Interpersonal Neuro…What?

Jeremy Sharp, PhDneuroscience, relationships Leave a Comment

I recently posted a link to Dan Siegel’s “Neurobiology of We,” an audio series in which he talks about the mutually influential nature of brain functioning, relationships, attachment, and mindfulness. If you’ve read this blog in the past, you know that these are some of my favorite subjects. I’ve been so impressed with this audio series that I’d like to try and break it down in this post so that others can appreciate it as well.

Interpersonal neurobiology, or the way that relationships shape the brain and vice versa, has been a hot topic lately. There’s been a lot of research and quite a few books written over the last 15 years or so, and Dan Siegel is a psychiatrist and attachment researcher who’s on the forefront of this movement. I’ll do my best to summarize the ideas presented in “The Neurobiology of We.”

The first general idea is that relationships do, in fact, impact brain structure and functioning. When we’re young, we develop an attachment style based on the way that we interact with our caregivers. Those who feel safe and experience contingent communication (where your caregivers recognized your needs and responded appropriately) are likely to develop a secure attachment. Those who don’t develop either an anxious, avoidant, or disorganized attachment. Each of these attachment styles has a particular influence on the brain; for example, secure attachment helps an individual develop appropriate emotional regulation, while an insecure attachment can lead to varying degrees of difficulty in regulating emotions, especially fear and arousal. He talks in much more detail about the brain structures involved, but I won’t get into that.

Secondly, he talks about how we store emotional memories at a physiological level that can be inaccessible by our conscious mind. So for someone who had a traumatic experience, they may “get over it” but still have physiological and emotional remnants of the experience that can be fired up at the slightest provocation. For individuals who continually experienced a mismatch in communication with caregivers, as is the case with insecure attachment styles, they can carry the associated fears and anxiety into other relationships or interactions that feel similar even though they may not be as threatening. Due to their prior experiences, they often react to these perceived threats in familiar ways – shutting down, becoming emotionally flooded, or experiencing confusion and fear.

The third component that Siegel talks about is mindfulness, and how cultivating mindfulness can actually reverse some of the negative impact of insecure attachment. By developing an awareness of our behaviors, physical reactions, and emotions, we can either grow or prune the wiring in the brain that regulates emotional reaction so that we may get to a more balanced and deliberate state of functioning.

While I haven’t finished the series yet, these three points have already made a significant impact. In the ongoing struggle of how science and therapy overlap, interpersonal neurobiology provides some clarity. It supports an idea that myself and other humanistic therapists have had for some time – that the therapeutic relationship can be quite healing for our clients in and of itself. I’m personally excited to hear that mindfulness-based approaches are gaining more and more support as well – that by teaching my clients mindful awareness, it can actually help develop emotional regulation in a way that goes beyond cognitive restructuring.

I’m excited to continue with the audio series and will likely post updates as I learn more. In the meantime, I’d love to hear any of your reactions or thoughts on this stuff.


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