“Intersections” – our days seem full of them. Places where our lives overlap with one another, where there’s a merging of the paths we’re on, where we converge in relationship, and maybe even share a meeting of the minds.
It all sounds a bit metaphorical…
But it turns out that on another level, it’s uncannily real. For neuroscience is finding that “relationships are not just what we do – they shape who we become” (Dr Dan Siegel, 2011).
Welcome to ‘interpersonal neurobiology’, a field that sees the brain not as an isolated creature locked in a skull, but as a social organ, linked to other brains. Where our relationships are seen as the way this social organ (our brain) evolves. Where relationships are, quite literally, “the substrate in which we grow” (ibid).
In fact, it’s even thought that, just as our brains have a biological synapse – a rich space across which our thoughts leap from neuron to neuron – so, too, there’s a social synapse – the rich space between brains which our thoughts and emotional selves leap out into.
Dr Lou Cozolino describes it like this:
“When we smile, wave, and say hello, these behaviours are sent through the space between us [the social synapse] via sights and sounds. These electrical and mechanical messaged are received by our senses and converted into electrochemical signals within our brains. These signals generate [internal] chemical changes, electrical activation, and new behaviours, which, in turn, transmit messages back across the social synapse.”
And Dr Dan Siegel also notes that “relationships affect the physiology of the body”
So you’re very much connected to the world around you and to the relationships you form. Emotionally connected. Neurobiologically connected. Physiologically connected. And all of this puts another slant entirely on the puzzle of ‘where do you end and I begin?’
Western society has often seemed seduced by ‘the cult of individualism’, where each of us is celebrated as a kind of isolated island of self. But maybe it’s not so simple after all… maybe we’re more socially linked than we first thought. Forged in part by the relationships we’re in. Hovering somewhere in the intersection of ‘self’ and ‘other’.
So what sort of relationships are you in right now?
‘Negative’ in some way?
How might they be shaping you?
(And how might you, in turn, be sending signals out into the world which could be shaping your loved ones or colleagues or even strangers you pass on the street?)
Interestingly, psychotherapy has sort of intuitively worked along these relational lines for many decades. In psychotherapy, through the therapeutic relationship, it’s felt that you have the chance to experience yourself anew – to live out different sides of yourself, to literally practice them in a safe space, a safe relationship – and then to gradually incorporate those parts of you back into the rest of your life. (You can read more on this in my post on ‘How Does Therapy Work? Neuroscience and the Sixth Sense’).
The reassuring thing about this interpersonal neurobiology stuff is that the brain is plastic – it changes; it evolves.
So where do you want to evolve to in your relationships today?
If you’d like hear some of the world’s leading thinkers on interpersonal neurobiology and neuroscience, tune in to this free online seminar series (available until 4 May 2011).
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Last reviewed: 14 May 2011