The Neuroscience of Human Connection

“The power to direct our attention has within it the power to shape our brain’s firing patterns, as well as the power to shape the architecture of the brain itself.”

– Daniel J. Siegel, Mindsight The New Science of Personal Transformation

We have the power to change our reactions and the way we think. Just like working out helps us to develop the muscles in our bodies, mindful mental activity stimulates our brain firing and can be used to build the specific “muscle groups” of the brain. We can effectively “flex” our circuits, reinforce their connections, establish new circuitry and link them together in new and helpful ways.

This is the power of mindfulness practices. We can use mindfulness to focus our attention in ways that integrate the desirable neural circuits that help us to stay clear, focused and positive. Think of it as brain hygiene!

So, what happens when we get into reactivity? The middle prefrontal cortex temporarily shuts down, which means that pretty much all of our higher faculties are no longer operational. We begin to operate from fear, from our “reptile brain”.

The following list details all of the functions of your middle prefrontal cortex: 

The Nine Middle Prefrontal Functions:
1. Bodily Regulation:

The middle prefrontal cortex coordinates the activity of a part of the nervous system that controls bodily functions like your heart rate, breathing, and digestion

There are two branches of this “autonomic” nervous system:

  • the sympathetic, which is often compared to a car’s accelerator
  • the parasympathetic — the brakes

Balance of the two allows us to drive the “car” of the body smoothly, so that we lift up off the brakes when we press the accelerator, and vice versa. Without this coordination, we can burn out, revving up while trying to slow down.

When you’re in a reactive state, your heart may be beating quickly, intestines churning — just as if you’re facing an actual physical threat.

2. Attuned communication:

When we attune to other people, we allow our internal state to shift and resonate with the inner world of another person

This resonance is at the heart of “feeling felt” by others

Children need attunement to feel secure and develop well

We need attunement throughout our lives to feel close and connected

When you’re in a reactive state, you can no longer attune with others (i.e. align your state with theirs)

3. Emotional balance:

When we are in emotional balance, we feel at ease and alive

Life has meaning and vitality but we’re not so aroused that we feel out of control

Lacking balance, we either move to excessive arousal (chaos!) or too little arousal (depression/numbness)

Either extreme drains us of our vitality

In the face of life’s challenges, we may be thrown off balance but the prefrontal region brings us back to equilibrium

This is the brain’s basis of equanimity, the ability to stay clear and focused in the face of storms both outside and inside us

When you lose your equanimity, this is when you disconnect

4. Response flexibility

This is the space of conscious awareness, the pause between the stimulus and the response

What happens on a neurological level is that the middle prefrontal region puts a temporal space between input and action

This ability to pause before responding is an important part of social and emotional intelligence

We can become fully aware of what’s happening and restrain our impulses long enough to consider various options for response

We work hard to model this to our children and can continue to strengthen this throughout our lifespans

Rising anger and big emotions can put us in a state of chaotic agitation that makes it difficult to pause before reacting

5. Fear modulation:

After experiencing a frightening event, we may come to fear similar situations

That said, the middle prefrontal region has direct connections that pass down into the limbic area and make it possible to inhibit and modulate the firing of the fear-creating amygdala

Studies have demonstrated that we can consciously harness this connection to overcome fear

We can use the “override” of our cortex to calm our lower limbic agitation

This is why we look at the fears behind our stories and actions

When you are in a reactive state, if you can accept yourself for being afraid, you can often overcome the fear

6. Empathy:

This is the capacity to create inner images of other people’s minds

These “you-maps” enable us to sense the internal mental stance of another person, not just to attune to their state of find

Attunement is resonance and feeling-with

Empathy is the more complex perceptual capacity to “see” from another’s point of view: we sense the other’s intentions and imagine what an event means in his or her mind

When we’re in a reactive mode, we often lose the ability to put ourselves in the place of other people

7. Insight:

Allows us to make “me-maps” which enable us to perceive our own minds

This is how we can do what researchers call “mental time travel” in which we connect the present to the past and the anticipated future

