Interpersonal Neurobiolo-what?

Post date: Jan 21, 2015 7:51:17 PM

Learning about neurobiology is like a sugar high for me. I am so fascinated by the applications of brain science, it’s like a buzz. If that’s not the case for you, let me try to entice you just a bit with why I believe in teaching conflicted couples about the brain science of relationships.

First, the why: observing how the brain functions takes our focus off guilt and blame, away from I’m the problem or you’re the problem. Not so helpful if we want learning and change. If every disappointing experience is a matter of character flaw, it’s overwhelming and defeating. I fool myself thinking I can change just by sheer willpower, only to fail the next time emotions override thoughtful intentions. Instead of judgmental moralizing of our thoughts, feelings and behaviors, I find it more effective to be curious, and see experiences from a perspective of matter-of-fact understanding. Instead of getting bogged down in shame games, understanding helps me find solutions for the actual problem.

Second, we aren’t realistic about our communication skills when we are maxed out in frustration. When we moralize instinctive responses to high stress or emotional overwhelm, we aim too high when our brains are frankly unable to perform. Such situations actually cause us to lose IQ points while resources are directed to survival. Calling timeout to calm down isn’t a sign of weakness or avoiding conflict. It’s just a good idea to get your thinking brain back online so you face challenges at your best. The brain needs about 20 minutes to regroup, so your thoughtful side can reconnect. Just be sure to come back to important topics so problems can be addressed, not wear on your relationship.

Finally, learning a thing or two about brain science doesn’t have to be as complicated as it seems. A hand can model the brain for us, no need for an expensive 3-D model. Expert psychiatrist Dan Siegel holds up his “handy model” revealing the essentials: brainstem, limbic system and amydale, cerebral cortex and the masterful pre-frontal cortex. Once you can describe the brain’s processes, you can better manage them. “Name it and tame it!” It’s a relief to know what’s going on when we lose control, so we aren’t tricked into saying something stupid.

Learn more: How emotions impact thoughts...



Atkinson, B. J. (2005). Emotional intelligence in couples therapy: advances from neurobiology and the science of intimate relationships. New York: W.W. Norton.

Badenoch, B. (2008). Being a brain-wise therapist: a practical guide to interpersonal neurobiology. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Gottman, J. M., Coan, J., Carrere, S., & Swanson, C. (1998). Predicting marital happiness and stability from newlywed interactions. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 60(1), 5-22.

Morris, J. (2006). Pragmatic/Experimental Therapy for Couples. PsycCRITIQUES, 51(15), doi:10.1037/a0002186.

Sheehan, C. (2010). Lecture presented at Family of Origin in The Family Institute, Evanston, IL.

Siegel, D. J. (2010). The mindful therapist: a clinician's guide to mindsight and neural integration. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.