Some of the most exciting influences on therapeutic work in the last decade have come from the study of Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB), originated by Daniel Siegel and Allan Schore. The researchers in this field examine how our brains are influenced by our relationships, and how our brains are actually changing and developing daily in response to our environments. My interest in IPNB began when I was doing my graduate research on contemplative practices and seeing the transformation in the lives of people who maintain these disciplines. I started reading Siegel’s work and noticing the connections between his findings and what I saw in my research. Since then, I’ve been learning from the large and growing body of research about how our brains work and about how we can influence our own well-being and promote healing.
Here is a very brief and partial summary of a few of the points that I find most interesting and relevant to my work.
1) Our brains are formed in relationship, not in isolation. We do not exist as finite, separate entities from those around us or from the very air we breathe. We are influenced by the people and places around us, and their influence impacts not just what we think, but also how we think. The way our brains develop is shaped by our contexts, so that, for example, if we live with anger and conflict as children, we learn defensive ways of being that we carry with us, even when newer contexts no longer have the same levels of anger and conflict. Through awareness and practice, we can change the patterning of our responses and the very way that our brains receive and process information.
2) The human brain develops in stages, and distinct parts have specialized functions. There is some controversy about conceptualizing the brain as having two distinct hemispheres – right and left – because too much emphasis on the differences between them can lead to labelling one side as “good” and the other as “bad”. An oversimplified explanation is that left and right hemispheres exist together and both contribute to our overall perceptions and responses to the world. However, the types of processing done by each hemisphere are different, and when the balance is shifted too far towards one way of processing over another, we tend to have problems. (Studies of people who have damage to one or the other side of their brain due to strokes have provided much of the material for this exploration.) Broadly speaking, the left hemisphere tends towards itemization and categorization, while the right tends towards a “big picture” and relational view. Both views are important, but there seems to be a societal leaning towards left-brain type processing, and a need for a regaining of the right/left balance. (Iain McGilchrist explores this idea in detail.)
3) The science behind IPNB is supporting the wisdom behind ancient spiritual practices. (Siegel speaks about this, as does spiritual teacher Cynthia Bourgeault) At their best, spiritual practices from all traditions are, in one way or another, encouraging people to move towards development of acceptance, compassion, openness, and a unity of consciousness that recognizes that we are all interconnected with each other and creation. These all fall under the domain of “right brain” types of processing. Everything we do and all our interactions with each other are contributing to both “who” we are and “how” we are. We’re always capable of change and learning, but there’s something important about finding ways to focus attention and to calm our thoughts and emotions. I think there are many ways to do this in addition to formal meditation practices. Music and expressive arts are two that are very powerful in helping people towards deeper self-understanding and connection with others as are other moments when we experience a shared sense of community.