Four Ways to Click: Rewire Your Brain for Stronger, More Rewarding Relationships

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9781760113469: Four Ways to Click: Rewire Your Brain for Stronger, More Rewarding Relationships
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Research shows that people cannot reach their full potential unless they are in healthy connection with others. Dr. Amy Banks teaches us how to rewire our brains for healthier relationships and happier, more fulfilling lives.

We all experience moments when we feel isolated and alone. A 2006 Purdue University study found that twenty-five percent of Americans cannot name a single person they feel close to. Yet every single one of us is hardwired for close relationships. The key to more satisfying relationships—be it with a significant other, a family member, or a colleague—is to strengthen the neural pathways in our brains that encourage closeness and connection. In this groundbreaking book, Dr. Banks give us a road map for developing the four distinct neural pathways in the brain that underlie the four most important ingredients for close relationships: calmness, acceptance, emotional resonance, and energy. Four Ways to Click gives you the tools you need to strengthen the parts of your brain that encourage connection and to heal the neural damage that disconnection can cause.

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About the Author:

Amy Banks, M.D., was an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and is now the director of advanced training at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at the Wellesley Centers for Women. She has a private practice in Lexington, Massachusetts, which specializes in relational psychopharmacology and therapy for people who suffer from chronic disconnection.
 
Leigh Ann Hirschman is a bestselling nonfiction writer who specializes in psychology, parenting, and health.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

FOREWORD

Want to have more joy and contentment in your life? All the scientific studies of happiness, longevity, and mental and medical health point to one factor: the strength of your relationships with others. In Four Ways to Click, psychiatrist Amy Banks, M.D., provides an innovative and user-friendly summary of the extensive research on the neuroscience of relationships and offers readers practical ways to use this knowledge to retrain their brains for healthier, more rewarding relationships. What’s in this for you? Simply put, you can intentionally transform your life by improving how you connect with others. Relationships are not simply the “icing on the cake” for a life well lived. Relationships are the cake.

After decades of studying how culture shapes our relationships as well as working as a psychiatrist in clinical practice, Amy Banks has brilliantly created what she calls the C.A.R.E. system, which can help improve the four ways we “click” with one another: how calm we feel around others, are accepted by others, resonate with the inner states of others, and are energized by these connections. Using the C.A.R.E. system as it is described in this book, readers can target the neural pathways that need fine-tuning so that the quality of their relationships increases. With an understanding of how our brains truly work we can intentionally change how we live our lives!

I love this book! It is beautifully written, engaging, and inspiring.

Want more happiness? Want to live longer? Want to be healthier in mind and body? Then learning these four ways to click into more meaningful and rewarding relationships is your passport to achieving these goals. Let Amy Banks be your guide to a better life of love and laughter. Enjoy!

—DANIEL J. SIEGEL, M.D.

Chapter 1

BOUNDARIES ARE OVERRATED

A New Way of Looking at Relationships

Boundaries are overrated.

If you want healthier, more mature relationships; if you want to stop repeating old patterns that cause you pain; if you are tired of feeling emotionally disconnected from the people you spend your time with; if you want to grow your inner life, you can begin by questioning the idea that there is a clear, crisp line between you and the people you interact with most frequently.

People who talk a lot about boundaries tend to make statements like these:

“It shouldn’t matter what other people do and say to you, not if you have a strong sense of self.”

“How do parents know they’ve been successful? When their children no longer need them.”

“Best friends and true romance are for the young. As you get older, you naturally grow apart from other people.”

“You shouldn’t need other people to complete you.”

“You wouldn’t have so many problems if you would just stand on your own two feet.”

The message is clear: it’s not “healthy” to need other people—and whatever you do, don’t let yourself be infected by other peoples’ feelings, thoughts, and emotions. The statements above are intended to have an emotional effect on you. You may notice that they sound just a teensy bit judgmental and shaming. I know they make me uncomfortable; when I read them, I feel like I’m standing in a harsh white spotlight with someone pointing a finger at me, intoning You’re pretty messed up, missy, and it’s all your fault.

The ideal of complete psychological independence is one that was very big with mental health professionals in much of the twentieth century, and it still has our culture by the throat. So even if those statements about boundaries carry a sting, they also probably sound familiar to you, or even self-evident. Obvious!

