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Life on the Edge (Of the Social Synapse)
An Interview with Louis Cozolino

Louis Cozolino is a psychologist and psychology professor at Pepperdine University. His 2006 book, The Neuroscience of Human Relationships, focuses on how attachment relationships work to shape the human brain. Just as neurons communicate through mutual stimulation, he says, our highly social brains strive to connect with one another.

In this interview with Gina Stepp, Cozolino explains why poor attachment relationships lead to mental health problems, and how we can use new understandings from neuroscience to help people overcome them.

GS      What do you mean when you use the term “social synapse”?

LC      The theoretical background is the notion that the tactics and strategies for producing more complex organisms is the same at all kinds of levels. Single cells are attracted to each other to expand and grow and they maintain connections. The more individual cells that come together, the more complex a structure you can make and the more adaptable they are to different types of environments. Applying that to people, I use a three-messenger-systems model. In other words, just as neurons have three levels of information exchange, so does a matrix of relationships. Communication between people stimulates the social networks of the brain, the brain is built in light of the interaction, and we become linked together to create relationships in which we impact the long-term construction of one another's brain. So the synapse is that space between us where we communicate with all of our senses and we become linked together and serve as regulators for each other.

GS      So these connections are crucial to the health of the overall social system, and yet we find it increasingly difficult to find time to nurture them. We keep hearing that there are more people suffering from depression now than ever before. How much of this is traceable to relationship problems?

LC      That’s an interesting question because I think we tend to romanticize the past. For most of the past as brains evolved, people lived in groups of 50 to 70, and there were multiple generations and multiple people we were interconnected with. But in societies like our own, the emphasis is on individualism. I suspect that what we’re seeing with the increase of mental illness is related to that factor. It’s hard to prove it because we can’t go back in time, and we can only guess that there really is more depression today than there used to be—but we can make a compelling emotional case for it.

GS      And is there a connection between depression and physical health?

LC       There is certainly a higher mortality with people that are depressed and isolated. But it’s even worse to be in a bad relationship than it is to be isolated, especially if there’s a lot of criticism, hostility or negativity. For instance, older women often suffer when they find themselves the main caretaker for an ailing husband. When their husband passes away, these women often do better.

The positive side of that is that good relationships can increase your immunity. Physical contact, humor, social support, volunteering—all of these things are connected with enhanced protein synthesis, which is related to better immunological functioning, neuroplasticity, learning, energy levels, physical health, longevity—you name it. The data is really clear. We are social organs with social brains.

If you take a group of people and look at those who live longer and do better and are healthier, you’re going to find that these are the ones that engage in positive relationships, volunteering, that have pets that they touch and hug, and who have people around them who support them. They’ll also be the people who have a positive social role, because that need to contribute never goes away. I think that one of the biggest problems with aging is that people’s roles are removed, which is essentially the kiss of death.

This may not be a problem in every culture. Agricultural, tribal and nomadic cultures—which I think still make up the majority of the world—tend to live in multigenerational groups, where everybody contributes on an ongoing basis. It’s probably only with industrialization and urbanization that nuclear families replaced extended families. And now the modal family in the United States is the single-parent family and so there’s this change going on.

In fact our brains may even be going through an adaptation crisis. I think our brains are confused and maladapted to what we’re confronting, which may be why people are so stressed out. Just think about driving. Why is driving and being in traffic so stressful? I think what it does is that it works against some really basic biological prophecies that we have. If we’re moving in a direction, our body wants to move forward. Being thwarted in that is an incredibly difficult experience for our bodies.

If we were better adapted to an urban life, being thwarted in our movement would be completely comfortable for us. If you’ve ever lived in Manhattan and tried to walk down the street in rush hour, or lived in LA and tried to drive—it’s just a nightmare. No wonder there’s road rage. We’re in a constant state of low-grade arousal, and that certainly could be another reason we have more depression. Higher levels of cortisol correlates with lower plasticity, which is a correlate of depression.

GS      Is this what you mean when you say, “What doesn’t kill us makes us weaker?” I know you aren’t contradicting the studies that say mastering difficulties make us more resilient to trauma—but how do we reconcile these seeming contradictions? Under which circumstances does stress make us weaker, and under which do they make us stronger?

LC      Just from a neuroscience point of view, anything above very mild stress has a negative impact on our brains long-term. That’s really what I’m speaking to. The whole notion of mastery—how do you judge whether someone has mastered something, and how do you know it hasn’t had a negative effect on someone? But if you look at the neuroscience research, it’s pretty clear and specific that anything beyond a very mild, transient stressor has long-term negative consequences on brain development.

