Brain Science – Episode #2

We're designed for relationship

Why are interpersonal relationships so important?

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Mireille and Adam explore the importance of relationships and the concept of attachment. We often think of ourselves as individuals, but our lives are spent embedded within the context of social relationships. These relationships influence and shape our brains, which deeply influences who we are.


Notes & Links

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We’re designed to be attached to others. Mammalian brains care about their connections.

What’s the difference between a lizard or a turtle and a dog or a bat? Dogs and bats feed their young with milk and invest in their oversight until they’re mature and capable enough to manage their own lives.

We often think of ourselves as individuals, but our lives are spent embedded within the context of social relationships. These relationships influence and shape our brains, which deeply influences who we are. Research shows that relationships can reactivate neuroplastic processes and actually alter the structures and biochemistry of the brain (Neuroscience of human relationships). Individual brains do not exist in nature. Without mutually stimulating interactions, people and neurons wither and die.

Early nurturing of the prefrontal cortex through relationships has us to think well of ourselves, trust others, regulate emotions, maintain positive expectations, and utilize emotional intelligence in a moment-to-moment problem solving (Cozolino). Research shows that right brains tend to develop more in the first years of life. This helps us be more flexible and learn how to adapt — it really is survival of the fittest.


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My husband has often said, as we parent, more of the challenges that come along with that… So at one point in time he used to say “Seven or forty-seven”, because obviously, he was forty when we had our son; that it didn’t matter what age you are, we still struggled with relationship, and trying to figure out how to live beside people who make choices we wouldn’t make, or do things that we wouldn’t consider doing.

I think in life we are just apt to struggle with relationships, because not everybody is like us, and we don’t always know all of ourselves either. Some of the time when I talk with patients about ourself, or this notion of ourselves, I like to think of it as like a gemstone, in that there’s different facets, depending on how it’s cut. So when the light hits it, different aspects or sides of ourself show up, or are seen. Sometimes, throughout development, that goes a bit awry, so we end up with more like fragmented gemstones, where we might feel like “I’m not aware of this part of myself when I’m in this situation, or this relationship, but I’m more cognizant or aware of it in this one over here.”

But all of that being said, we’re always going to be able to navigate our relationships with others more adaptively or more effectively when we figure out how to deal with ourselves. Would you agree?

I feel like learning more about yourself is about life experiences. Kind of like if you go on a camping trip, for example, in the middle of the woods, and you have your first overnight in, say, the Texas heat… And I don’t want you to do that, camping in Texas, in the summer; you’ll probably die. But let’s just say you do that - you might learn some things about yourself. So through life experiences you begin to discover your facets.

Yes. I like to think of that in terms of feedback. We can look at the feedback loop as conditioning, and go “Was it positive? Is it something I want to do more of? Or was it negative, and like woo– that did not pay. I do not think I’ll do that again”, hence camping in Texas in the summer.

Right, don’t do that. So what is conditioning then?

Conditioning is really this notion of how we learn. You might hear people talk about it in terms of punishment or reinforcement, and basically that just means “Do I want a behavior to occur more frequently, or do I want a behavior to occur less frequently?” I could say “I would prefer that my child throws a tantrum less frequently”, and so I’m going to condition them in a certain way, i.e. give them feedback that says “This is not what we do in this setting”, or “Here’s a different way that you can navigate that emotion, and it doesn’t look like throwing yourself on the floor in the middle of the grocery store.”

With adults, conditioning might look like that positive feeling… Because feelings are always a part too of the feedback process.

[04:14] I can have an interaction with a person, or go have an experience that was very favorable, like camping, or traveling to a certain place… I think a lot of families and individuals will tend to repeat a certain vacation place or idea because it’s paid a positive emotional response when they do it.

It’s like the studies you hear where the animal - it could be a rat, it could be a monkey, or something like that… Where they’re testing them. I saw this thing recently on a show on YouTube; I forget what’s it’s called. I think it’s called Mindfield. And it was about these apes that had really amazing short-term memory, where they could see numbers on a screen, one through thirteen, all scattered about the screen, just see it for half a second, and it would go away… And they can tap everywhere the number was.