So I couldn’t possibly be suggesting that they’re untrue. I couldn’t possibly say that it can be good to be dependent, or that our mental health is unavoidably affected by the people we share our lives with, or that we achieve emotional growth when we are profoundly connected to others instead of when we are apart from them.

That’s exactly what I’m saying.

This book is going to show you a different way of thinking about your emotional needs and what it means to be a healthy, mature adult. A new field of scientific study, one I call relational neuroscience, has shown us that there is hardwiring throughout our brains and bodies designed to help us engage in satisfying emotional connection with others. This hardwiring includes four primary neural pathways that are featured in this book. Relational neuroscience has also shown that when we are cut off from others, these neural pathways suffer. The result is a neurological cascade that can result in chronic irritability and anger, depression, addiction, and chronic physical illness. We are just not as healthy when we try to stand on our own, and that’s because the human brain is built to operate within a network of caring human relationships. How do we reach our personal and professional potential? By being warmly, safely connected to partners, friends, coworkers, and family. Only then do our neural pathways get the stimulation they need to make our brains calmer, more tolerant, more resonant, and more productive.

The good news for those of us whose relationships don’t always feel so warm or safe: it is possible to heal and strengthen those four neural pathways that are weakened when you don’t have strong connections. Relationships and your brain form a virtuous circle, so by strengthening your neural pathways for connection, you will also make it easier to build the healthy relationships that are essential for your psychological and physical health.

For many people, the news about the importance of relationships began with a 1998 study at the University of Parma in Italy, a study that proved how deeply connected we are to one another, right down to our neurons.

Your Feelings, My Brain

It was one of those lucky scientific mistakes, an unexpected observation that could have easily gone unnoticed if it hadn’t been for an astute researcher. When Giacomo Rizzolatti, a neurophysicist at the University of Parma, and his research team began their now-famous experiment, they were not intending to explore how human beings interact. In fact, they were not even studying people. The Italian researchers were mapping a small area, known as F5, in the brains of the macaque monkey. At this point in neurological research, it was already well known that the F5 neurons fire when a monkey reaches his arm and hand away from his body to grasp an object.

One routine day in the lab, a researcher observed something unprecedented. The researcher was standing in the line of sight of a monkey whose F5 cells had been implanted with micro-sized electrodes. As the researcher reached out to grasp an object, the electrodes placed on the monkey’s F5 area activated.

Remember: it was known that the F5 neurons activate when a monkey moves his arm to grasp something.

Then think about this: the monkey was not moving his arm; he was simply watching as the researcher’s arm moved.

This seemed impossible. At the time of this observation, scientists believed that the nerve cells for action were separate and distinct from the nerve cells for sensory observations. Sensory neurons picked up information from the outside world; motor neurons were devoted to acting. So when the F5 area, known for its link to physical action, lit up in the brain of a monkey who was only watching action in someone else, it was a clear violation of this known divide. It was as if the brain of the monkey and the brain of the researcher were somehow synchronized. Even more unsettling, it was as if their brains overlapped, as if the researcher’s physical movement existed inside the monkey.1

As Rizzolatti and other neuroscientists pursued this odd observation, they found that human brains also demonstrate this mirroring effect. In other words, you understand me by performing an act of internal mimicry—by letting some of my actions and feelings into your head. Ask a friend to briskly rub her hands together as you watch. Chances are that as her hands become warm from the friction, your hands will start to feel warm, too. In the aftermath of the monkey experiment, it was hypothesized that our brains contain mirror neurons, nerve cells that are dedicated to the task of imitating others. Most scientists no longer feel that specific mirror neurons exist; instead, there is a brainwide mirroring system whose tasks are shared by a number of regions and pathways. The imitating effect—the reason your hands warm up when your friend rubs hers together—happens because neural circuits throughout your brain are copying what you hear and see. Nerves in your frontal and prefrontal cortex (the same ones that are activated when you plan to rub your own hands together and then execute that plan) begin to fire. At the same time, neurons in your somatosensory cortex, which is the area of the brain responsible for bodily sensations, activate and send you messages of friction and warmth. Deep inside your brain, your hands are rubbing themselves together—even if your hands don’t actually move.

