GROWING DIVERSITY AND COMPLEXITY
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Normal family processes : growing diversity and complexity / edited by
Froma Walsh. — 4th ed.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-4625-0255-4 (hardcover: alk. paper)
1. Families—Research. 2. Family assessment. 3. Families. I. Walsh, Froma.
MONA DEKOVEN FISHBANE
The multisystemic discourse of family systems theory is enhanced by recent
research in neurobiology and relationships. Current studies in neurosci-
ence address the mutually recursive ﬂow among body, brain, relationships,
and context. The science is constantly evolving; the neurobiological data pre-
sented here are sure to evolve as well, and are presented as current knowledge.
This chapter focuses on the interaction between neurobiology and relation-
ships in families throughout the life cycle.
In the past decade, the ﬁeld of neuroscience has been transformed through
new technologies that allow scientists to observe the brain in action. In addi-
tion to the older methods of brain research— animal studies, evaluation of
human functioning in the presence of brain damage or disease, and electroen-
cephalographic (EEG) studies—newer scanning techniques such as functional
magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have allowed unparalleled access to the
human brain. The fMRI measures blood ﬂow to the brain; as an area of the
brain becomes active, it requires oxygen, which is reﬂected in blood ﬂow.
Thus, as a person lies in a scanner, and is shown a picture of a loved one,
a terrifying scene, or an angry encounter, the fMRI identiﬁes what parts of
the brain are active. And what the scanner reveals about the human brain is
THE SOCIAL BRAIN
Our understanding of the human brain in context has been enriched by both
neuroscientists and key synthesizers of neurobiology research as it applies to
human development, relationships, and therapy (e.g., Cozolino, 2006, 2008;
554 ADVAN CING FAMILY SYSTEMS RESEARCH AND PRACTICE
Damasio, 1994; Doidge, 2007; LeDoux, 1996; Schore, 2003; Siegel, 2010a,
2010b). This body of work points to our deeply social nature: Our brains are
wired through connection with others, and we are wired for connection (Fish-
bane, 2007). Terms such as “interpersonal neurobiology” (Siegel, 2010b) and
“social neuroscience” (Cacioppo & Berntson, 2004) capture the fundamental
interconnectedness of human neurobiological processes. Likewise, neurosci-
ence highlights the importance of emotion in our functioning; “affective neu-
roscience” (Panksepp, 1998) studies emotions as evolutionary processes for
From the viewpoint of interpersonal neurobiology, the narrative of the
rugged individualist, fostered by the dominant U.S. culture and by older theo-
ries of development and therapeutic approaches, misses the mark. Research
indicates that from birth to death we need others for our well-being; interde-
pendence is central to human functioning. Neuroscientists have found that
social rejection triggers physical pain centers in the brain (Eisenberger &
Lieberman, 2004). Indeed, “[social] exclusion could be a death sentence” to
our ancestors (Goleman, 2006, p. 113), since we evolved as a social species.
Humans are wired to read others’ intentions and motivations beneath aware-
ness. Much of this communication is nonverbal, mostly through reading oth-
ers’ faces and eyes in particular (Baron-Cohen, 2004). The pain of others is
felt in the pain centers of one’s own brain (Decety & Jackson, 2004). This
deep interconnectedness contributes to health—in positive and negative ways.
Positive relationships and social support correlate with physical and emotional
health; unhappy or toxic relationships negatively affect health (Kiecolt- Glaser
& Newton, 2001; Kim, Sherman, & Taylor, 2008). Loneliness is associated
with lower immune function and with illness (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008).
The attachment literature interfaces with neuroscience research in emphasiz-
ing the importance of safe, attuned, well- attached relationships at all stages
of family life.
