Has the loss of a pet or human loved one left you with a persistent, disturbing feeling that they are still present? Do you walk through the door only to become immediately crestfallen upon remembering that your beloved pet is no more?
It might be that you haven’t spent enough time poking, prodding, and generally hanging out with their dead corpse.
It’s a little morbid, but it turns out that lack of exposure to death and corpses could actually set us back in terms of grieving and getting on with our lives in the wake of a loss. Exposure to dead bodies — especially ones that have suffered obvious, unsurvivable injuries — signals to our brain that yes, that person really is dead, and that it’s high time we stop thinking we hear them.
A recent study published in Evolution and Human Behaviour surveyed 142 people whose pets had recently died. Those among them who had seen their pet’s corpse with signs of grievous injury were a lot less likely to mistakenly perceive their pet to still be around after it was gone. Owners who saw their pet’s intact corpse — say, after a lethal injection from a veterinarian — were as likely to experience these false positives as those who did not see a corpse at all.
It’s important to note that we’re not talking about people really believing that their dead pet is really still around, or somehow trying to contact them from beyond. Instead, the researchers probed instances when the owner would say, hear a sound and instinctively attribute that to the dog, before immediately self-correcting by remembering that poor Rover can’t possibly be snoring next to the fireplace, because poor Rover is dead.
However, it’s not hard to see how these misperceptions might be interpreted by some as indications that the lost loved one’s spirit is still hanging around, and perhaps trying to communicate. There’s a whole sketchy industry of psychics and mediums who feed this phenomenon by suggesting that these false positives really are evidence for ghosts, and for the right price they’ll help you interpret the messages your beloved is sending you from beyond.
Research has shown that people who believe in ghosts are more likely to perceive their presence, which should come as a surprise to no one. The power of suggestion is powerful, and folks deep in grief will be particularly vulnerable to exploitation by people who claim to be able to communicate with the dead.
It’s totally normal for humans to be on high alert for the presence of loved ones in their absence. We do this because the cost of a false alarm is less than the cost of missing a real signal that a loved one has returned to us, according to the study on bereaved pet owners. This makes sense if our partner is out on a hunting trip, but not so much if he is dead. The false positive recognitions we feel after a death can be both emotionally disturbing and cognitively taxing.
This could be one of the reasons that historically, loved ones of a deceased person have been primarily responsible for handling, preparing, and ritually spending time with the corpse. The more time you spend with a dead body, the more cues you will receive that the person is really gone, and this should decrease your vigilance for them. Decreased vigilance will result in fewer misperceptions of their presence.
Pop culture tells us that people who spend time around corpses are at least potentially psychopathic and homicidal, but the truth may be that these folks might have a much healthier relationship to death and grief than the rest of us.