And it’s almost like those studies where you see those kinds of things happen, or where you see a rat go to get a drink of water, but gets shocked instead, and says “Well, I’m never going back to that water trough again…” Is it kind of like that?

This feedback loop of like good things or bad things happen, and so therefore you learn to adapt or relate?

Yeah… Bearing in mind that, again, we are designed to feel, that our feelings also play a fundamental role in the conditioning process. So if I have an experience that creates positive feelings, that part of my brain is going to consolidate that experience, and sort of bank that to remember. So it works both ways. If I have a negative experience, like for whatever reason no matter what I do, I frequently burn myself on the stove or the oven when I’m cooking… So I might be like “Dude, I’m out. I’m just not gonna cook, I’m not gonna use the stove, because it doesn’t pay. It hurts.” But that’s my feedback loop; so if I just lived more in the emotional space of that experience, I might be apt to be like “I don’t cook”, and I would defer that responsibility to my husband, or I would live by a restaurant, I suppose.

So whenever we’re in a relationship - this is another thing that I think is super-interesting - is because feelings are involved, that means empathy is also involved. Because when I empathize with another person, what it is is that I actually have a sense of understanding of their experience from their perspective, not my perspective of their perspective.

I can look in and say that somebody might not be struggling with math, or somebody might not have a hard time with exercise, because, well, I don’t. But that doesn’t mean it’s true for all people.

So when I’m in relationship with other people, it fares a lot better when I can practice setting my own perspective aside, and being willing to move or maneuver, that I could see their experience through their lens.

Yeah. I think it’s important too to remind those listening to this why relationships truly matter to us, and that’s because part of who we are is because of part of our relationship. Our mind and who we think we are is formed based on these interpersonal relationships. Whether they’re strong, whether they’re weak, they all form and inform who we are.

[07:58] Yeah. Connection is key when it comes to being human. When I talk about the brain, and sort of thinking of it in terms of three brains in one, because the different structures in our brain are synonymous with (or similar to) other animals, like reptiles, mammals… And then what sets us apart is more of the neocortex. Well, that middle brain, which is our mammalian brain, is really what is connected to (for lack of a better word) our ability to be in relationship with others… Because mammals all feed their young with milk. So we know, ironically - and this research I think is fascinating - that when mothers breastfeed, that actually brainwaves between mother and infant are identical.

Is that humans too, or do you mean any mammal that feeds their young with milk?

No, this was just done with humans, so I can’t speak to other mammals. But for humans - which is fascinating, because oxytocin is a neurochemical that is sort of like our stress-reducing, positive emotion giving neurochemical, which is why it’s super-adaptive for moms when they’re feeding their babies, to be able to have more of that experience of calm… But that is also our attachment binding hormone. So it gets released in mom’s brain, and it calms not only mother, but child as well.

Wow. So how does that play into relationships then? Obviously, a child who’s been in the womb for potentially nine months or more, depending upon the pregnancy, that they come out - they’re in a whole new, foreign world. That’s where they connect with their parent.

Yes, precisely. So there’s a lot more talk about, around, and research on that skin-to-skin contact with mother and infant, immediate or primary caregiver; any person, human being, immediately following birth, because of the power of that attachment and how that actually helps the infant immediately. Because – I mean, can you imagine how traumatic it might be to be in utero for nine(ish) months or so, and then be separated. And you went from no space, and cramped, and tight, to huge, vast space, and I can move, and an infant not having the awareness that their arms and legs are necessarily tethered to them, but just feeling that openness and emptiness. So to have another human, warm-blooded human that they can connect to actually is incredibly soothing.

I think about this with adults - when we have someone we care about who is ill and possibly in the hospital, I would say where do you wanna be?

Right next to them.

