Wired for Connection

by Sarah on November 15, 2016

We are social creatures and our need for social connection is as important to us as our need for food and warmth. Not only are we social beings, but the brain is a social organ. Neuroscience confirms that we are hard-wired to connect. It also proves a single functioning neuron or a single functioning brain does not exist in nature. We need input from others to keep us alive.

Mirror neurons, located throughout the brain, help us read other peoples’ feelings and actions. They are the neurology of empathy. It’s how we share the internal experience of another. While reading the emotions of the person we’re in conversation with, the same regions of the brain light up in us, the listener. These mirror neurons also help us understand the intention behind the action.

For instance, when we see someone lift their hand, mirror neurons help us perceive if they are reaching to swipe their hair out of their face or winding up to give us a high five. Our mirror neurons fire as we watch them lift their hand. We take in observable information, mirroring what we see and experience and sending that signal to our bodies. When we feel in our bodies what they are feeling in their body, our higher brain then receives the information to be interpreted.

Most communication is nonverbal – expressed through tone of voice, body language and facial expressions. This explains why mirror neurons are essential in developing our capacity to pay attention and consciously tune in to our own experiences, as well as the experience of others. This is called attunement. Strengthened attunement helps us know ourselves’ better as well as read the meaning and purpose of other people’s emotional signals. Resonance is what connects us.

So, since we are so intrinsically wired for connection, what happens when we aren’t connected? Good question.

One of the seminal studies in Relational-Cultural Neurobiology revealed what is referred to as SPOT: Social Pain / Physical Pain Overlap Theory. Eisenberger and Lieberman, researchers at UCLA, performed social exclusion experiments while participants who were connected to fMRI machines were slowly left out of a multi-player computer game. What surprised them is the same area that lit up in the brain when the research subjects experienced social rejection is the same area of the brain that becomes activated when we anticipate or experience physical pain or injury.

Social scientists say it seems that creating connection is so vital to our survival that our social engagement system piggy-backed onto the system that signifies and prevents physical pain or injury. It utilizes a similar pain signal to protect us from social separation and disconnection. Social pain registers in the brain, and in our experience, the same as physical pain. Saying that, “my feelings are hurt or my heart is broken” are not just metaphor. We want connection more than most things in life, but it takes courage to connect. It’s good to know we were designed, specifically, to attune and engage with those around us.

Let’s practice being more attuned in our relationships this week. We surely have ample opportunity to understand the view of another and express wholehearted empathy.

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