The more we’ve come to understand how our brains work, the more we’ve realized that significant portions are dedicated to connecting us with others.


The brain has long been the subject of human fascination—this has never been as true as it is today. For most of recorded history, the brain was thought to be just another organ, like the liver or the kidneys, while our sense of self was thought to reside in the heart. With the emergence of phrenology and neurology, the idea that the brain somehow organized personality and behavior gradually gained prominence. As religious and mythological beliefs began to diverge from scientific investigation, the concept of the brain as the organizer of experience took hold. The newer notion of the brain as a social organ emerged only in the last few decades, and with it, the field of social neuroscience.

The more we’ve come to understand how our brains work, the more we’ve realized that significant portions are dedicated to connecting us with others. These findings have made it possible to forge fields like affective neuroscience and psychoneuroimmunology. We’ve learned from these interdisciplinary studies that models of psychotherapy focused exclusively on individuals and their internal experiences reveal but a small portion of the information relevant to healing. Further, focusing on thinking, feeling, behavior, somatic experience, relationships, or culture alone limits our ability to comprehend our clients and leverage psychotherapy as an agent of change. The consistent message of recent research is that minds are always embodied, encultured, and embedded within the context of relationships. When we forget their ultimate interdependence, we come to objectified and superficial understandings of the people we treat. As Wilhelm Reich once said, “We arrive at a catastrophic comprehension of the psychic surface.” For this reason, I begin with a discussion of the social brain, and how it is built, regulated, and modified. These are all central topics for psychotherapists, parents, and teachers and the most important reasons to become neurofluent.

Out of yourself and into the team.
—University of Alabama locker room sign

The social brain refers to two primary concepts. The first is that the brains of social animals (like ourselves) contain multiple neural systems that are partly or wholly dedicated to receiving, processing, and transmitting information to others. For example, we have a neural system (called the fusiform face area) dedicated to the recognition of right-side-up faces that switches off when faces are turned upside down. Upside-down faces get transferred to our object recognition systems, which is why we find it much harder to recognize inverted faces. Damage to the primitive core of the prefrontal cortex can result in a loss of empathy, sympathy, and compassion. The same circuits are also involved in the organization of our attachment schema and our ability to regulate our emotions.

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Humans have also evolved to automatically communicate their states of body, emotion, and mind to one another. Research in physiology has shown that our internal organs are automatically linked to our facial expressions to give others a real-time readout of our internal biological state. We also have things called mirror neurons designed to create an internal representation of the actions, expressions, and emotions of others within our own bodies. This allows us to be able to feel our own version of what others are feeling, especially strong emotions like pain, fear, disgust, love, and joy. This is especially important for the parents of young children, who need to read the primitive expressions of comfort and distress acted out by their children. These and a host of other findings serve as the foundation of our understanding of the social brain.

The notion that “genetics is destiny,” assumes that the genes we inherit from our parents shape our bodies, brains, and minds, while experience has little influence on development. The opposite notion of a tabula rasa (blank slate) suggests that everything we are is the result of how we have been conditioned by experience. We now know that we are born with both genetic input that guides the basic organization of our brains and also that many brain systems are highly dependent on postnatal experience, especially those involved in social relating. These systems, specifically those related to attachment and affect regulation, are of particular importance to the field of psychotherapy and are said to develop in an experience dependent manner.

Most neural systems dedicated to social connectedness are shaped by an interaction between our genetic inheritance and our lived experience. The complex wiring of our brain is shaped to adapt to the particular relationships in which we grow up. As social animals, this adaptation strategy most likely maximizes the survival of both the individual and the tribe. Of course, this is not without its problems. The brains of many children are shaped to people and situations that are not good models for survival outside the family and thus, are poorly suited to long-term adaptation. This certainly describes many of the clients who come to us seeking help. Our challenge is to make their unconscious adaptational patterns conscious, and then modify them in ways more in line with their present situation and long-term goals.

Human infants are born into the most abject dependency, connection equals survival. So we all enter the world with a basic rule: The first order of business is to attach to our parents and trigger their bonding instincts to take care of us. We stare into their eyes, grab their fingers, smile and coo, and cry when they leave us alone, making it clear that we want and need them. For at least the first decade of life, our caretakers and immediate family are our entire world. The input we receive from these interactions teaches us how to get what we want, regulate our fears, teach us if we are lovable, and what we can expect from others in the future.

Think about the game of peekaboo we play with our children. We hide our face with our hands, then expose our face, and say “Peek- aboo!” with wide eyes, an exaggerated smile, and a high-pitched voice. The baby’s eyes and mouth open wide, and then the baby gives us a big smile and maybe even an open-mouthed laugh. What just happened in our brains? First, the surprise and big smile stimulated metabolic activity in both the baby’s and the parent’s brain, delivering extra glucose and oxygen to support learning. We both experience surges of oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin triggered by our mutual enjoyment, making us feel good and making us want to do it again. (Again! Again!) Epigenetic processes within the baby’s brain trigger neuroanatomical growth that supports a sense of joy and creates the building blocks of long-term well-being. Changes in the parents’ brains support deepening attachment, physical health, and emotional well-being. Parenting, grandparenting, and caring for any child, turn out to be good medicine for all of us at any age.

A good example of this is the epigenetic translation of these pleasurable experiences into the building of endorphin receptors on the baby’s amygdala. The more of these receptors we build, the more the endorphins in our nervous system keep the amygdala downregulated, decreasing our vulnerability to stress, anxiety, and fear. This is one of the many physiological variables related to qualities like ego strength, grit, or resilience.

In stark contrast to this situation are the many children who lack quality caretakers, attentive others, or positive stimulation. Within the brains of these children, opposite biochemical and neuroanatomical processes occur that lead them to be more vulnerable to stress. This is why children with a greater number of adverse social experiences during childhood (e.g., parental psychopathology, exposure to domestic violence) are far more likely to experience psychological, physical, and adaptational difficulties later in life. Our social experiences are translated, for better and worse, into the neurobiological structure of our brains and tend to stabilize over time. Early trauma is truly a gift that keeps on giving, and a suffering child often grows into a suffering adult.

This excerpt was from Louis Cozolino’s new book The Pocket Guide to Neuroscience for Clinicians
published by W. W. Norton & Co. Reproduced with permission from the publisher.

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