Review by Peter G. Prontzos
Although Buddha never claimed to be a neuroscientist, some insights which have been attributed to him resonate strongly with the findings of modern researchers. One of the most profound of these understandings is the idea that our deepest “self” is not a “thing”; rather, it is an on-going natural process, one which continues to evolve throughout one’s life.
In fact, it seems that a baby doesn’t have a substantial self when it is born. As Louis Cozolino explains in his remarkable book, The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: “The awareness of being a separate and autonomous self appears to emerge gradually over the first decade of life…from how our brains construct our experience of others”.
He emphasizes how the quality of our relationships with our parents (and the other significant people in our lives) affects us more than we know. A primary reason that we are unaware of these most basic feelings about ourselves and the world is that they are formed when we are so young that they usually become unconscious “givens”. Nevertheless, they influence and guide “our moment-to-moment experiences” throughout our lives.
It is hardly surprising, then, that the survival and healthy development of infants and children depends, “on the abilities of their caretakers to detect the needs and intentions” of those who depend on them.
Cozolino, who is a clinical psychologist as well as a Professor at Pepperdine University, outlines how these early experiences also guide the construction of our brain and central nervous system. Our thoughts and feelings don’t just float around somewhere in our consciousness; rather, they are biologically embedded in the very structures and functions of our brain as it adapts to its environment – healthy or otherwise.
Hence his profoundly important point: “The brain is a social organ of adaptation built through interactions with others” [emphasis in original]. Nurturing connections create healthier brains in which the various areas are harmoniously integrated, while hormones, neurotransmitters, and other neurochemicals are present in the appropriate amounts. “This experience-dependent sculpting is accomplished through attunement and information exchange with the right hemispheres of the parents.”
This focus is based on the relatively new field of, “Interpersonal Neurobiology” (IPNB), in which the “social construction of the brain and the role of attachment relationships are particularly important…” The ramifications of this insight for our understanding of human nature in general, and the “self” in particular, are revolutionary; and they apply to adults as well as to children.
It is difficult to overestimate the impact of our early environment on the health of our growing brain. Indeed, that is one advantage to being born at a stage of development that is immature compared to other primates: it allows human infants more flexibility when it comes to adapting to their specific family situations.
This openness to our social environment means that the kind of person that we eventually become is, to a very significant extent, the result of the quality of our relationships in the early years. “The most important aspect of early attachment relationships”, Cozolino notes, “is the establishment of a sense of safety”.
A baby (or child) will obviously feel safer to the extent that more of its needs are met: to be held, to be fed when hungry, to experience warm interactions with its parents, and so on. Providing for these needs is a concrete demonstration of love, and a baby will thrive in such a nurturing social environment.
Healthy relationships create secure attachments between infants and caregivers, which also helps children to learn emotional self-regulation, reducing the tendency to overreact to negative situations.
Findings such as these, which show how much we are shaped by our experiences, undermine the simplistic form of genetic determinism which claims that our fate is overwhelmingly decided by our DNA. The more complex reality is that, as Cozolino elegantly explains, “Our brains are built in the enigmatic interface between experience and genetics, where nature and nurture become one”.
The author also points out the vital but often overlooked corollary that: “there are no single human brains – brains only exist within networks of other brains.” More specifically, the self develops as reflection of the interactions of three factors: our brain, our body, and our relationships with other people – along with the rest of the natural world.
That’s why it is impossible to understand a person outside of the social contexts in which they matured: their family, community, culture, and nation. (Einstein held the same view. In his essay, “Why Socialism?” he wrote that: “It is ‘society’ which provides man with food, clothing, a home, the tools of work, language, the forms of thought, and most of the content of thought”).
Cozolino employs the metaphor of our, “social synapse” in conveying his view of the nature of our personal interrelations. Just as each individual brain cell communicates with others via the spaces between them and no neuron could survive by itself, people build families and communities across social spaces in order to communicate, survive, and flourish.
Our high level of openness and sensitivity towards other people is the reason that we are both the most social, and the most adaptive, of all species. Cozolino suggests that, “our social brains emerged during natural selection because being social enhances survival.”
On the other hand, “the radical individualism of the West is one reason why we experience a higher incidence of psychological distress, drug addiction, and violence”. Social pain (isolation, rejection, and so on) is far from a trivial matter. Like physical pain, it is a sign that something is wrong and that we may be in danger. Pain demands that we pay attention to a threat. It is extremely significant that both physical and emotional pain are processed by the same neuroanatomical systems. In other words, social pain can be so powerful precisely because toxic relationships and/or social isolation are also serious dangers to our physical health.
That’s why, as Daniel Kahneman has argued, avoiding (both kinds of) pain is a stronger motivation than the attraction to pleasure. Cozolino puts it this way: “Based on the way our brains operate, evolution appears to have been far more interested in keeping us alive than making us happy.”
The book also discusses such critical issues as epigenetics, mirror neurons, stress, interpersonal trauma, social phobia, autism, healing relationships, and – of course – love:
“There is no doubt that evolution has shaped us to love one another…Loving relationships help our brains to develop, integrate, and remain flexible….And when the drive to love is thwarted – when we are frightened, abused, or neglected – our mental health is compromised.”
He also provides a number of moving stories about some of his patients to illustrate how real people develop – and often resolve – old hurts.
There is a fair amount of sometimes technical neuroscience in the book, and while the reader may choose to skip some of the more detailed accounts, even the relatively simpler ones can deepen and enrich one’s understanding of both the brain and of our shared humanity.
In Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, “No Exit”, one of the characters declares that, “hell is other people.” No doubt that is often all-too-true. Cozolino not only provides valuable insights for treating old wounds, but, much more importantly, he describes the kind of nurturing social environments that can prevent such the damage in the first place.