‘You make me crazy!’
‘Laughing is so easy with you.’
‘When I’m around you, I feel so drained.’
These are all common expressions between humans. We notice how we feel, think, speak, and behave around different people in our own lives. Most of us move towards others that make us feel good about ourselves and our lives. However, many of us (myself included), have also been in relationships in which anger, shame, and hostility seem more easily accessible than joy, laughter, or creativity. Oftentimes, when we are in connections like these we ask ourselves ‘Why and how did this happen?’ Or if we’ve had multiple failed relationships, ‘Why do I keep repeating different versions of the same mistakes?’ Psychologist Louis Cozolino, PhD provides some clarity on these questions in his neuroscience-based book 'Why Therapy Works: Using Our Minds to Change our Brains':
Two consequences of human evolution seem particularly relevant to both the birth and success of psychotherapy. The first is that we evolved into social animals who are highly attuned to one another’s inner experiences. This sympathetic attunement allows us to influence each other’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The second is that our attachment circuitry remains plastic throughout life. If you have any doubts about this, just ask grandparents how they feel about their grandchildren. Through the new science of epigenetics, we now know that we participate in the way each other’s brains are built, how they develop, and how they function. (p. 87)
Cozolino points out that humans are highly social creatures whose inner experiences and overall well-being is both heavily influenced by and influential to other humans. Each of us has our own unique manner in which we relate to others which Cozolino links to our attachment circuitry. Our attachment style/circuitry may be thought of as the way our own nervous system expects close relationships to feel. This circuitry is most quickly and strongly laid during our early childhood years while our brains and bodies are rapidly growing. If most of our experiences and caretakers created a world that was coherent and safe, then we would expect the same and seek that from the world and the people in our lives. Conversely, if our caretakers or experiences informed us that the world and people were generally unstable or chaotic then our nervous systems will expect and even re-create those experiences - even to our own detriment. While it seems counter-productive for us to perpetuate hurtful relationships, our brain, like all of nature, conserves energy by following what it knows. Disconfirming and new experiences cause the brain to burn more energy - a risky evolutionary development. So we have a tendency to relationally seek what our brain has already experienced. Our own close relationships may be thought of as reflections of our own complex attachment history. Many of us have witnessed friends or family members (or ourselves) that pick or are attracted to wild and restless partners that bring more turmoil than peace. Then it may not be surprising if these same people had a caretaker early in life that was anxious, distant, or, at worst, abusive. While as an adult, half the responsibility for our relationships lies with us and our present-day choices, we cannot separate our present-day selves from our attachment style formed in the needful and dependent years of childhood.
Thankfully, for those of us that have complicated attachment histories our attachment circuitry remains changeable or plastic throughout our lifetime, as Cozolino suggests. Psychotherapy, both individual and group, helps us by providing an empathic relationship that disconfirms our brains' expectations for anxiety or hostility. Ideally, clients are able to deeply reveal themselves and their vulnerabilities and be met with acceptance and warmth. We can use this therapeutic relationship as a guide and model for our external relationships and create depth and closeness as we’ve perhaps never experienced. We learn to rely on others to help meet our own needs and have others rely on us in a way that is deeply satisfying. In the final line of Cozolino's paragraph, the point is made that as we habitually experience positive and attuned connection and learn to act from that place ourselves, we are actually changing our brain structure and consequent gene expression by altering neuronal pathways. These benefits are passed on to our children and the world at large.
Neuroscience is just beginning to accumulate knowledge that the world's religions and spiritual paths have posessed for thousands of years. The wisdom of 'The Allegory of the Long Spoons' is particularly relevant to the discussion about our social nature.
A man asks God ‘What is the difference between Heaven and Hell?’
God leads the man to two doors. Behind the first door is a large round table with a pot of stew in the middle of it. The individuals seated around the table are emaciated and distraught. They each have very long spoons that are lengthy enough to reach the stew but so long that they are unable to contort their arms to reach the spoon into their own mouths. ‘This is hell,’ God says.
God leads the man through the second door where he finds another group of people seated around a round table with a pot of stew in the middle of it. Except these individuals are healthy and full of joy and laughter even though they too only possess the same awkwardly long spoons. ‘This is Heaven,’ God states.
‘I don’t understand,’ the man confusedly declares.
God replies, ‘It is simple, these individuals have learned to feed one another.’
My ongoing exploration into therapy related topics.