This is how the middle prefrontal cortex enables us to experience ourselves as the centre of a subjective story— the author of our own lives

We also lose insight into our own minds when we have meltdowns and plunge into reactivity

8. Moral awareness:

The way Daniel Siegel speaks about this is as “the ways in which we both think about and enact behaviour for the social good”

Research has shown that when the middle prefrontal cortex is damaged, we might become amoral

Moral reasoning seems to require the integrative capacity of this region of the brain to both sense the emotional meaning of present challenges and to override immediate impulses in order to create moral action in response to those challenges

This may be how the “we-maps” created by the middle prefrontal cortex enable us to move beyond our immediate, individually-focused survival needs and even beyond the present version of our relationship maps to a vision of a larger interconnected whole

When we’re in reactivity, we are unable to see the “big picture” and act instead from our own personal feelings and reactivity, not a sense of what’s right or fair

9. Intuition:

This is how the middle prefrontal cortex gives us access to the wisdom of the body

It receives information from throughout the interior of the body and uses this input to give us a “heartfelt sense” or a “gut feeling” about the right choice

This illustrates how reasoning is in fact based on non-rational processing in our bodies

Such intuition helps us to make wise decisions, not just rational ones

When in reactivity, you are often cut off from sensing in the body and accessing what is really happening in the moment rather than rationalizing and justifying your reactions through anger or fear

Bringing yourself back to presence

To regain control of the mind after we have lost it, we need the power of reflection. Take a breath, reconnect with yourself and consider what happened. I love this “tripod” that Daniel Siegel speaks to—it’s about stabilizing the inner workngs of your mind. Without the three legs, the images of life tend to be blurry. Once you stabilize, the details come into focus.

1. Openness:

We are receptive to whatever comes through to our awareness and don’t cling to preconceived ideas about how things “should” be

We let go of expectations and receive things as they are rather than trying to make them what we want them to be

Openness enables us to sense things clearly

It gives us the power to recognize restrictive judgments and release our minds from their grip

2. Observation:

The ability to perceive the self even as we are experiencing an event

This places us in a larger form of reference and broadens our perspective moment to moment

Allows us to see the fuller context in which we are living

This offers a powerful way to disengage from automatic behaviours and habitual responses: we can sense our role in these patterns and begin to find ways out of them

3. Objectivity:

Permits us to have thoughts or feelings and not become swept away by them

Recruits the ability of the mind to be aware that its present activities—our thoughts, feelings, memories, beliefs, intentions—are temporary and are not the totality of who we are

Allows us to develop discernment

We can see that a thought or feeling is just a mental activity, not absolute reality

The ability to be aware of how we are being aware vs becoming lost in the target of our attention

This meta-awareness (awareness of awareness) can free us from the prison of automatic reactions

Now that you’ve learned about all of the roles of your middle prefrontal cortex and the “tripod” of reflection, take a few minutes to think about how you can incorporate these into your life going forward. A few final things to remember:

After you get out of reactivity and anger, you’ll likely need a cooling off period before a repair process can be initiated. Then, if you value the relationship, it’s crucial to repair and reconnect.

Don’t beat up on yourself for being in fear and reactivity

Being kind to yourself helps you move toward repair and reconnection

Be prepared for being rebuffed by the other party, so you can stay balanced and out of reactivity (which would just get the loop going again!)

To connect with others, you first need to connect with yourself! Reflection is a compassionate state of mind. You need to attune with the part of you that is supportive and kind, not judgmental and harsh.

Notice your:

  • bodily sensations
  • mental images
  • thoughts
  • emotions

This is like reviewing a checklist before leaving your house (keys, wallet, phone?)

Finally, go into the conversation with your tripod at the ready!

Simply listen without the need to defend yourself or speak up (observation).

Discern that the urge to defend yourself and your position is not the totality of who you are (objectivity).

Be curious, accepting and receptive and focus on the other person’s experience rather than focusing on your own (openness).

What jumped out at you here? What will you remember most? Share your questions and comments below.

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