The term cerebral or brainy is often used to describe a person who is remote, living in his or her own analytical world of thought, emotionally unavailable and socially awkward. These characteristics could not be less related to the neural properties of the brain. The human brain is a social organ, and its neural architecture is built for interpersonal connection. Schizophrenia and autism are disorders that make it difficult, if not impossible, for people to connect and feel connected to others. Both disorders appear to be linked to the impairment of neural architecture. The natural inclination of a functional brain is to connect. Separation makes the brain nervous. Expose an infant primate to an unpleasant stressor, place her in a room with primates that are strangers, and the stress reaction will exacerbate. Place the infant in a room with other primates who are her friends and family, and the stress reaction is mitigated.
Robert Sapolsky of Stanford related a story about a boy from a psychologically abusive setting who was hospitalized with zero growth hormone in his bloodstream. Chronic stress had completely shut down the body’s growth system. Over the next two months he developed a close relationship with the nurse at the hospital—undoubtedly the first normal relationship he had ever had—and soon, amazingly enough, his growth hormone levels zoomed back to normal. However, when the nurse went on vacation, the boy’s levels dropped again and then returned to normal immediately after her return. “Think about it,” Sapolsky commented. “The rate at which this child was depositing calcium in his bones could be explained entirely by how safe and loved he was feeling in the world.”
We are wired to connect with one another. A failure to connect is a failure to thrive. The research on this point is overwhelming. Connection is the single most important factor in determining how long we live. The Harvard Nurse’s Health study, the longest running investigation of factors that influence women’s health, concluded that not having close friends is as detrimental to one’s health as smoking.
To the human brain, love and survival are synonymous, which is why our brain seduces, coaxes, entreats, and drives us to love. The research of Dr. Helen Fisher of Rutgers into the biochemical, neurological, and social foundations of love has led her to conclude that love is not an emotion; it is a drive more powerful than the sex drive, emanating from the engine of the brain.
A common obstacle blocking connection is a conditional regard for others. A relationship based on conditional regard sustains connection as long as one’s expectations are met. When someone does not live up to our expectations, we withdraw our regard, separate ourselves emotionally, and sometimes we even end the relationship. In essence, conditional regard means we cherish what we require another to be or do for us more than we cherish the person. We are focused on getting more than giving. Blame trumps understanding; judgment trumps acceptance. The conflict this generates is played out in divorce courts and lawsuits every day.
A conditional regard is simply not a practical approach to staying connected. If a relationship is stuck, the impetus for change begins with the complete acceptance of one another—as is. Complete acceptance is what makes the relationship safe and creates the ground to move forward through difficulty. Try it on a relationship where conflict exists. Not once, but consistently for a period of time. See what happens. You’ll be amazed at the difference it can make.