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Interpersonal Integration

          Often, when two people start dating and things are going really well, it can be almost magical how much they seem to have in common. And for weeks, sometimes months, the interests they share can create an unusually intense bond.  They may be aware of differences – one loves Indian food, the other loves Italian, one talks louder and faster, the other softer and slower – but the differences only seem to make what they have in common all the more charming.   But if at some point things begin to go not so well, their different interests may become annoying, or even downright irritating.  The magic of “shared” interests is no longer enough to override their increasingly glaring differences.

          Though the challenge of dealing with differences and finding common ground is particularly intense in romantic relationships, the same challenge exists in any kind of relationship – between friends, family, members, and between cultures of various kinds.

          Interpersonal integration involves learning to be attuned to others – that is, being able to appreciate both what you have in common (linkage), as well the ways in which you’re different (differentiation). Being attuned requires the capacity to empathize with another person, or group of people, the ability to see things from their point of view, to “walk in their shoes.”

The Magic of Mirror Neurons

          Neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti, has done pioneering research into the workings of what some scientists refer to as our “social brain” – the part of the brain that gives us the capacity to be attuned to others.  In particular, he’s studied what have aptly been called “mirror neurons.”  What he found was that mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others directly, by mirroring in our own body what they’re experiencing.

          It’s your mirror neurons that make you spontaneously yawn when you see someone else yawning. When you see someone in pain, your mirror neurons activate the areas in your brain that register pain.  During large group events like concerts, rallies, and sports competitions, there can be a kind of emotional contagion that spreads through the crowd. These are all examples of mirror neurons at work.

          Like other parts of the brain, our mirror neurons can be trained. That means whatever capacity we may now have for sensing other peoples’ experience, that capacity can be greatly enhanced – and in a surprisingly short period of time.

The Officer, the Cashier, and the Baby:
What a Few Weeks of Practice Can Do

          A young army officer with a hot temper and a history of anger and stress-related problems was ordered by his colonel to attend Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s eight-week mindfulness training class to help reduce his level of stress.
          One day, after having attended the class for several weeks, the young officer stopped to shop for groceries on his way home.  He was in a rush, and a bit irritated.  When he took his cart to the check-out counter, there were long lines and he could feel himself getting impatient.  He noticed that the woman in front of him had only one item in her cart and should have been on the express line. In addition, she was carrying a baby and started talking to the cashier. His irritation was mounting. Then to make matters worse, she handed the baby to the cashier who spent what seemed to him endless minutes cooing over the child. He was getting angrier by the minute.

          But because he’d been practicing mindfulness, he was able, in the midst of his anger, to become aware of the heat and tightness in his body. He decided to take a few deep breaths and relax.  This shifted his mood, and when he looked up again, he saw the little boy was smiling.  As he reached the cashier he too smiled, and said, “That was a very cute little boy.”  “Oh, did you like him?” she responded. “He’s my son. His father was killed in the air force last winter. So now I have to work full time, and my mom tries to bring my baby in once or twice a day so I can see him.”

          The officer, having practiced mindfulness for several weeks (a form of brain training which directly activates the MPFC), was able to use a few deep breaths to help him shift from being absorbed in the emotions on the rim of his wheel of awareness, to the hub of the wheel. From there he was able to calmly observe both his physical and emotional reactions. 

          This increased self-awareness had two effects: First, he was able to calm himself rather than allowing his reactions to rule his behavior. Second, it took his focus off his own desires and impulses, allowing him to be more attuned to the people in front of him.  As a result, he acted differently than he otherwise would have. Had he not had that moment of mindfulness, he might have muttered some angry comment beneath his breath that would have spoiled the happiness the cashier felt after seeing her baby. Instead, he was able to empathize with her and offer a friendly comment that created a moment of connection between them.

Beyond the Five Domains of Integration

          Recent research shows that the brain has a natural tendency to become increasingly more integrated.  So with further mindfulness practice, the officer would likely become more skillful at noticing the state of his mind and his body, at stepping back from his reactions, and at shifting the way he feels and behaves toward others. 

          As part of the overall process of integration, the officer’s mind, emotions, and body would become more harmonious.  His upstairs and downstairs brain, as well as his left and right hemispheres, would work together with increasing balance and harmony. As a result, the “story” of his life would become more coherent and more meaningful, and he would feel more connected to himself and others.
          But there’s something else that starts to happen as the brain becomes more integrated.  It’s a development that Dan Siegel observed in a number of people he worked with over the years, and which he calls “transpirational integration.”  Here’s how he describes it: 

“This form of integration involves a person’s sense of coming to feel connected to a larger whole…. [There is a] feeling that joining with others to give back to the world is as natural as taking care of oneself. For example, people may find themselves with a deep drive to help with cleaning up the local environment, reducing hunger in the community, or working to reduce child slavery or trafficking of young women. Even when the outcome of their efforts may not be known for decades, people may still feel the drive to become part of something larger than themselves – something that will make this home we share, our planet Earth, a better place for years ahead.”

Moving On

          If you've been going through the Brain Pages in order, you've just completed the last page exploring the different aspects of brain integration.  The next brain page describes the many wonderful qualities come as a natural result of developing our mid pre-frontal cortex (MPFC).  Click here to continue reading.