Mental Well-being, Travel & the Brain

On Loss: Neuropsychological Reflections at the Tikal Ruins

Following the robbery in San Marcos, loss was on our minds. We took these feelings to the Tikal ruins in Guatemala. Our brain opioids must still have been low but nevertheless, we felt ourselves rejuvenated, in awe of what Tikal and the jungle have to offer.

There has been a considerable lag since my last article. I haven’t written anything since the robbery at the end of September on Lake Atitlan.  Many of our valuables were taken from us and even though we kept trying to remind ourselves that they were just material ‘things’, the experience left us shattered at first, then with a nagging hollowness. It seems no matter how concrete or material, we attach to our belongings and losing them has the power to activate the powerful emotion circuity in the brain that evolved to keep us attached to the real things that count – people.

The details are no longer important. Our stuff was stolen and it sullied the dream boat that was our ‘cabin of everlasting happiness’ on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. The hardest part was the torrent of ‘what ifs?’ that followed. What if I had just locked the window? What if I had sat in the kitchen, not in the bedroom where the rain, clattering on the tin roof, drowned out any ambient sound? What if I had gone into town with Mischa, cabin bolted closed and safe? What if, what if, what if? It’s an excruciating task which leaves you feeling powerless on the daft assumption that you should somehow be able to control your future, retrospectively.

We left the lake three days earlier than planned. Fortunately, a rough itinerary was already in place and the two weeks ahead of us were set to be busy. We had a volcano to climb, some ancient ruins to see and a bumpy journey into Mexico.

Volcan Acatenango, Guatemala
We hiked up to Volcan Acatenango (Guatemala), a grueling 5 hour, uphill march, where we spent the night. From there one has a view of the erupting Volcan Fuego.

Tikal Ruins

Fast forward to Tikal ruins. We felt our spirits rejuvenate in the jungle. We opted to stay at a lodge within the park grounds instead of in Flores, the nearest town over an hour’s drive from the site. Tikal is the ruin of an ancient city believed to have gone by the name, Yax Mutal, that thrived between 400 BC and 900 AD. It was among the most formidable kingdoms of the ancient Mayans and this is easy to believe by the sheer enormity and architectural impression of the place.


On our second day, we hired a local guide and paid the additional fee to do a night tour of the park. It is hard to describe the eerie wonder of viewing those giant, towering pyramids in the moon light. Silence, except for the screech of howler monkeys and the crunch of gravel beneath our feet as we encountered echoes from the past in the astonishing stone carvings and intricate designs of the structures. We wondered through the shadows for a long time and I couldn’t shake my fascination, or was it horror, at how exactly it could come to be that a place of such magnitude and investment was abandoned? The facts are relatively straight forward – archeologists believe that environmental ruin, agricultural failings, over population and persistent warfare lead to the eventual demise of Tikal. But, facts aside, it occurred to me that my fixation on this issue had something to do with the experience of loss that we were still trying to process.

Loss. The feeling of loss derives from one of the brain’s core emotional systems that evolved to maintain the close emotional bond that an infant and caregiver share. Abandonment, in the brain’s language, is thus the archetypal loss. Jaak Panksepp called this system the PANIC/GRIEF system because when panic following a loss remains unresolved, the brain is hardwired to switch into GRIEF. It is thought that this switch into a state of ‘quieted’ sadness is adaptive because panic is highly costly in both brain and behavioral terms. In the case of abandonment, where loss is permanent, chronic panic will quite literally run your body and brain’s neurochemical balance to depletion.

PAG in Panic disorder Airport anxiety
The periaqueductal gray area is a major brain substrate of loss. Panksepp wrote that PANIC neurocircuitry seems to arise from regions “very close to where one can generate physical pain responses…Anatomically, it almost seems that separation has emerged from more basic pain systems during brain evolution… .”

Chemically speaking, loss happens when brain opioids decline and cortisol rises. Opioids are responsible for making us feel secure and right within the social world we find ourselves. They drop suddenly in response to experiences that threaten attachments to others or our rightful place in the social order (status). This is what makes the PANIC system dissociable from other fear circuits, like the one that regulates feelings of physical safety (encountering an intruder). As for PANIC, for example, in children separated unwillingly from a caregiver, opioids decline and the child reacts with ‘separation distress’ – crying, hysterics, terror. In adults, death of a loved one, but also break-ups and even social humiliation cause opioids to plummet, leading to the feeling of anguish, of stomach-twisting horror, of things ‘not making sense’.  In severe cases, this cluster of feelings is overwhelming and manifests as a full-blown panic attack, which you can read more about here.

Apparently, the Mayan elite class used ceremony and art as a propaganda tool for maintaining social power. This photo was actually taken from the Palenque museum at the Mexican ruin site.

The feelings engendered by PANIC/GRIEF are so very bad in direct proportion to how important social bonding and familial security is for the human infant. Baby humans are born positively useless, unlike other mammalian species that are vigilant and running and finding their way to the teat within the hour. For this reason, evolution has put in place other mechanisms to ensure the safety and nurturance of human young. It’s not enough for babies to look cute, both parties need the motivation to stick around. In behavioural psychology, this process is called ‘negative reinforcement’. The reward happens by way of putting an end to something aversive.

Social experiences during these formative years shape the neural connections and ‘wirings’ of the developing brain as it grows and encodes vast quantities of information. It is for this reason, this ‘blue-printing’ process, that aberrant or excessive activity of the PANIC/GRIEF system during childhood is so intimately linked to later psychiatric disturbance. Much like my own experience of loss following the theft which subsequently primed my psychological approach to the world, overwhelming loss in its many forms and guises during youth can prime the mature brain to respond to a ‘neutral’ world in ways that relate to loss.

The ability of material ‘stuff’ to recruit the PANIC/GRIEF system in the service of keeping these objects in our possession is part of the appeal of a lifestyle choice called minimalism. Minimalism is about keeping in check the sometimes fitful desire to consume goods and keep up with the latest aesthetic trends. I have written previously on the topic and even though the robbery felt like so much more than just the loss of our ‘stuff’, it did remind me about the importance of keeping my perspective in check – that even though a year on the road has left me yearning for some chic back into my life, such things are only ever short-lived. Real value, lasting meaning is to be found in the people we spend our time with, in the skills we develop and impart over time and the memories we create in our minds.

Mischa at the Palenque ruins in Mexico.

Tikal was abandoned after nearly 1500 years of occupation. This article discusses what happens in the brain during the experience of loss.