Exactly. So when we experience pain or hardship, we are apt to look for the connection. It doesn’t mean that we get to opt out of the pain, but just knowing that we don’t have to endure it all alone is critical.

What about how relationships play into this notion of neuroplasticity? …being able to reform and reshape parts of your brain.

Well, it’s interesting that the research talks about that the first year of life - and some will say first couple of years of life - tends to be more right-brain development for infants… Which is ironically more of the emotional side of our brain. Always when we talk about the brain, we talk in generalities, as well as what we know as of now, that language is more left brain; while there’s some right language function, it tends to be more left brain function… And emotions, relationships - more right brain.

So when we talk about neuroplasticity, there’s a way in which having another human with you actually facilitates more of the growth of those neural networks for infants and early toddlers.

[12:21] Well, I’ve been doing a little research - not a ton, so I’m not vested or really up on this research, but there’s also talks about… We’ve talked about putting your lid on before you’ve mentioned that, and this prefrontal cortex not even being fully formed until your mid-twenties. So when we say “We’re dealing with a threenager now” - not a teenager, a threenager - that is three, but thinks he’s 13 or 14, or whatever number it might be.

Even when you go back to relationships and empathy, we have to realize that there are moments in people’s lives up until the age of 25 where they may not have a fully developed, functioning brain. Sure, they’ve got the brain all there, but there’s parts that are still in formation.

Right. Yeah, this is why even right now, with kids in sports, there’s so much research around brain injury.

Oh, really…?

Well, protecting the younger brains. My son, at his age, for soccer, they’re not allowed to do headers, because the brain is still developing and it’s just more vulnerable to injury, so we just wanna be protective of that.

When it comes to the brains, we want to have other people – I would say as a parent we’re sort of acting as the frontal lobe for our kids.

Right, yeah. Good point. I like that concept a lot, actually.

Yeah, so I think about it like scaffolding; as our kids grow – and it doesn’t matter, I just always want people to have this sense of hope and optimism around like “Look, it’s not over if you didn’t get it in childhood, or didn’t fully grow. Neuroplasticity is one of the most amazing and hope-filled things because we can continue to build this and grow all throughout our lives.” So having another person participate in the development of our own mind, it’s sort of helping build neural networks that say “Hey, I totally understand that you’re upset as a threenager because you did not get ice-cream, and you think your world is now ending.” You can still empathize, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily give them that desire, right? Because I don’t want them to be conditioned, i.e. I don’t want them to have the perpetual feedback that when they’re upset, that they just get to have the ice-cream that they want.

Right. Let’s also say - we’re using children as an example here, because for the audience to empathize with us, that’s our breeding ground for research, basically. I can give an example where my son – I can’t recall the exact scenario, but there was a moment where I said to my wife “Hey, it’s not that he is misbehaving…”, because we were both in this crazy mode with him, and he wasn’t behaving… And I was like “You know what, it’s not that he’s misbehaving, it’s just that he can’t right now. He’s just too far gone. He’s too tired, he’s too exhausted, he’s overstimulated, and his brain is just not developed enough to really get that we’re asking him to behave, and desiring and expecting him to… But he’s just not capable.”

So that moment we both sort of just crawled into ourselves and just cuddled him, and were just loving to him, rather than “Why can’t you get this?! Come on, threenager! Do this!”, you know what I mean? So our breeding ground and research is our children.

Yeah, exactly. In my line of work I will see the people where this sense of attachment and connection and feedback loop didn’t go so well. I always say it’s sort of like they jury rig things. They learned how to best function in their lives, as well as they could, but we know this whenever we jury rig something and don’t actually fix it the way it was supposed to be - what happens? It breaks down.

[16:11] I’d like to earmark that too for future habit formation and breaking conversations we have around the whole – you know, the cue, the response, the reward etc. Because that reminds me of habits even; this short-circuiting, this jury-rigging, as you’re mentioning. It’s almost like you’re making your own path to a better connection or a learned behavior, whatever you wanna call it. That’s not exactly good long-term.

