Over the last few years I’ve had several friends die, all completely unexpectedly. I’ve been thinking a lot about the brain’s ways of making sense of things, to look for some way to put the story together. Pauline Boss says “human experience is meaningful when it is comprehensible to those who are having the experience”. But what happens when events are just utterly incomprehensible? We look for something And what is amazing is that we often find it.
These are the last things posted these friends.
And in their own ways, they are each strangely comforting to me. But the thing is, I believe that no matter what they’d last posted, my brain would’ve likely found something in them – something, however small. Grief signs. Sort of. One of the wonders of the human brain our ability to notice things and find patterns (where they do and don’t exist). Some might think the science of how our brains make sense and meaning of a senseless world is the opposite of comforting – biology and psychology rather than something emotional or metaphysical. But for me, it’s an endless comfort. I am a believer in the wonderful, incredible, weird, griefy beauty of it. I savor every instance of the frequency illusion.
Wait, what is the frequency illusion?
Also known as the Baader–Meinhof phenomenon, selective attention bias or frequency bias, the frequency illusion is basically when you learn about something and then you suddenly start seeing it everywhere. After we become aware of something for the first time, we then have a tendency to notice the same thing more often. This means we believe that we’re encountering the thing more frequently. Really we’re just noticing it more in the world around us. Sometimes it is that we suddenly see grief everywhere around us. Other times we see the reminders everywhere we look.
It can be comforting. It’s sometimes overwhelming. It can be painful. But I love that my brain, after loss, naturally notices and finds things in the world that remind me of the person who I’ve lost in a way that makes that person’s memory feel real and present. People ask me if I believe “signs” from loved ones are “real”. My answer to them is often frustrating, but honest – I don’t think that it matters. If a “sign” is a moment to feel close to someone who is gone, to remember them and smile that there is still some bit of their presence that I feel in the world, it doesn’t matter if it exists in some external, objective reality or if my brain is just now, almost like magic, incredibly adept at finding/creating those moments of meaning. The moments never need to be any more or any less than beautiful, bittersweet moments.