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.



23 thoughts on “Relationship Science and Being Human

  1. Hi! Would you mind if I share your blog with my facebook group? There’s a lot of people that I think would really enjoy your content. Please let me know. Cheers

  2. You have maԁe some really good poіnts there.

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  3. I use attuning the myriad of information systems in the wisdom of this evolutionary evolved body, which seem to be patterned out of the equation by Western overuse of the mind (one of the least reliable resources we have). Time to come back to our senses. Descartes was highly overrated, indeed we took a wrong path.
    Mindfulness is a misnomer. Sensoriotor attunement to present experience is the opportunity to build new pathways. The body never lies

    1. Thanks for your reflections! We agree that Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” and his separation of mind and body are not a comprehensive view. In fact this view is in no way how the word “mind” is being used in any of my writings. The way we use “mind” in interpersonal neurobiology (“IPNB”) is not in the sometimes used connotation of “mind” as somehow distinct from “feeling.” In fact IPNB views mind as the heart of our humanity. The division of “mind v. heart” or “mind v. body” does not fit our view, as we offer a fundamental definition of mind as our embodied and relational core of being human. The word “mind” the way we use it involves our embodied and relational experiences, including all of our subjective experiences which range from bodily sensations to emotions, from intuition to rational thought. If you are interested in further reading on these important issues, you may find these books relevant: The Developing Mind; Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology; The Mindful Brain; and Mindsight.

      Thanks again for your thoughtful comments and offering an opportunity to find a shared understanding of a term as common and yet so rarely defined as “mind.” Happy New Year! -Dan

  4. Was it one of Dan’s books where I read about Charles Darwin and a certain marine lizard on the Galapagos? Darwin, in his Voyage of the Beagle, noted that the lizard had an evolutionary safe-haven in the coastal rocks of the islands. When thrown into the water by hand, it would swim hastily back to shore, back to where it was handled by Darwin. Why did it go back to the danger? Why didn’t it stay in the water where it is a natural swimmer? The lizard had no natural predator on land, but plenty in the sea where it gained its sustenance. It had evolved to feed itself in the sea, but to seek the safe haven of the rocks. The lizard did not have the cognitive ability to work out the danger to it on the land. It simply reacted in a manner that accorded with its evolution.
    Despite humans having evolved certain cognitive abilities to recognise dangers, we can still become enveloped in toxic, even dangerous relationships (or avoid relationships altogether out of fear). Does this mean that we go back an evolutionary step when we are confronted with fearful, seemingly intractable situations? Or is it that we develop our ways of coping with life and relationships when we are little and retain them as we get older, rather than develop news ways for new situations? That is, something prevents us (or many of us) from adapting as we should. We develop life-patterns or schemas, and live by them, not really fully realising that they may have been useful when we were seven, but not 47. However, the trouble is, they are reinforced over time by confirmation bias and become so set in proverbial stone that they fight for their survival if you try and dispose of them. They seem so much a part of our identity that we can’t imagine life without our traditional ways of seeing and coping with life.
    Like the marine lizard we still need safe havens, but we also need to integrate our cognitive, emotional, evolutionary and developmental faculties in a way that accords with optimum health. That means dealing with outmoded personal schemas (“I’m unlovable”, “I have defects”, etc.). Such integration requires traversing the rocky terrain of human relationships, and learning to become more adept at doping so.
    Merry Christmas!

  5. Excellent and beautiful. I recently read Dr. Frederickson’s book, ‘Love 2.0,’ and gained an enhanced perspective on how the experience of love shapes my sense of well-being and connection. Thank you for bringing the science of meaningful social relationships front and center.

  6. Hello, Dr. Siegel. We’ve met a couple of times at your conferences, most recently when you presented with Jack Kornfield in San Francisco. I am presently in the process of revising and updating my book with Jane Nelsen, “Positive Discipline: The First Three Years” and would like your permission to quote from this blog in that book. We want particularly to update the chapters on brain (and mind) development to focus on the primacy of attachment and attunement. Thanks!

  7. As I look back on the last 55 years and reflect on life’s learning curve, I am realizing that it is our own genetic makeup and our own understanding of how I viewed the world and this would have been ingrained in me way before I hit the teen years. As different members of the same family meet life challenges in different ways and develop individual coping styles; what does each of these, sometimes conflicting, psychology’s do other than present, depending on one’s likes and dislikes on the views, confusion. I find one thing works for me, yet someone else can’t grasp the concept. I like the resources to be available and read but at times I have found there is a mass movement toward one type of philosophy and the previous is pushed out and anyone who doesn’t respond or “heal” with it becomes either ostracized or moves more rapidly into alternatives modes for survival. i have said often “Why didn’t you tell me this 30 or 15 years ago and my life might have been different.” Well we didn’t feel you were ready or able to absorb it. So what is the answer. Yes we teach caring people to learn current philosophy’s and try them out but we will never know until we are older if they really succeed in the long run. Your course sounds exciting. Good Luck.

  8. Thanks Dan, a timely read for us as our new team (School based mental health team), reflects on progress on the new project (Improving wellbeing for young people, school staff, families and carers, post earth quakes in Christchurch).Some thoughts moving forward are how as a team we can issues that Simon Stevens has mentioned. We are definately seeing the impact of layers of pre existing trauma (like abuse and neglect) and major earthquakes.

  9. How does “me” develop and sustain a healthy sense of self-worth while being open to the “we”? Some of the “we” can, at times, be toxic to “me”. It’s a tricky thing to maintain my (self)integrity while being integrated with my tribe. Thanks for the stimulating ideas.

  10. Thanks. It reminds me of the coming African American celebration of Kwanzaa, and one of its principles: “ubuntu.” I am human because you are human. Happy Holidays.

  11. The corollary of that is that early childhood trauma, caused by abusive relationships, has such devastating consequences, including premature death. Where there is an absence of nurturing or the nurturer is abusive, the young child’s brain encounters “fear without solution”. That leads to so many ills too numerous to list here. It all goes to show that “nature needs nurturing” (which Dan said somewhere) and for our entire lives, not just childhood or adolescence. And more than that, in our world, many of us humans need healing. Developing and sustaining nurturing relationships must be a key to healing. Yet the brain of the abused child sometimes locks itself into survival mode, and as a result may learn to mistrust human relationships—especially of those who try to get close, including therapists. So for nurturing to heal, there’s a need to build trust and offer hope. Yet we also need to establish “safety zones” in our lives, our relationships and our communities, and springboards of opportunity to help us expand beyond those zones into the wider world. Such nurturing can build the inner resilience required to decode the lock on the abused child’s survival mode. So, nurturing relationships are the key not only to human survival, but also healing.

  12. Eloquently stated, I particularly liked the evolutionary perspective and idea that meta-cognition developed after social relationship which reinforces the significance of the work of people like Dr. Ross Greene, and others who advocate collaborative and proactive solutions rather than authoritative and punitive methods to shape behavior. I look forward to reading you new book regarding adolescents, whom I fear get too many adult imposed consequences instead of getting their concerns and unsolved problems understood and effectively addressed.

  13. Thank you this, what I’ve always believed as therapist and working with clients that the relationship is so key for child development thank you for sharing this wonderful article.

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