Humans are hardwired for connection? Neurobiology 101 for parents, educators, & 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: Why is the field of neuroscience so important to understanding the necessity of human relationships to overall well-being?

Dr. Banks: Due to a series of seminal studies and research, neuroscience is confirming our entire autonomic nervous system wants us to connect with other human beings. Of particular importance are mirror neurons, which are throughout our brain and allow us to read behavior. They are the basis of empathy – so that when you watch my face as I am talking I can watch your face and I can see that when I am more animated your face gets more animated. It’s that 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?

One of the seminal studies in Relational-Cultural 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 singulate, 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 reject the idea of social pain. This impacts our society on a grand scale with in instances such as racism or homophobia: all of those ways that we divide our social structures. We leave out people all of the time: it’s how we define ourselves.  Rather than inclusion, it’s who’s excluded.

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 is going to have 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 be 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.” And I think it’s a good analogy that healthy connection decreases our overall pain.

Q: So if you have individuals or communities or societies that have lived with trauma, isolation, rejection, is healing possible?

Amy: This is the other piece of the neuroscience that is profound and hopeful, and that is neuroplasticity: the capacity of our brains and autonomic nervous systems to change. Until Dr. FIRST Erikson 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 taking drugs. 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: Why is this information medically important not only for clinicians for but parents, teachers, caregivers out in the world? That is of great importance to you, can you tell us a little bit why?

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 have 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.

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