Sociable Brain and Well-being
Some axes of behavior analysis
Human behavior is complex, of course; it depends on many factors. When we say 'behavior,' we refer to what we see an individual doing or saying and the mental processes underlying and going with that external behavior.
In addition, to explain an internal or external behavior, whatever it might be, we must keep in mind various axes of analysis. Among several transversal axes that explain human behavior in general, we can find two bidirectional relationships between mind and body and the individual and their situation (Morris & Maisto, 2009).
Regarding the mind-body axis, it is important to note that, from a neuroscientific viewpoint, the mind and brain are inseparable:
«The mind can be considered as the brain itself and its activities. In this view, the mind essentially is both the anatomical organ and what it does.» (A.P.A. Online Dictionary of Psychology - 'Mind')
About the individual-situation axis, from the viewpoint of human behavior, we have to recognize that one cannot exist without the other either. In any social interaction, the individual brings his subjectivity—thoughts, beliefs, perceptions and interpretations, emotions, motivations, habits, etc. And the situation not only provides items that activate various responses in those who participate in the interaction, but the very circumstances of the situation predispose the subjects to different response styles. For example, a 'kind word' or, on the contrary, phrases that sound 'aggressive' will facilitate answers of the same type in the subjects receiving the message.
Wired to connect with others
The interaction between both axes, mind-body and individual-situation, results in various types of 'learning' in those who interact, which implies a more or less lasting modification in our neural system. Interpersonal or social interaction, far from being secondary or 'optional,' constitutes a vital, essential component of our biology and functioning as human beings.
«The most fundamental revelation of this new discipline: we are wired to connect. Neuroscience has discovered that our brain's very design makes it sociable, inexorably drawn into an intimate brain-to-brain linkup whenever we engage with another person. That neural bridge lets us affect the brain—and so the body—of everyone we interact with, just as they do us.» (Goleman, 2006; p. 10)
What does Daniel Goleman mean by that 'neural bridge' connecting us with others? To put it briefly, it refers to several structures and advanced functions of our brain, such as several regions of the neocortex and the limbic system that regulate interpersonal behavior. So the set of those structures has been called the 'sociable brain.' It includes the orbital cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, and some subcortical regions, especially the amygdala. Two of the outstanding functions of the social brain are mirror neurons and mindsight.
Regarding the so-called mirror neurons, we could say that they are the biological basis of interpersonal relationships based on empathy—the ability to put ourselves the others' shoes—since those neurons allow us to experience internally a bit of the feeling the others communicate or manifest:
«A different variety of brain cells, mirror neurons, sense both the move another person is about to make and their feelings, and instantaneously prepare us to imitate that movement and feel with them.» (Goleman, 2006; p. 20)
The mindsight is another function of the sociable brain that supports empathy. Based on the interpretation of body language, the mindsight allows us to get an idea of the others' thinking, feeling, and motivations (note: this ability is diminished in autism spectrum disorders):
«This ability to apprehend what seems to be going through someone else's mind is one of our most invaluable human skills. Neuroscientists call it 'mindsight.' Mindsight amounts to peering into the mind of a person to sense their feelings and deduce their thoughts—the fundamental ability of empathic accuracy. While we can't actually read another person's mind, we do pick up enough clues from their face, voice, and eyes—reading between the lines of what they say and do—to make remarkably accurate inferences.» (Goleman, 2006; p. 198)
The 'neural bridge' or intersubjective connection established between our own and others' brains implies an exchange of information and, more importantly, an emotional link between those who interact. That link will impact, directly or indirectly, our overall health and well-being.
Toxic and healthy relationships
We must emphasize that the greater the emotional bond between people, the greater the influence—beneficial or harmful—between them.
«The more strongly connected we are with someone emotionally, the greater the mutual force. Our most potent exchanges occur with those people with whom we spend the greatest amount of time day in and day out, year after year—particularly those we care about the most. (…) That link is a double-edged sword: nourishing relationships have a beneficial impact on our health, while toxic ones can act like slow poison in our bodies.» (Goleman, 2006; p. 11)
That a so-called 'toxic' relationship can poison our body? Yes, it can! Even though it sounds somewhat dramatic to say so, current neuropsychological research confirms it. The quality of interpersonal relationships impact our brain and, from there, the rest of our physical health.
Think, for example, of two or more people who get together to have a good time, enjoy hanging out, share a drink, talk, laugh together, etc. Just laughing at the same jokes increases endorphins and other substances in our brain that make us feel pleasure and wellness.
On the contrary, an interpersonal relationship tinged with violence and aggression impacts our brain in such a way that our pituitary gland and amygdala activate a series of chain reactions that raise the level of stress hormones, adrenaline, and cortisol. Which increases muscle tension, multiple contractures, fatigue, and hinders digestive processes that trigger stomach discomfort and predispose us to experience displeasure, anxiety, and irritability.
Moreover, to put it briefly, all that 'interpersonal stress,' when prolonged over time, activates the so-called T cells, part of our immune system intended to fight pathogens such as viruses and bacteria (Goleman, 2006). When T cells multiply unnecessarily, without the presence of infection, they could turn against healthy cells.
All of the above is clear proof that 'toxic' relationships damage our mind and body—emotional and physical health.
Social intelligence—as part of emotional intelligence—is, according to Daniel Goleman (who in turn follows Edward Thorndike's definition): «Acting wisely in human relationships» and also «The ability to understand and manage men and women.» (Goleman, 2006; pp. 22, 23).
Looking at what's happening in the world, it's clear that we need to develop this aptitude, social intelligence, to interact wisely, and be a not harmful, healthy influence on each other.
«The social responsiveness of the brain demands that we be wise, that we realize how not just our own moods but our very biology is being driven and molded by the other people in our lives—and in turn, it demands that we take stock of how we affect other people's emotions and biology. Indeed, we can take the measure of a relationship in terms of a person's impact on us, and ours on them. The biological influence passing from person to person suggests a new dimension of a life well lived: conducting ourselves in ways that are beneficial even at this subtle level for those with whom we connect.» (Goleman, 2006; pp. 23-24)
Again, our world needs more social intelligence. Especially if we consider that because of neuroplasticity, the brain modifies structurally and functionally in the interaction with others—mainly in the interaction with the people we care about the most, with whom we have an emotional bond.
In interpersonal interaction, our brain incorporates engrams—neural networks—that facilitate social behavior. Engrams are the biological basis of habits, which can be socially adaptive—such as behaviors based on empathy, tolerance, inclusion, and altruism—or maladaptive—such as violent verbal or physical behavior, lying, deception, fraud, and all forms of human corruption.
What kind of world do we want to live in? That is the world that we will consciously build.
Until next time,
A.P.A. Dictionary of Psychology (online). From https://dictionary.apa.org/mind
Goleman, D. (2006). Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships
Morris, C. & Maisto, A. (2009). Understanding Psychology (12th Edition)