GS      What is the connection between depression and modern stresses such as terrorism that Western society wrestles with?

LC      One of the reasons why people are so vulnerable to these kinds of simplistic, primitive fear tactics is because they carry around this vulnerability from inadequate attachments. After all, at its core, attachment is a regulatory process for fear circuitry.

The reason why primates approach and modulate their distance from their caretakers is because they are regulating the activation of the amygdala, and that fear circuitry. So when it’s working—when attachment is working—what you have is good amygdala regulation. But when you have inadequate attachment—and society isn’t really set up to allow people the time and the space to raise their children and be present with their children in order to establish that attachment—then I think kids are more vulnerable.

I don’t get a sense that there’s a lot of attachment security, certainly not in the people that I work with. Of course, it’s not a random sample because it’s a clinical sample, but it certainly seems that adults are not coming out of childhood feeling safe in the world. As a result, people seem to be having difficulty creating connections. Of course, I can only speak to the problems I seem to be seeing, as I don’t have laboratory data.

GS      If secure attachment in infancy is linked to the adult brain’s ability to have healthy relationships, what about those people who didn’t have healthy attachment? We all know people like this. Can we help them? How should friends and family respond to people who may seem “needy” to us?

LC      It does get hard. People with attachment difficulties are sort of burdensome. The problem becomes a kind of a double victimization, because they never made the choice—they never voted to be dysregulated or problematic. It just kind of happened to them. So it really gets down to the issue of compassion. What’s your belief about what our responsibilities are to each other and how do we play that role? Certainly trying to get someone help is a compassionate move, but as you know it can be really difficult to do. Especially people with personality disorders, who are very afraid—it’s difficult to get them to go for help because they’re too afraid to do that as well. So people can get stuck in problematic patterns and it’s a real challenge for the people around them.

But there is evidence to show that if we can be compassionate toward these people, it’s possible to reverse the damage. For example, if someone with an insecure attachment manages somehow to marry someone with secure attachment, then after about five years or so, research shows that there’s a shift in their attachment pattern to a more secure profile. So I believe our relationship networks—those attachment networks—stay fluid. They stay plastic. But people tend to remain sick because they keep discovering the world over and over again as they create it, but they think that it’s actually happening from the outside.

The brain creates the illusion that what we’ve experienced is reality as opposed to an internal construction. That makes it complicated, so people tend to remain sick. But there are all sorts of ways to help people who have grown up with attachment difficulties.

If we think about resiliency, for instance: when you talk to resilient adults who had a pretty lousy hand dealt to them as kids, you always hear the same thing: there was someone—a friend, mentor or teacher—who took time, who paid attention to them, cared for them and didn’t treat them the way everyone else did. It took someone who thought they were worth something. If a seed like that falls on fertile ground then there’s always the possibility of change. I’ve seen it over and over again. The networks of the social brain probably evolved to be flexible simply because as you go through your life there are different groups you need to attach to. First it’s your family, then your peer group. Then you create your own family—so you’re constantly attaching and reattaching. So it makes sense that the brain should be flexible and plastic in that way.

So mentoring is one way to help. The human brain has a history of being in multigenerational groups, and very often as people grow older they naturally are drawn to the mentoring role. I believe our brains change in some ways, to make that role more appealing to us as we get older. There are people out there with the talents to do this, who have a bias toward helping other people.

And the presence of a mentor is always a wonderful prognostic indicator. For instance, I have a boy who is struggling now with a potential psychosis because he’s under a lot of stress and when he’s stressed-out he gets very loose in his thinking. But the best prognostic indicator for him is that people enjoy being with him, even though he’s a little wacky. He’s got a good spirit and a good personality and he’s the type of kid that adults want to invest time in.

GS      What if you happen to be one of those that they don’t?

LC      There are all kinds of things that can get you ostracized socially, unfortunately. And there’s always the question of whether they actually want help. Sometimes people remain sick because their mind organizes their experiences in a certain way. The secret would be somehow to try to break through the way these people see the world. In this kind of situation though, it’s hard for someone else to break through, because the sick person is careful to keep their guard up. If it happens, it usually comes about by some external means. Something rather traumatic happens to them that sort of wakes them up.

There’s really not much else you can do for someone like that other than be available in case they do wake up and look for help. It’s difficult to help people once they disconnect themselves from the social mind. At that point, they’re in self-imposed isolation, and there really isn’t much you can do. It’s the power of being with others that shapes your brain.

©2007 Mom Psych

Gina Stepp: December 3, 2007


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