No, no. In fact – so part of how we’ve developed this awareness of attachment and connection actually came out of research with nonverbal kiddos, early age, like 18-month(ish). And what they did was they had caregivers even these kids try to engage with, just like facial expression… Because there’s a way – empathy really involves facial expression; we’ll talk about this too at other points… The role of mirror neurons and how they’re connected to empathy. So it makes sense we have these neurons in our brain that help us see things, empathize with other people. So with young children we do that a lot in terms of our facial expression. If you notice a kid is crying, or upset, it won’t just be our tone of voice that’s compassionate, but we will actually look them in the eye and contort our face to be empathetic or sensitive to them.

So what these kiddos would do is – what they instructed the people interfacing with these kids to do is to be flat, and not actually provide any visual or verbal cues of engagement with the child. What would happen is that their level of distress would ratchet up, and ratchet up, and ratchet up, until they’d stop crying… Because they realized they weren’t gonna get a response.

Wow. I don’t know about you, but a lot of times I think my children have done things just to get a response.

Yeah. So if we can look at relationships and how we function in our world through this lens of conditioning and go “What was reinforced? What feedback did we get when we were upset? Did our parents comfort us? Did they just hold us?” The power of touch - I cannot attest to enough that when we can hold hands, embrace, 20-second hugs actually reduce our level of stress; they have a physiological impact.

So when you see somebody who’s really hurting, you’re like “Just give me a hug.”

Because you have arms wrapped around you, somebody else’s warmth… Some things obviously happening in your brain around serotonin levels and different stuff being increased to provide that relaxation… All these things give ourselves indications that we’re safe.

Correct, so it reinforces that “I’m not alone” and that “I have a team.” I have a group of people who I can go to as resources, that will help ease whatever pain I’m in.” It doesn’t mean that I totally feel all better and now I can just go do whatever and I’m not sad, hurt or angry, like I think of in grief, but it sort of helps modulate it, and just carries the burden.

[19:39] So when you’re an individual, some people – we talked about conditioning; when they’re conditioned to retract, conditioned to isolate themselves from others, in the end they’re just trying to cope with whatever the issue might be, but they’re also hurting themselves, because individuals in nature just aren’t normal; we’re designed to feel, designed to relate, designed to have relationships, and there’s interaction in that.

What I’m trying to really get at is that for those who think “Oh, I’m an individual. I’ve got it, I don’t need anybody. I don’t need your help, I don’t need feedback loop from anybody. I’m cool on my own”, in the moment you may actually get by, but in the long-term what’s the effect…?

Right. I mean, think of that sort of like playing defense. That’s actually more defensive than an offensive move, because we are fundamentally designed to be connected… So thinking about it back when we didn’t have the resources we have today, that we can just go down the street where other people are always around us… It was much more tribal, right? So if I didn’t have my tribe, literally I was far more vulnerable to being killed.

Yeah, it’s true.

So we know the role that social connection plays because – I don’t know if you’ve looked around, but we don’t have orphanages for infants anymore. We once upon a time did…

And that, in part, is due to the fact that if babies were not tended to, if they didn’t have that social connection and relationship, that they didn’t survive.

Yeah… I mean, you don’t think anything of the fact that actual punishments in prison are social isolation? We wouldn’t use that if it didn’t have a reason that it was actually offensive to our brain, and I would contend really our soul, our fundamental humanity.

The pain of it though - how does the pain come in though? If it’s about conditioning somebody – let’s say in the prison scenario, with isolation, or removing them from the social gatherings and isolating themselves… If that ultimately hurts them, what’s the process of that pain? Does it begin in the brain, is it the physical parts of yourself? Where does the pain begin or form?

Well, this is what is, I think, super-fascinating… And that is that the research has shown that the physical pain centers of our brain actually light up when we are rejected socially.

So as if you got punched in the face and got rejected - same?

