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The Uncanny Fear of Loss, Part 2

Part 2: Loss of "The Endearing Distribution"

Last Week

In our first installment (Losing the Unthinkable), we explored the possibility that our species is afraid of losing things we never had. Because we are so afraid of losing them, we frequently avoid being with them because we feel we need to earn the right to be with them. Not surprisingly, the lasting benefit of staying apart while we might have been together, is an imperishable memory of what we will always miss. This odd reasoning suggests an unnatural obsession with separation, so we will never lose the memory of what we were separated from.

A famous student of Kurt Lewin, Bluma Zeigarnik, noticed and studied this very thing, a thing she called our unfinished tasks (Alevriadou, 2016). She noticed that what we ‘finish’ (get to have) is quickly forgotten and no longer a pending need; it’s what we can never have (but have to have) that becomes an ‘intrusive’ thought—and thus a ‘psychological’ rather than physiological need (Lyubomirsky, Caldwell, & Nolen-Hoeksema, 1998). So, not telling those we love just how much we loved them before they die, is one way to make sure we sense their presence long after they’re gone. Now we can ‘keep’ inside of us what we’ve lost on the outside (even if it’s awfully hard on those things)—as an eerie stimulus that can never be fulfilled and thus can never be forgotten.

By Lockyer, Norman [Public domain in the U.S.], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: By Lockyer, Norman [Public domain in the U.S.], via Wikimedia Commons

An Unnatural (but very endearing) Distribution

This time we will explore another strange thing about the human fear of loss, and our irrational fear of being forgotten . . . the possibility that this inner mental activity we think so highly of, is not all that unique among the Earth’s endless species (Bekoff, Allen, & Burghardt, 2002; Darwin, 1876; Dasgupta, 2016). What makes the mental aspect unique to our species is how unusually distributed it is—we have way too much of it (Holzman, 2014). In fact, there seems to be more intangible phenomena among our kind than anything tangible for all that phenomena to refer to. It’s a bit like the age-old economic problem—eventually you have more tradeable symbols of your gold standard in distribution than you have of the gold standard itself. But nobody is the wiser, so you keep on making more.

It’s pretty noticeable how much emphasis there is on ‘cognition’ and ‘information’ lately. In fact, there seems to be more crucial information available than crucial things actually described by that information. And while this pursuit of attractive information flourishes, most of the lovely living things that used to thrive on this planet are gone now—while we carefully preserve their remains in books (Wilson, 2016). You see, unlike living things, books do not die. Knowledge is flourishing; Life is going extinct. Is this beginning to sound like how we create memories that will never die, to cope with the loss of things that do? I hope so.

An Unnatural Kind of Hibernation (writing)

And a curious thing about our kind is that we seem more worried about losing our books than the things we write our books about. We almost seem more terrified that things will go extinct before we can document them, than whether or not they go extinct (Gibbons et al., 2000; Wilson, 2016). But reading about a dodo in your library and spotting a real dodo in your lifetime do not produce the same experience of joy. We read when we cannot be with the things we read about. Otherwise we go and be with them. We remember because we cannot be with each other all the time. Otherwise, we stay together and there is nothing to remember. Isn’t it odd how our written information (the substitution of words for Life) looks and acts a lot like a dormant version of our mental information (the substitution of thoughts for Life)?

Anyway, the unusual thing about this unnatural distribution of ours, is that we seem more worried about the loss of our mental activity than about the loss of our physical lives, and mainly prolong the lives of those that host competent mental phenomena (Meinecke, 2017). Moreover, we act more terrified of ‘being forgotten’ than of merely being appreciated while we were physically here. Some folks even hasten physical death, so their ‘memory’ will never die. To this hopeful scholar of psychology, the fear of losing our mental activity (what is just sheer observance of life) but not our physical substance (what our mental activity is actually observing) is a bit disturbing. After all, a ‘distribution’ of anything is not a thing; it is simply a pattern or a term that helps you make sense of all the lovely things that ineffable thing might ever be.

