Mindfulness + Neuroscience = Healthier Relationships

You can re-wire your relationship brain. You have the technology.

Posted Oct 29, 2009

I'm a big fan of David Rock, whose recent post spoke very compellingly about mindfulness, neuroscience, and how we think and experience the world. His focus is on how your brain works in a work setting, which he has recently written about in his very engaging and informative book, Your Brain at Work. I know that his science-based approach is key in getting hard-boiled executives on board the mindfulness train for changing how people do their best work.

And how about mindfulness and neuroscience in that other big realm: Personal relationships? In my psychology practice, I see similar hard-boiled types, as my office is located only a few blocks from the White House. Many of the people I see are incredibly smart, and phenomenally successful in their careers, but are completely stuck when it comes to their emotional life, most especially their relationships.

If they're so smart, why can't they figure out relationships? For that matter, why can't millions of people figure out relationships?

They haven't, and perhaps you haven't, because all too often our brains are wired to keep doing relationships the wrong way.

Mis-wired from the start

For the most part, if we had a healthy, attuned relationship with our parents (or "primary caregivers" in psych lingo), we're good to go; we've got neural connections that were nurtured in ways that support healthy relationships. "Attuned" means that your primary caregivers were paying attention in a meaningful way to your experiences, to who you were, and responding in ways which were contingent on what was going on in you, not just based on their own feelings or needs.

Early childhood didn't go that way for most people. It doesn't mean everyone's parents were evil; it means that being a mindful parent is a big challenge.

It also means, though, that finding our way to an emotionally satisfying relationship is often a struggle, because of our history. Our childhood experiences set in place some of the biggest boulders on the path to healthy connections.

Okay, then. If we had less-than-perfect experiences in childhood, we simply need to understand that, and our relationships will bloom, right?

Unfortunately, that's wrong for at least one big reason: Your early relationship wiring is deep in the brain and not subject to logic and insight. It isn't readily accessible through the usual thinking, problem-solving, overt attempts at behavioral change. It would be a bit like doing a search on Google as a way to get into and change the coding in the underlying operating system on your computer.

So, if your wiring pathways weren't optimized for healthy successful relationships when your brain was developing, you're stuck?

Thankfully, that doesn't seem to be the case.

If you can't think of the answer, grow some new brain

In the last five years, there have been a growing number of scientific findings which show that mindfulness meditation stimulates and develops new connections in key integrative areas (for example, the middle prefrontal cortex), laying the foundation for new patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. (If you're interested, take a look at a 2005 study out of Harvard, by Sara Lazar and colleagues, published in Neuroreport; David Creswell and colleagues' 2007 study at UCLA, published in Psychosomatic Medicine; and Eileen Luders' research at the UCLA Neuroimaging Lab, published earlier this year in NeuroImage.)

This is very good news - you're not stuck with a brain that doesn't grow or change. You can potentially give yourself a second chance for successful relationship brain wiring. You can't go back in time and do your early life over, but you can re-wire the circuits that would have been laid down and powered up by optimal early experiences.

Put another way, when you practice mindfulness meditation, you boost your amperage for relationships. Your brain gets better at making sense of incoming emotional information without jumping to conclusions, reacting out of old habits, or getting stuck in emotional dead-ends like worry or grudges. It does the right stuff with that incoming information, helping you to wisely tell the difference between what's happening in the moment, and what's your "old stuff" pulling your strings like some predictable marionette.

Your better-wired brain can then allow you to perceive and respond to others in balanced, mindful ways that support solid, healthy relationships.

The "M" Word

"But," you say, "I have to... meditate?"

I know, I know. If you say "meditation" to most people, they picture folding their bodies into some pretzel-like shape as they sit on the floor and try to empty their head of any thoughts while their feet go numb. (And, as David Rock and others have pointed out, having something like meditation embedded in an unfamiliar culture or religion can make it difficult to consider trying it ourselves.)

Mindfulness meditation is actually about noticing your mind's rapid-fire thoughts, but not getting tangled up or misled by them. That's basically it. (Really and truly, neither contortionism nor religion are necessary for re-wiring you brain using meditation.)

There's no stressing or straining about having a busy brain that won't stay still. What you're doing while meditating is simply noticing that your puppy-mind has wandered away, and then gently and lovingly bringing that inquisitive, busy pup back to you over and over again.* I've even got a short video about how your "too-busy" brain can, indeed, meditate.

Mindfulness meditation, at its simplest, is about focusing your attention on something in the moment, like your breathing, or the feeling of where your feet touch the floor - even an itch - and then noticing when (not if) your mind has drifted (or lunged) into its usual busy-ness and distraction, and then bringing your attention back to that simple focus. Lather, rinse, repeat. There! You're doing some basic re-wiring.

Number 9, number 9, number 9...

Doing that simple (but not so easy) task does some vitally important things that will help you "re-wire your brain for love" -- current thinking suggests that there are nine things, in fact.

In my next post, I'll walk you through those nine factors. (Hint: They include things like having more flexibility in your reactions, and recovering from intense feelings more easily.) Until then, I hope you'll consider giving mindfulness meditation a try.

Marsha Lucas, PhD is a psychologist / neuropsychologist in Washington, DC, and author of 'Rewire Your Brain For Love' (Hay House, 2012). Learn more at RewireYourBrainForLove.com.

*(Thanks to Jack Kornfield, PhD for the puppy metaphor -- and much other wisdom.)

© 2009 Marsha Lucas. All Rights Reserved