Neuroscientists have found that nature and nurture are inextricably inter-
twined. Erik Kandel (2006) won the Nobel Prize for his discovery that learn-
ing changes the brain. Many studies have explored how the brain is changed
through learning and experience throughout life. This change occurs at both
the level of connections between neurons (brain cells), and at the genetic level:
Experience inﬂuences the expression of genes, a process called epigenetics (see
Spotts, Chapter 22, this volume). Early experience is particularly crucial to
the baby’s growing brain, as it is being wired through interactions with care-
givers. The impact on the brain of interconnection with others continues at
BRAIN: THE BASICS
Humans have approximately 100 billion neurons; each connects to up to 10,000
other neurons at synapses, the space between neurons. There are trillions of
Neurobiology and Family Processes 555
synaptic connections in the human brain, making it the most complex entity
in the known universe. Neurons are fundamentally social; they survive by
connecting with other neurons to form networks. The neurons that do not
connect die, through a normal process called apoptosis. Babies are born with
many more neurons than they will need; it is the creation of networks and the
pruning of disconnected neurons that shape brains and determine function.
Through evolution, the newer, uniquely human brain was built upon
older, more primitive forms. The “triune brain” (MacLean, 1990) is com-
posed of brain stem (reptilian brain), limbic system (mammalian brain), and
neocortex (human brain). Because we carry our evolutionary history in our
heads, our animal self is part of the human experience. Humans are not purely
rational creatures; lower brain processes are very active, especially in emo-
tional experience. We share 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees. The 2% dif-
ference is mostly in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which Daniel Siegel (2010a)
has called the “cortex humanitas.” The brain stem, limbic system, and cortex
are intertwined with multiple connections and feedback loops between brain
areas. Most human activities— emotion, behavior, thought—do not activate
just one brain area, but rather are reﬂected in circuits of interconnected activ-
One of the key circuits underlying emotional and relational functioning
is that of the limbic system–PFC. The limbic system, or emotional brain, has
at its core the amygdala, which sets off the ﬁght-or- ﬂight response if it senses
threat. The amygdala is constantly scanning for danger. If it gets a whiff of
threat, it sets in motion a full-body readiness to ﬂee or to ﬁght, activating the
sympathetic nervous system and the HPA (hypothalamic– pituitary– adrenal)
axis, which produces cortisol, a chemical in the stress response. When the
amygdala is in ﬁght-or- ﬂight mode, it often overwhelms the PFC, which
becomes quiet. The amygdala is much faster at processing information (at
times erroneously) than the PFC. In a position of high emotional threat, the
amygdala “highjacks the brain” (Goleman, 1995). While this system is highly
efﬁcient for sudden, life- threatening situations, it can cause crises in couple
and family interaction as one person experiences the other as critical or aban-
doning and goes into full battle mode. The amygdala does not distinguish
between threat in the jungle and threat to our well-being or self- esteem in our
current relationships. Danger is danger.
One of the reasons the amygdala can so easily overwhelm the PFC is
that there are more ﬁbers running from amygdala up to PFC than there are
from PFC to amygdala (LeDoux, 1996). Thus, it can be hard to rein in the
threat response and respond reasonably. To complicate matters further, it has
been proposed that the vagus nerve, which runs between the viscera (heart
and intestines) and brain stem in both directions, participates in responding
to threat or safety. According to the Polyvagal Theory (Porges, 2007), when
safety is assessed, the “smart vagus,” the more recently evolved part of the
vagal system, signals the body and facial muscles to relax and engage with
others. If danger is sensed, the amygdala ﬁght-or- ﬂight response is initiated
556 ADVAN CING FAMILY SYSTEMS RESEARCH AND PRACTICE
through the sympathetic nervous system. If the danger is perceived to be life
threatening, with no possibility of escape or defeating the enemy, the more
primitive vagus nerve takes over, activating the “freeze” response, including
fainting and dissociation.
While these processes run on automatic pilot, and mostly beneath aware-
ness, humans do have access to higher brain processing; we have a PFC that
comes online and interfaces with our limbic system, calming the amygdala
and gaining perspective. The PFC can inhibit amygdala reactivity and bring
thoughtfulness, self- regulation, response ﬂexibility, and compassion to shape
responses. The more these prefrontal capabilities are cultivated, the more
ﬁbers grow from PFC to amygdala. Then, in a potential moment of escala-
tion or reactivity, one can more quickly calm down and gain perspective. But
even the most evolved individuals will have irrational moments, amygdala
takeovers. Part of the reason for this is that the amygdala holds emotional
memories; when a current situation feels threatening, memories of an older,
painful experience can become activated. This process has survival value; but
it can stress couple and family relationships.
