How does the feeling of individuality emerge? How do body sensations, emotion, and cognition interact to self-organize into the emergence of our-self? Exploring the emergence of subjectivity and emotion can be done by first looking at the mind’s operating networks: the salience, the executive, and default-mode networks.
The executive network, sometimes called the central executive or the CEO of the brain, includes working memory, being present in the moment, and complex decision making.
And the default-mode network (DMN), sometimes called the “story brain,” involves self-referential thought, fantasy, daydreaming, and rumination, often about other people and our place within our relationships.
The DMN draws up episodic memories and reflects on the past as well as projects into the future. Finally, the interactions and dis-regulations of implicit and explicit memory are described as self-referential information systems. They form the fabric of the self and undergo updating based on experience. The mind’s operating networks use information from the long-term memory systems for continuity, stability, and “self”-organization.
The Social Self
Building on interpersonal neurobiology, we can look at how we thrive when nurtured, or develop psychological disorders when we are not. Kindling the social brain networks in psychotherapy promotes not only mental health but also general health. The mind’s operating networks may develop dynamic balance and stability or become imbalanced in response to our relationships.
Positive relationships are not just nice to have, but vital for our health as evidenced by impaired cardiovascular reactivity, blood pressure, cortisol levels, serum cholesterol, and natural killer cells. Research shows that early deprivation undermines emotional stability later in life; people who are lonely or maintain unhealthy relationships develop neurocognitive problems associated with inflammation and abnormal neurochemistry.
Close relationships support longevity as measured by the brain’s capacity for neuroplasticity and neurogenesis. Cultivating secure relationships, such as through psychotherapy, promotes stress tolerance by building feedback loops in the neuroendocrine and autonomic nervous systems that minimize anxiety and lift depression.
The brain of infants has considerable redundancies and many more neurons than that of the obstetricians who deliver them. There is a significant degree of extra undifferentiated potential that permits them to adapt to their unique family, community, and culture. The infant’s brain is also far more malleable than an adult’s.
Of all other species, humans spend the longest time in the hands and supervision of caregivers. Our brain is wired by experience in a social context, and the range of possible social experiences is vast.
Through the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study, researchers explored the health and mental health ramifications of neglect during childhood. This and other studies of its type highlight the interaction between early adversity and epigenetic affects expressed later in life in ill health and mental health.
Parental or caregiver neglect and ACEs have been shown to epigenetically suppress genes regulating cortisol receptors in the hippocampus, making it more difficult to turn off the stress response of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis later in life. In the extreme, low cortisol receptors are associated with suicide.
Women who initially experienced poor attachment early in life tend to have decreased estrogen receptors later in life and are less attentive to their own babies. On the other hand, people with secure attachment have higher levels of cortisol receptors and are better able to deal with stress.
Psychotherapy can work within these social brain systems to build or rebuild the capacity for regulatory affect to deal with the challenges of daily life. By empathetically kindling the social brain networks, therapists can help clients develop security and thrive interpersonally. Because therapists can help clients turn on and off genes through changing their behavior, anxiety and/or depression can be more effectively addressed therapeutically.
The capacity to emphasize with another person is a foundational social skill. As psychotherapy is fundamentally built on social skills, it involves the capacity of the therapist and client to coactivate parts of their brains that bring them closer to a shared understanding. Together these social brain circuits represent the means through which empathy is given and felt.
People who are undeveloped in these socially responsive areas in their brain possess less social sensitivity, blunted empathy, and less awareness of their own feelings and bodily states. At the beginning of therapy, they may seem ill aware of their own body states. In the extreme, those who have suffered severe abuse or neglect may also exhibit lower heart rate, arousal, and amygdala activity. This may make it initially difficult for them to develop empathy for others.
Feeling rejected during childhood is the antithesis of empathy. Bullying, one type of social pain, has received considerable attention in the media due to a number of widely publicized adolescent suicides. Social support can co-regulate a child’s emotions to promote less amygdala activation and more prefrontal activation (Tottenham, 2014). Buffering social stress with support increases amygdala and prefrontal cortex connectivity to promote secure attachment and reduce anxiety.
John Arden, PhD, ABPP is the Author of 15 books (translated into 20 languages) including Brain2Brain, The Brain Bible, Rewire Your Brain, and Brain-Based Therapy with Adults. His new book is entitled Mind-Brain-Gene: Toward the Integration of Psychotherapy.
He recently retired from Kaiser Permanente where he served as the Northern California Regional Director of Training where he developed one of the largest mental health training programs in the United States. In this capacity he oversaw more than 150 interns and postdoctoral psychology residents in 24 medical centers. He has presented in all US States and 27 countries.