Memory as a Tapestry

A memory is an endearing distribution. An endearing distribution is like a tapestry made of all those things you hope you will never forget (because you are about to lose them forever). It’s like remembering the names of special stars you and your friends once camped under, by inventing constellations and stories about bears and fish. That makes sense. But why would you start to value the distribution more than the things a distribution describes? And an enduring memory of the precious moments you’ve lost should not become more precious to you than those moments briefly were at the time (Baudrillard, 1994; Fodor, 1980). But they are.

Why would we, as a species, become attached to one another’s mental phenomena—our unique tapestries if you will—and not care what happens to the physical pieces that made these beloved tapestries possible? I have a bigger question. Could we perhaps be coping with the impending loss of our planet the same as we have for the inevitable loss of one another? Are we ‘letting the planet die’ so we will never forget how much we once loved her? Is it possible we are considering leaving our lifelong companion someday, this lovely Earth which has been our home and our partner, not because we are apathetic, but so that we will never lose the memory of her former beauty?

If so, then this mental activity inside that contends for our outer attention may be like a jealous suitor. Perhaps these memories of ours envy the real world and do not want us to fall in love again with anything but them. And so, to prove our love for these thoughts of ours, we hurt or push away everything else we later meet (Scheele et al., 2012). Perhaps, by extension, when we cannot acquire or keep those tangible things we desperately need, we fall deeply in love with imaginary things that promise not to leave us . . . conveniently inside of us, and suspicious of anything unlike them.

The ubiquitous Freud wrote of just such a phenomenon, in Mourning and Melancholia (Freud, 1917). He also wrote of a kind of mistrust of the unfamiliar after we develop an attachment to the familiar, in “Das Unheimliche” (Freud, 1919). Now we are getting somewhere. Maybe memories depend on our losing what we loved most.

Thus the shadow of the object fell upon the ego, and the latter could henceforth be judged by a special agency, as though it were an object, the forsaken object. In this way an object loss was transformed into an ego-loss and the conflict between the ego and the loved person into a cleavage between the critical activity of the ego and the ego as altered by identification. (Freud, 1917, p. 249)


Alevriadou, A. (2016). Adults with intellectual disabilities with and without anxiety disorder: The Zeigarnik effect paradigm revisited. Multilingual Academic Journal of Education and Social Sciences, 4(1), 1-8. doi:10.6007/MAJESS/v4-i1/2044

Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and simulation. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan press.

Bekoff, M., Allen, C., & Burghardt, G. M. (Eds.). (2002). The cognitive animal: Empirical and theoretical perspectives on animal cognition. Cambridge, MA: MIT press.

Darwin, C. R. (1876). The origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life [6th ed, for Kindle]. London, England: John Murray.

Dasgupta, S. (2015, September 9). Many animals can become mentally ill. BBC Earth. Retrieved from

Fodor, J. A. (1980). Methodological solipsism considered as a research strategy in cognitive psychology. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 3(1), 63-73.

Freud, S. (1917). Mourning and melancholia. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV (1914-1916): On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement, Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works, 237-258. Retrieved from

Freud, S. (1919). Das unheimliche (The uncanny). Retrieved from

Gibbons, J. W., Scott, D. E., Ryan, T. J., Buhlmann, K. A., Tuberville, T. D., Metts, B. S., . . . & Winne, C. T. (2000). The global decline of reptiles, déjà vu amphibians. BioScience, 50(8), 653-666. Retrieved from

Holzman, L. (2014). The overweight brain: How our obsession with knowing keeps us from getting smart enough to make a better world. Advance online publication. Retrieved from

Lyubomirsky, S., Caldwell, N. D., & Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (1998). Effects of ruminative and distracting responses to depressed mood on retrieval of autobiographical memories. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(1), 166–177.

Scheele, D., Striepens, N., Güntürkün, O., Deutschländer, S., Maier, W., Kendrick, K. M., & Hurlemann, R. (2012). Oxytocin modulates social distance between males and females. Journal of Neuroscience, 32(46), 16074-16079.

Wilson, E. O. (2016). Half-earth: Our planet's fight for life. New York, NY: Liveright Publishing.