Relationship Science and Being Human

Relationship Science and Being Human

When I was a child, I used to marvel at the sound of the frogs in our neighborhood creek. Perched on the rocks, they would find each other and croak out an exhilarating symphony of amphibious songs. Meanwhile, their tadpole offspring swam in the cool flowing water below, their parents seemingly oblivious to their offsprings’ experience. 

I wondered then, as I still do today as a physician and mental health educator, how our human lives entail our gathering together to voice our own thoughts and aspirations, intentions and emotions.

What makes us different as mammals from our amphibian and even reptilian cousins is something beyond just the hair on our bodies and the warmth of our blood.  We mammals share attachment, the need for a close relationship between parent and offspring to connect and protect, to soothe and attune.

The magic of attachment is that our children internalize our patterns of communication with them, shaping the very structure of their developing brains as they move from the safe haven of our love to set out into the world from the launching pad of home. While the tadpoles do fine without their parents’ care, as mammals, our human family shares this need for an attachment bond.  

And as a very special kind of primate, we have the unusual habit (actually more like a key feature) of our caregiving: we distribute the responsibility for the care of our young to more than just the mother.

As Sarah Hrdy beautifully describes  in Mothers and Others, we mammals have “alloparenting” or “other-parenting” in which we provide trusted others to care for our precious infants.  This cooperative child-rearing, Hrdy suggests, is the key to our adaptive nature.

We give birth to our children, share their care through collaborative communication, and then build cooperative communities that extend this interconnected way of living. Our youth grow into their adolescence, getting ready to push away from their parents and the solid home base from which they now can go out and explore the world.

Relationships are the defining feature of being human.  As Robin Dunbar suggests, the more complex our social lives, the more complex our brains.  In our Foundation for Psychocultural Research/UCLA Center for Culture, Brain, and Development, over the past decade we have been examining how the relationships we have within cultures—the repeating patterns of communication we have that link us together in families, communities, and societies—actually shape the structure and function of the brain.

These studies suggest that our experiences shape our neural architecture—and that our social relationships are one of the most important forms of experience that literally form who we are.  And the very essence of a relationship is communication. Communication is what connects one person to another, or one person to many.

You can see how this essential collaborative nature of ours would be a natural backdrop to making communication amongst members of a group so vital for the group’s survival.  If we could sense the inner state of others through verbal language and through the non-verbal signals of eye contact, facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures, touch, posture, and the timing and intensity of responses, we could then link our minds, connecting the core of our inner worlds, and making a more integrated whole from the sum of many individuals.

That’s likely how our relationships within groups allowed us to not only survive, but ultimately to thrive.  Moving beyond the important parent-child relationship of our mammalian history, this human feature of cooperation propelled our need for complex communication and complex brain architecture into fast forward.  The result for all of us is the centrality of relationships in human life.

Now comes another amazing twist to the story.  As our brains took on the need to connect to others, we developed the neural real estate to examine our own sense of identity.

That’s right—it appears that relationships came first, and self-reflection came next! Relationships first.

Elaborated by language and made intricate by socially-needed empathic skills to sense and comprehend the internal intentions and meanings of others, we now could examine in thought and feeling what an “I” might be, and reflect and think about what a “you” was not only in real here-and-now interactions but in concept, across time, and across contexts. I could connect to you, and you and I could form a “we.” And all of this we could reflect upon from the past, sense it in the present, and make plans for the future.

With such a centrality of relationships in forming our evolutionary history and in forming our very identity—individually and as a human species—it might not surprise you to hear (or be reminded) that of all the factors in human life that predict the best positive outcomes, supportive relationships are number one.  These research-proven findings include how long we live, the health of our bodies, the well-being of our minds, and the happiness we experience in life.

Relationships are the most important part of our having well-being in being human.  It’s that simple. And it’s that important.

As a clinician and parent and an educator, I am excited to let others know of how vitally important having supportive relationships are for our individual well-being. But there’s another aspect of relationships that is also clear from recent science: The more we connect with others and embrace the reality of our interconnected nature, the more we’ll live with meaning, compassion, equanimity, and purpose.

Recent studies led by Barbara Fredrickson even show that with such a life of what the Greek’s called eudemonia, we will even have a more optimal way that our genes will be regulated to help us fight off chronic disease.

I like to think of these factors as the way we care for our internal identity as a “me” while also embracing the reality of our interconnected identity as a “we.”  A simple way to remember this important integrated identity is thinking of ourselves as a “MWe”, a fundamentally related being that we can be proud to call human.