 1C and 1D, were designed to be fairly dull and repetitive so respondents’ minds might be inclined to wander. Since the pattern expression tasks contain no representations of their loved one, any thoughts of their loved one would have to be self-generated. These tasks can therefore show when avoidant grievers unconsciously suppress self-generated thoughts about their loss.

 Those who had higher measures of grief avoidance had a significantly higher number of thoughts about their loss when completing the pattern expression task with the thought probes. As Noam Schneck, the lead author of the study, explained in an article for Columbia Engineering, “Even though they are not aware of it, avoidant grievers actively control their mental state so that spontaneous thoughts of loss do not enter their consciousness. This kind of tailoring of mind wandering likely exhausts mental energy and leads to time periods when the thoughts actually do break through. It is like an ineffective pop-up blocker that runs in the background of your computer. You might not be aware that it’s there but it slows down the overall operating speed and eventually breaks down and the pop ups get through.”

 The researchers in this study emphasize that in treating avoidant grievers, clinicians should prioritize the relaxation of those unconscious and conscious mental controls that suppress thoughts about their lost loved one. Training in mindfulness and acceptance may help grievers process those thoughts more consciously.

 If you would like to learn more about the methods, results, and conclusions of this study, as well as find related studies, please reference the published article, cited here:

Noam Schneck, Tao Tu, Stefan Haufe, George A Bonanno, Hanga GalfaIvy, Kevin Ochsner, J John Mann, Paul Sajda (2018). Ongoing Monitoring of Mindwandering in Avoidant Grief Through Cortico-Basal-Ganglia Interactions. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsy114


Additional References:

Algom D., Chajut E., Lev S. (2004). A rational look at the emotional stroop phenomenon: a generic slowdown, not a stroop effect. Journal of Experimental Psychology General, 133(3), 323–338.

Bonanno G.A., Papa A., Lalande K., Zhang N., Noll J.G. (2005). Grief processing and deliberate grief avoidance: a prospective comparison of bereaved spouses and parents in the United States and the People's Republic of China. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 73(1), 86–98.

Eisma M. C., Stroebe M. S., Schut H. A., Stroebe W., Boelen P. A., Bout J. (2013) Avoidance processes mediate the relationship between rumination and symptoms of complicated grief and depression following loss. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 122(4), 961–970.

Eisma M. C., Schut H. A., Stroebe M. S., Bout J., Stroebe W., Boelen P. A. (2014) Is rumination after bereavement linked with loss avoidance? Evidence from eye-tracking. PLoS One, 9(8), e104980. 

Eisma M.C., Rinck M., Stroebe M.S., et al. (2015). Rumination and implicit avoidance following bereavement: an approach avoidance task investigation. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 47, 84–91.

Evarts, Holly (December 10, 2018). “Editing Consciousness: How Bereaved People Control Their Thoughts Without Knowing It.” Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science. <>.

Holle C., Neely J.H., Heimberg R.G. (1997). The effects of blocked versus random presentation and semantic relatedness of stimulus words on response to a modified Stroop task among social phobics. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 21(6), 681–697.

Killingsworth M.A., Gilbert D.T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330(6006), 932.

Wegner D.M. (1994). Ironic processes of mental control. Psychological Review, 101(1), 34–52.

 Whalen P.J., Bush G., McNally R.J., et al. (1998). The emotional counting Stroop paradigm: a functional magnetic resonance imaging probe of the anterior cingulate affective division. Biological Psychiatry, 44(12), 1219–1228.

 Williams J.M., Mathews A., MacLeod C. (1996). The emotional Stroop task and psychopathology. Psychological Bulletin, 120(1), 3–24.