Connection to Others

“Why do we have relationships, maternal instincts, friendships, family and society? Why not be like a reptile that digs a hole, lays some eggs and moves on?...Wouldn't life be easier without gossip, grudges and in-laws?”

This is a quote from Louis Cozolino’s book ‘The Neuroscience of Human Relationships’, in which

he answers this question. He explains how the latest research in social neuroscience is helping us understand the profound impact our inter-personal relationships have on our physical health and psychological wellbeing. The human brain is a social organ, evolved to assist us in co-regulation of of our physiological-emotional state with others.

Humans are a social species. This means we have evolved to operate connected to a network of other individuals. Our need to connect is so central to our functioning that impact of social isolation on health is comparable to the adverse effects of smoking (House et al, 1988). A lack of social relationships has been found to increase mortality risk even more than obesity, high blood pressure or sedentary living do (Holt-Lunstad, Smith & Layton, 2010). At the other end of the social spectrum research has revealed the beneficial effects of having strong social connections. Being married or being part of a group with whom you share goals or beliefs appear to lead to improved health outcomes and longevity.

The discovery of mirror neurons has advanced our understanding of how relationships with others are supported by similar neural architecture as that which help us know and relate to our selves. Mirror neurons have proved to play a significant role in our abilities to form relationships to empathise and to predict others behaviour. A shift in neuroscience from individual brain structures towards functional networks comprised of different brain regions working together has Cozolino argues provided an important step forward for understanding minds. These advances also suggest much overlap in the anatomy underpinning thoughts about self and neuroanatomy for thinking about others. It seems we only form a sense of self in relation to others, it is even possible that such a idea as self is simply a tool that assists us in connecting to others. Bruce Hood has also written a book about the construction of self-identity [link to Bruce Hood Biography].