How do relationships affect brain function? - Happy + Well : Happy + Well

How do relationships affect brain function?

Written by on March 24, 2015 in Relationships with 2 Comments

6325422-3x2-340x227One person tells his therapist he experiences profound anxiety in most social situations. Another person describes to her therapist a long history of eating disorders, lying, cheating, stealing and other dysfunctional behaviours. What do these two individuals have in common?

According to Dr Amy Banks, an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who is being interviewed here following the recent publication of a book she co-authored, Four Ways to Click: Rewire Your Brain for Stronger, More Rewarding Relationships, both demonstrate how much our relationships shape our brain.

Banks says the trend in therapeutic circles when considering a person’s maturity and health has been to focus on their ability to “fully separate and individuate, to stand on their own two feet”, and that not enough attention has been paid to their relationships and how these can be improved. She believes, “that really does such a disservice to people and, in fact, it ends up shaming them because no one can stand on their own two feet.”

On the contrary, people need each other to the extent that we are all interconnected on a neurophysiological level. As Banks explains, there are four distinct neural pathways that correspond to the four most important ingredients for healthy and satisfying relationships: calmness, acceptance, emotional resonance, and energy.

Consider, for example, the following:

The neural pathway that relates to calmness is the smart vagus nerve. This is a third branch of the autonomic nervous system and it “literally sends a signal to your stress (fight/flight) response system to calm down” as soon as you feel safe and at ease in relationship, says Banks.

One reason someone might experience profound anxiety when they’re in the company of others is that they’ve “been raised and spent time in abusive relationships, and their sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight response) is so pumped up there’s no room for their smart vagus to express itself.”

The neural pathway that relates to energy, or motivation, is our dopamine reward system, “that pathway that’s so talked about now because it’s the final common route of all addictions”, says Banks. “But in the beginning it’s attached to healthy relationships, so to a nurturing hug, cuddling, cooing, all of those lovely interactions that soothe and wash our bodies with the most pleasant of neurochemicals.”

The concern is when this dopamine-relationship connection is undermined because some or many of our important relationships are problematic, and we’re forced to look elsewhere, invariably in all the wrong places, for our dopamine hit. Drugs, alcohol, consumerism, gambling and sex are some of the more common substitutes.

Banks says clients in a therapeutic context benefit from having someone explain to them the neuroscience behind their issues because “it allows them to engage the cognitive part of their brain, and it brings the problem outside of them. They’re not innately wrong; rather their pathways have been shaped in a certain way based on past relationships.

“And, of course, the other corollary to that is the clearer we are about how we can change our brain [through prioritising stronger, more rewarding relationships], the more we can use this [knowledge] in specific brain training techniques.”


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  1. Anthea Ball says:

    Brilliant, just absolutely brilliant.

    Once someone has understood it is the neural pathways within their brain, that have been shaped based on their sympathetic nervous system being pumped up so much how do they stop their habits? it would take months, if not years, plus their commitment in doing such a practice. But they are now addicted to this feeling, this dopamine hit. Even though the addictions weren’t previously there. Simply due to the dopamine hit they would get they continue to live from this point of view. Sex, and drugs are huge. It is difficult for someone, even when they have re patterned and connected new pathways to move away from such things. Especially sex. They have no idea on how to change these. They can think differently and use affirmations, change of thought pattern etc yes. though this even takes time and practice. It is not so simple. once they know how both of these work they continue to work from the addictive state, they want to change. How do you help them?

  2. Lynda says:

    That’s a really good question! To me it’s a bit like asking how to come to terms with the death of a loved one. Perhaps it’s a matter of time. Habituating your brain to begin to feel in a different way, like giving up drugs or alcohol. Doing things differently, feeling the discomfort but sticking with it. Don’t under estimate your strength and resilience and never give up trying. Oh, and yoga, tai chi, theatre (acting), any movement activity, helps heaps…

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