by Dr Victoria Markham, www.victoriamarkham.com
The brain science behind relating.
As a practicing psychologist, I’ve been fascinated by the science behind our drive to connect with each other. Human connection is another kind of food for us. Even if an infant’s physical needs are all met, lack of human connection is fatal to them. Studies show that solitary people are 3 -5 times more likely to die an early death. The most dreaded punishment in prison is solitary confinement because we simply need connection. It’s built into us.
It turns out that this drive for connection comes from our mammalian brain, known as the limbic brain. Our brain appears to have been created in separate parts, seemingly corresponding to different stages in our evolution. The limbic brain sits on top of what we call our reptilian brain, and it heralded an incredible leap in evolution that propelled mammals into the forefront of life on our planet.
What was this leap? It was the fact that mammals take care of each other. We take care of our mates, our children, our family, our herd or our tribe. And the limbic brain is the seat of the emotions that drive this caring. Its sole purpose is relationship and the coordinating of everything related to that purpose.
What happens between two mammalian brains when they connect is nothing short of a miracle. Through eye contact, facial expressions, tone of voice, touch, and body posture, two different brains can become synchronized in what is known as “limbic resonance.”
The classic example of this is a mother and infant, the mother holding her baby, her arms outstretched. They are gazing into each others eyes, cooing and burbling at each other, no words necessary. The baby reaches up to touch mother’s face. They are both smiling and laughing, completely content with each other. Babies do this from birth. They do not have to be taught.
The other classic example is two lovers gazing into each others eyes, reaching up to touch each other, whispering sweet nothings, smiling, lost in each other, hearts beating as one. This same resonance can happen between any combination of us humans, two friends, sisters, brothers, teacher and student, etc. And it occurs across species as well with our fellow animals. It is a universal language of love, which binds us all.
A mammal’s nervous system depends for stability on interactive coordination with other close individuals in it’s social group. If limbic resonance continues between two individuals, it turns into “limbic regulation,” where our bodily systems become synchronized and regulated by each other. We calm each other down, we build up each others immune systems, we regulate each others heartbeats, etc. Mammals depend on this mutual regulation for survival.
All of this happens involuntarily, we don’t have to reason it into existence. It’s a natural part of who we are. It needs no words spoken. It is innate. No one teaches an infant what facial expressions mean. They are born with the ability to read faces.
The face is the only part of our bodies where muscles connect directly to the skin, for the sole function of expressing emotion for others of our species to read. These expressions are also involuntary. We can not stop them, just as we can not reason ourselves out of any emotion. The neural systems for emotion and intellect, are in fact, separate systems.
The neocortex is the reasoning brain, sitting on top of the limbic brain. It isn’t necessarily the most complex part of our brain, just the most recent one. It gave us speech, abstraction, planning, will, and logic. Our culture has somehow decided to give it our greatest allegiance and respect, choosing to value it over our limbic brain. And so, we have misled people about the nature of their lives.
We lead them to believe there’s something ‘wrong’ with them because they cannot use reason to control their lives. We do so, at great cost to our mutual health, having left behind the incredible value of limbic resonance and the leap that it was for our ancestors.
We ignore the signals and natural impulse the limbic brain sends us to connect. On a daily basis, we override its wisdom and information in favor of ‘reason’.
Emotions are humanity’s motivator and guide. Yet we are taught to ignore them. Our culture is having a tough time as a result. We see anxiety, depression, isolation, and acted out aggression everywhere because we’re ignoring the health of the limbic system, which requires mutual interaction.
Human physiology is an open loop, which only another person can complete. Together we create stable, balanced biological, emotional, and social systems with those we’re close to.
The information in this article came from, A General Theory of Love, by three MDs, Lewis, Amini, and Lannon, an easy and fast read written for lay people. I also recommend the research work of Dr Daniel Siegel, who has, The Pocket Book Guide to Neurobiology, and a good CD called, The Neurobiology of We.