Humans have two brain hemispheres. As currently understood, the left
specializes in logic, language, linear thinking, and details. The right special-
izes in emotions, nuance, and gestalt perception. The right hemisphere is
online and functioning at birth; the left develops in the ﬁrst years of life. The
right hemisphere is responsible for much of our automatic and conscious self-
regulation, modulation of emotion, and knowledge of how our body feels. The
“interpreter” part of our brain (Roser & Gazzaniga, 2004) is a left prefrontal
function, narrating and justifying our experience, including our emotional
reactions. The corpus callosum connects the two hemispheres and allows for
the creation of coherent narratives of life experiences. Integration is key in this
and other areas of brain life.
EMOTIONS AND EMPATHY
Neurobiologists have identiﬁed the centrality of emotion as well as cognition
in human experience; it has been suggested that a counterbalance to Des-
cartes’ famous dictum, “I think therefore I am” would be “I feel therefore I
am” (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008). Emotions are body states; feelings occur
when these body cues are read and named (Damasio, 1994). The brain is
embodied, with a bidirectional ﬂow of input and inﬂuence. The vagus nerve
carries information from heart and intestines to brain, giving literal meaning
to “gut feelings” and “a broken heart.” The insula specializes in interocep-
tion, reading one’s inner body states, and in perceiving pain in self and other.
Many important brain processes are subcortical, automatic, and beneath
awareness; they involve the limbic system and brain stem, in interface with
body processes. The PFC catches up in recognizing and naming these physical
sensations as feelings. Some individuals are unable to name their emotions,
Neurobiology and Family Processes 557
to read their body cues. This alexithymia can severely impair interpersonal
functioning and personal well-being.
To experience emotions fully and safely, humans need the empathy of
others. Indeed, emotions are not just interior, individualized states; they are
communications with others. Through ﬁne-tuned facial muscles that commu-
nicate feeling and intention, and through neurons that specialize in reading
the faces and emotions of others, intertwined attunement between self and
other is central to emotional life. Parental attunement is particularly crucial
to the baby’s brain development. Infants come hardwired for empathy; babies
cry when another baby is crying in the nursery. Even some primates demon-
strate rudimentary empathy (de Waal, 2009). Empathy is considered a neces-
sary ingredient in human well-being throughout life.
The neurobiology of empathy includes several components (Decety &
Jackson, 2004). The ﬁrst is resonance, an automatic process in which one feels
what the other feels. Some neuroscientists emphasize the role of “mirror neu-
rons,” special neurons that read the actions and intentions of others by creat-
ing the same experience in one’s own brain–body. First discovered in monkeys,
the human mirror neuron system has been mapped by scientists in recent years
(Iacoboni, 2008). Other scholars point to different mechanisms of resonance,
in which the somatosensory cortex or the insula is activated when one expe-
riences pain or disgust, for example, and when one sees another exhibiting
pain or disgust. With this resonance, we feel what the other feels “from the
inside out” (Siegel & Hartzell, 2003). We read others—and are affected by
them— beneath awareness. This can be salutary, as we share the emotions
of others, and can support and help them with empathy. But this “emotional
contagion” (Hatﬁeld, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1993) can be problematic; when
family members become reactive with each other, they may be picking up and
reacting to each other’s emotions before they are aware of what is happening.
In a circular process, or vicious cycle, each reaction can intensify the reactions
of others, escalating the level of distress for all. Conversely, attuned and posi-
tive responses can calm emotions, facilitating a virtuous cycle.