Actually, the process goes far beyond the mere reflection of another person’s actions. Your mirroring system is made up of neurons that can “see” or “hear” what someone else is doing. The system then recruits neurons from other areas of the brain to provide you with input not just about sensations and actions but about emotions, too. This input lets you have a comprehensive, detailed imitation of what the other person is experiencing. That’s why you can almost instantly pick up on the emotion of another person. If you watch as I rub my hands together, your brain might read the excitement on my face as I demonstrate how the mirroring system works—and you may feel some of that excitement. If you’ve ever “caught” a smile that you spotted on the face of a complete stranger, or if the silent tension of your partner has caused your own heart to race, you’ve experienced the effects of the mirroring system. This emotional contagion is caused by a neural pathway that can, in effect, take in another person’s feelings and replicate them squarely inside you.

When I ask groups of people to try the hand-rubbing experiment, there are usually two sets of reactions. Some people are amazed, as if they’ve just watched themselves pull a rabbit out of a hat. Their neurological connection with others feels like magic. But other people immediately say, “This is creepy!”

I get it. When you’ve been taught all your life that your mind is its own little castle, one that’s surrounded by a thick, high wall that’s designed to keep your thoughts and feelings in and everyone else’s out, it can be unsettling to learn about the power of the mirroring system. And in fact, the discovery of our mirroring ability challenges some traditional assumptions about how our brains and bodies are wired. Vittorio Gallese, a neurophysiologist in the Parma lab, described the role of the mirroring system in human interactions this way: “The neural mechanism is involuntary, with it we don’t have to think about what other people are doing or feeling, we simply know.”2 Marco Iacoboni, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA, takes it one step further in his book Mirroring People. He says that the mirroring system helps us in “understanding our existential condition and our involvement with others. [It shows] that we are not alone, but are biologically wired and evolutionarily designed to be deeply interconnected with one another.”3

When you and I interact, an impression of the interaction is left on my nervous system. I literally carry my contact with you around inside me, as a neuronal imprint. The next time you hear someone say, “Don’t let other people affect how you feel,” remember the mirroring system. Because we don’t really have a choice. For good or for bad, other people affect us, and we are not as separate from one another as psychologists once thought.

Maturity Has a New Meaning

When I say that boundaries are overrated, I don’t mean that there are absolutely no boundaries, or that all of humanity is just one big, undifferentiated, brownish-beige lump. Nor am I suggesting that anyone give up her or his own distinct personality for the sake of fitting in with a cozy, companionable group. No therapist I know believes that it’s healthy to abandon your beliefs, preferences, and quirks for the sake of a smoothly running—and bland—larger whole.

For decades, in fact, psychology moved in the other direction, in the belief that the only path to human growth was traveled via emotional separation. According to separation-individuation theory, which was most energetically advanced by Margaret Mahler in the 1970s, we all begin our work of separation in the first six or seven months of life, when we start to realize that our caregiver is a person distinct from ourselves. Separation-individuation theory holds that the rest of life is a variation on this discovery. In the practicing stage of human development, we supposedly practice separation by crawling or toddling away from our mothers and then returning to their arms. In the object constancy stage, we develop the capacity to hold an abstract image of Mom in our minds, meaning that we are secure enough to venture farther and farther away from her, thus developing our independence. As school-aged children, we become more aggressive in an attempt to move forward with our individual desires. In adolescence, we move further away from our parents by developing a sexual identity and pairing off with our peers. Adulthood? It’s a constant process of refining our ability to stand on our own, soothe our own distress, and solve our own problems. With each stage, the boundary between the self and other people grows stronger, more solid. Separation-individuation theory has been written about in thousands of books and dissertations, but here’s a micro-summary: in order to grow, we must step farther and farther away from others. The fully mature person may enjoy other people but doesn’t really need them. He is defined by the firm boundaries between himself and other people, and within those boundaries he is a self-sufficient being.

Even before the mirroring system came on the scene, and before relational neuroscience began to turn up additional evidence for the biological basis of human connectedness, some in the field wondered whether the separation model had gone too far. In the 1970s, a forward-looking group of Boston mental health experts—psychiatrist Jean Baker Miller and psychologists Judith V. Jordan, Irene Stiver, and Janet Surrey—noticed that their patients weren’t suffering from poor boundaries. They weren’t suffering from a lack of personal independence from others. What they suffered from was a lack of healthy human connection. As Judith Jordan notes, “The Separate Self model has wrongly suggested that we are intrinsically motivated to build firmer boundaries, gain power over other people in order to establish safety, and compete with others for scarce resources. Mutuality helps us see that human beings thrive in relationships in which both people are growing and contributing...

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