Frances Cohen Praver Ph.D.

Love Doc

Change Your Interactions, Change Your Brain, This Year

Change how you interact, change the neural pathways in the brain

Posted Jan 06, 2011

In the New York Times Op Ed, Saturday, Jan 1, 2011, the preeminent neurologist Oliver Sachs talks about neuroplasticity─ the ability to shape and reshape the brain, even when older. That new brain cells can form and that neural pathways can realign is part of his essay on cognitive change. He focuses on how the brain can compensate and actually change in individuals with neurological conditions.

What about relationship conditions in which love has gone awry? Are frayed relationships another instance of neurological conditions? Indeed they are.
Here's how. In an intimate relationship, partners interact in certain patterns of behaviors that they repeat over and over in one guise or another. These patterns of relating ─ influenced by childhood relationships ─get locked into the neural pathways of their brains.

In the case of hurtful traumatic interactions, the amygdala in the brain becomes sensitized. The amydala is known as the center of the fear response. At any reminder of the traumatic hurt, the amydala transmits a fight or flight response; the interaction then becomes one of fighting, attacking, blaming, criticizing or withdrawing, neglecting, cheating, or distancing from one another.

Although there are many problems in relationships ─ poor communication, lack of empathy, suspicion, distrust, betrayal, emotional or physical abuse, substance abuse and so forth ─ one of the chief problems is that an old childhood script is distorting the present relationship.

For example, perhaps your mother was self-centered or preoccupied and you did not get your needs met. The script you may have written back then was either to throw a temper tantrum or to withdraw and sulk, depending on your temperament. Although your partner is caring and generally attends to your needs, there are times when he is too busy to do so. Most people would understand that and not take it personally, but if an old childhood hurt creeps into your sensitized amygala you will respond with a flight or fight response. You may become enraged, attack, insult him ─ the fight response ─ or you may give him the silent treatment, withdraw, and seek comfort in the arms of that attentive young man at work ─ the flight response.

In either case or in the case of other interactions that may flare up in your relationship, love loses its luster. No doubt, you feel dispirited and despairing ─ that you can never bring love back. The good news, however, is that you can do so. By bringing positive new ways of interaction to the relationship you can change the brain and calm down the amygdala.

How often have you felt that you married your parent? That your partner acts just like your parent did? Actually the culprit is an old childhood script that is encroaching on your current relationship. The first step then is to gain insight into your old childhood scripts that are encroaching on your current relationship. Once you recognize how these scripts are being replayed in the current relationship, you can write them out of your repertoire. Then you can see your partner for who he is and not through the prism of the past.

Now you are in a position to begin to change the dynamics of your relationship. That the brain is plastic provides hope that when you change how you interact, you can heal the amygdala, and modify the neural pathways in the brain.


A Happy New Year to all with brain and interaction changes for better living and loving.


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