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May 22 2012

Why Our Neurons Need Others to Survive

by Melik NGUEDAR

A new way of looking at the human brain is gaining traction: our neurons engage in continuous resonance with the neurons of others. Our inner selves are in direct communication; our brains are “neuro-social.”

Need others survive

As important as “neuroplasticity” and just as revolu-tionary, this new concept will be in the spotlight for years to come–our brains are “neuro-social.” In essence our neuronal circuits are designed to resonate with those of others. The unique fabric of our social relationships accounts not only for our different lives, but also, literally, for differences in our brains. Among the most impressive works that have appeared on this topic is the fascinating study from the U.S. by Daniel Goleman, who is not only a popular author, but also a creative thinker.

Ten years after the appearance of his bestselling book Emotional Intelligence, this visionary psychologist opens the door to new explorations in Social Intelligence (Bantam Books). This immense and weighty subject has been emerging since the 1990s thanks tothe development of new cortical imaging techniques–particularly functional nuclear magnetic resonance scanning (fMRI), which allows us to view, with increa-sing precision, the areas of the brain that become active when we take action, think, speak, dream, or come in contact with another person. The last aspect is especially crucial, insofar as it has spawned a new discipline, social neuroscience, whose foundations were laid in the 1990s by the psychologists John Cacioppo and Gary Bernston. Not only does this discipline open broad new perspectives, but it also issues an ominous warning: our neurons absolutely require the physical presence of others and empathetic resonance with them. Cyber relationships, texting, the Internet, and other types of virtual contact are just not adequate replacements. But since long-distance contact is becoming increasingly prevalent in the realm of human communication, we are presented with a serious dilemma that must be corrected. 

How our neurons “catch” the emotions of others

To see how all this works, we first need an illustration. The slightest emotional exchange we encounter provokes an incredible array of chain reactions in our central nervous system. We have no idea what goes on inside our neurons when we exchange a simple smile, even with a stranger we pass in the street. When we fall in love and look into the eyes of our loved one—it’s ecstasy! When we confront someone in anger, we are also in total resonance. In fact, we “catch” the emotions of others like a virus, both positive and negative.

Hence, as soon as we enter into a relationship with someone else, millions of our neurons literally seek to “connect on the same wavelength” as those of the other person. So what goes on inside of our heads varies depending on to what degree the person we encounter is friendly, interesting, funny, energetic, exciting, silly, suspicious, apathetic, rigid, dangerous, etc. If someone comes at us screaming, the same areas are activated in both our brains within seconds, whether we like it or not. American neurophysiologists have studied many couples—from those madly in love to those involved in the worst domestic scenes. Observed in the fMRI scanner, the “neuroanatomy of a kiss” reveals that the whole orbito-frontal area (or OFC) of the prefrontal cortex in both lovers forms a loop. Knowing that the OFC is a fundamental brain structure joining emotional and thinking centers, and connecting, neuron by neuron, the neocortex and medulla oblongata, we better understand why the mutual “resonance” spurred by a long amorous kiss has such profound positive effects like lowering cortisol, a stress marker, and producing a sharp rise in antibodies, the guardians of our immune system.

We also see positive effects when lovers simply look into each others’ eyes, without kissing. Conversely, when the brains of the protagonists are equally “in phase,” a domestic quarrel produces equally measureable negative effects: cardiovascular function is compro-mised and immune function declines. And if the disputes continue for years, the damage is cumulative. Neurons don’t like domestic strife. That said, men and women respond differently to their interactions with each other. At rest, women’s neurons are likely to re-examine, ruminate, and relive their previous relationship encounters (with lovers and non-lovers). Men’s neurons do the same but with much less energy and attention to detail. In other words, on average the female brain is more “social” than the male’s, and therefore more attuned to the quality of a relationship.

This illuminates several “psycho-neuro-endocrino-immunological” paradoxes that up to now have seemed inexplicable. For example, statistically, men’s health seems to benefit more from marriage than women’s health. Why? Because married life is often mediocre: the female suffers and her immune system becomes compromised while the man is less concerned; he is just happy not to be alone. On the other hand, women who feel “satisfied or highly satisfied” with their marital life thrive on their relationship more than men do, and their health reaps the benefits.

The same resonance of nervous systems applies to all human relationships, whether the interaction is between two people or among several, whether at work, with friends, etc.

That said, all studies agree on one point–our brains need others. And that’s both obvious and astonishing!

Excerpt from an article published in the French magazine Nouvelles Clés (now CLES magazine), Issue 61, Spring 2009.
Reproduced with the permission of the author.
All rights reserved.

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