Humans are hardwired for connection? Neurobiology 101 for parents, educators, practitioners and the general public


September 15, 2010

Q&A with Amy Banks, M.D., director of Advanced Training at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at the Wellesley Centers for Women; instructor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School; co-editor of The Complete Guide to Mental Health for Women; and author of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Relationships and Brain Chemistry.

Q: What do you mean humans are hardwired to connect?
Dr. Banks:
Neuroscience is confirming that our nervous systems want us to connect with other human beings. A good example of this is mirror neurons, which are located throughout the brain and help us read other people's feelings and actions. They may be the neurological underpinnings of empathy - when two people are in conversation they are stimulating each other's mirror neuron system. Not only will this lead to movement in similar muscles of the face (so the expressions are similar) but it also allows each to feel what the other is feeling. This is an automatic, moment to moment resonance that connects us. There have been studies that look at emotions in human beings such as disgust, shame, happiness, where the exact same areas of the brain light up in the listener who is reading the feelings of the person talking. We are, literally, hardwired to connect.

Q: So what happens when people are not connected with others?  
Dr. Banks:
I believe that one of the seminal studies that supports a relational neurobiology is something called SPOT (Social Pain Overlap Theory.) A group of researchers at UCLA, looked at the overlap between social pain and physical pain. They designed a benign computerized experiment that gradually excluded people from a multi-player game. What they found was the area that lit up in the brain for that kind of social rejection—the anterior cingulate—was the exact same area that lights up for the distress of physical pain. So the distress of social pain is biologically identical to the distress of physical pain. Most people in our culture understand that physical pain is a major stressor, but we often reject the idea of social pain. This impacts our society on a grand scale, for example look at instances of racism or homophobia—any of the ways that we stratify and divide our social structures can literally cause pain.

Q: So this brain’s activity can negatively impact a person’s physical health as well?  
Dr. Banks:
Yes, being pushed out of social relationships and into isolation has health ramifications. In fact, there was a book done by health advocate Dr. Dean Ornish, called Love and Survival. There has been study after study done on the positive impact of loving relationships. What he had said at the time in that book was that if we had a drug that did for our health what love does, it would far outsell anything that has ever been made. The efficacy is that potent. But we downplay the importance of love and connection in a culture based on the success of “the rugged individual.” People in our culture need to understand that healthy connection can reduce pain on all levels.

Q: So if you have individuals or communities or societies that have lived with trauma, isolation, rejection, is healing possible? 
Dr. Banks:
This is the other piece of the neuroscience that is profound and hopeful, and that is neuroplasticity: the capacity of our brains and nervous systems to change. Until Dr. P. Eriksson discovered in 1998 that the brain could make new cells, the neurological model stated humans were born with a certain amount of brain cells that decreased with age and through circumstances such as head injuries or alcohol or drug use. Now we know our brains are making new cells and are re-working brain connections all the time. The key for creating lasting change is motivation and interest in making different choices which will stimulate new areas of the brain and re-wire us.

Q: This seems to be vital information for not just clinicians but also for parents, teachers, caregivers. 
Dr. Banks:
The history of science is historically to be 10-20 years ahead of where the culture is, and given what we have facing us today with the economy and many global crises, I think we need to get back to the real basics of having relationships be at the center of our meaning. This has been our passion at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute for years, but it feels really urgent right now. My experience both as a clinician and as a mother is that people are hungry for this information. Our greatest gift is to connect, and we function better in connection as individuals and as a society. If we can teach our children how to connect, and we can teach our mothers and fathers and caregivers to raise connected children, we can foster the positive change that is emerging throughout the world.

Dr. Banks is hosting 2010-2011 The Brain in Connection webinar series, an interactive training program ideal for practitioners, educators, caregivers, and business leaders about the neurobiology of connection.

The work of the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute is based on the Relational-Cultural Theory (RCT) of human growth, mental health and social-psychological development. The core RCT theory states that growth-fostering relationships are a central human necessity and chronic disconnection, whether on an interpersonal or societal scale, is the primary source of human suffering.

The Jean Baker Miller Training Institute is a program of the Wellesley Centers for Women. Learn more at www.jbmti.org.