So it doesn’t stay there, it’s just sort of like that part of the brain gets lit initially, and then you experience more emotional pain. And I think we can talk to this concept even later in understanding more about how pain works, and the overlap between even physical pain and emotional pain… Because I would always say, physical pain most often is localized. I can say “I hurt my knee” or “My elbow is hurting” or my neck, or back… Because I can localize where that’s coming from. But emotional pain, and part of why it’s so challenging to figure out ways to navigate emotional pain, is because it’s diffuse; it’s blob-like. There isn’t a place I can say “Oh, this is exactly where it hurts.”

So you get in an argument with your spouse, or you have an interaction with a friend, or you’re left out of the group; everybody else is doing their thing and you are the only one not invited - it literally hurts, physically. But then you’re just sort of stuck, unless you develop coping skills or strategies to navigate your way out in order to feel differently.

And I like to think of these things when we talk about relationship and challenges that we encounter - people are unskilled. They just haven’t learned other skills that work better. So if I’ve only ever learned how to play defense, I’m probably not gonna be the best offensive player. Period. And that doesn’t mean I can’t be… It just means I then have to practice playing offense, i.e. looking at the desires that I have, not simply trying to stay in self-protection mode, so that I’m always safe. Because bear in mind, our brains are always designed to keep us alive; that’s their primary job.

Stay alive.

I love that.

[24:14] I know. “How do I not die today?” So when we encounter pain, it can be challenging… Because remember, the emotional center of the brain is more that mammalian brain. So if you think of mammals, cats and dogs - they don’t know what day of the week it is; they don’t have language, right? So when we feel, we can sort of get lost in the ambiguity of the emotion, and not be able to orient to other things that help us remember, like “Oh yeah, my spouse - I actually like them.” [laughter] “They’re on my team, they’re not actively trying to assault me right now, although my brain wants to tell me that they are.”

Right, right.

Because it legitimately hurts.

Let’s summarize the importance of relationships then. Obviously, they’re good for feedback loops… We very lightly touched on the fact that relationships form our own personal mind, on who we think we are. They’re a learned experience, this conditioning process. It’s also required; if not, you’ll wither and die, to some degree, whether it’s literal or physical.

What are some more summaries for relationships and their importance?

I would say without them we are apt to struggle more. We know the benefits that relationships have, and especially when we look at the five people that we tend to surround ourselves the most with. I think about this as it relates to habits, choices we make, purchases, all of the ways we do our life. Because when you think about the influence of your relationships… I don’t believe anybody who has struggled with addiction wakes up and is like “I think today is gonna be an awesome day to be an addict. That sounds fun!”, but rather they’re struggling, they’re in pain, and it seems to be the people that they’ve surrounded themselves with say “Hey, try this. It worked for me.”

I want to be very intentional about the people that I surround myself with. If you think about even possessions that you value in your life - do you treat them differently because you value them? If you get a new car, versus a 1985 Pinto… I don’t even know if they made Pintos back then. [laughs] But do you treat those cars differently?

I would say yeah.

Right. So I would contend that when we value the relationships we have with other people, it changes the choices that we make and the way we allow them to affect us. Because I’m not gonna park next to anything or drive my car anyway if I feel like it’s really special or I spent a lot of money on it.

So in this way, if I can go “Look, I as a human being matter. Not relative to any other person, but simply because I’m fundamentally human, and I know that being human means being embedded in relationship…” Then I wanna be somewhat intentional, if not very intentional, about who I surround myself with, and recognizing the way in which I allow those people to influence me, the decisions I make.

Because most of the time we will ask our friends and the people that we value what their feedback is about major life choices, right?

Yeah, it’s true. Phone a friend.

Exactly. It’s a lifeline. And that actually is super-adaptive, and helps us to not just survive, but really thrive. And when you’re vested in growth, I think that you always want to level up.

I would even add one more to that, which is just a different side of what you said, which was also the responsibility you have; if others have that influence on you, recognize your responsibility and the influence you have on others.

Touché, touché.


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