The second component of empathy, cognitive empathy, entails consciously
putting oneself in the other’s shoes. This prefrontal capacity brings thought-
fulness to the subcortical process of resonance. Individuals differ with regard
to their “empathic accuracy” (Ickes, Gesn, & Graham, 2000). Third, empathy
requires identiﬁcation with the other, while maintaining a boundary between
self and other. When seeing another in pain, pain centers in one’s own brain
light up; yet the overlap is not complete. Parts of the brain that are active when
one experiences pain do not become activated when watching another in pain
(Decety & Jackson, 2004). The brain is wired to know the difference between
self and other. This crucial differentiation of self from other— otherwise
known as healthy boundaries— allows for empathic connection with another
without losing one’s self in the process. Finally, empathy requires that one not
become overwhelmed with the other’s pain. The ability to self- regulate in the
face of another’s distress is crucial in the empathic process.
558 ADVAN CING FAMILY SYSTEMS RESEARCH AND PRACTICE
A key neurochemical in empathy is oxytocin. Both a hormone and a neu-
rotransmitter, oxytocin is released with orgasm, childbirth, nursing, massage,
touch, and empathy. Oxytocin is associated with trust and generosity in labo-
ratory experiments, and it reduces cortisol, the stress hormone. Oxytocin, the
“cuddle chemical” (Taylor, 2002), helps modulate attachment. Women have
more oxytocin receptors than men; in males, vasopressin, a related hormone,
is more plentiful. Oxytocin and vasopressin have been studied in prairie voles,
monogamous rodents that live in the Midwest (Carter, 2003). These neuro-
chemicals are key to male– female pair- bonding and monogamy; when oxyto-
cin and vasopressin receptors are blocked, pair- bonding yields to promiscuity.
Oxytocin prompts female voles to seek out other females when stressed, while
vasopressin prompts males to engage in mate guarding and territory protec-
Oxytocin has also been associated with the “tend and befriend” response
(Taylor, 2002). Taylor’s data suggest that the ﬁght-or- ﬂight response has been
overemphasized in the human response to threat. The amygdala does indeed
set off a survival-based sympathetic nervous system response when danger is
detected. Taylor proposes that the tend-and- befriend response, or “care and
connection system,” is equally important in the face of danger. Just as female
voles turn to each other and protect their young when faced with threat,
female humans often do the same. Research on the interplay between this sys-
tem and the ﬁght-or- ﬂight system in humans is ongoing. The dynamics of care
(identiﬁed by neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp  as one of the seven basic
emotional operating systems in the brain) are central to family relationships.
This “protective urge” is an important factor in intimate relationships (Fish-
bane, 1998, 2005). Looking for “resources of trustworthiness” (Boszormenyi-
Nagy & Ulrich, 1981) in families nurtures this care-and- connection system.
This system needs to be studied more fully in both neuroscience and family
STRESS AND TRAUMA
When danger is severe or chronic, care is lacking or inconsistent, or attune-
ment and attachment are distorted or unavailable, the stress response can
become overactive. Humans evolved to deal with acute, short-term stress. The
sympathetic nervous system and cortisol signal the body to route its resources
to the threat at hand. As Sapolsky (2004) wryly notes, on the savannah, a
zebra either escapes or becomes another animal’s lunch. The stress is intense
and short term. We humans, however, often live in conditions of chronic
stress. And long-term stress can impair the immune system. It can also impair
memory, since cells in the hippocampus (mediator of explicit or conscious
memory) are highly affected by cortisol. If the stress is long- lasting and severe
enough, cells in the hippocampus die, leading to hippocampal shrinkage and
impairment of memory and cognitive function.
Neurobiology and Family Processes 559
Trauma— especially interpersonal trauma—is the most toxic form of
stress for humans. Severe abuse and neglect affect the young child’s developing
brain and can cause long-term cognitive and memory impairment, as well as
problems in self- regulation and social relating (Perry, 2001, 2002). Traumatic
memories are often held in the brain in the implicit memory system. This sys-
tem, online at birth, holds memories without conscious awareness. It is only
with the development of the hippocampus, around age 2, that the explicit or
conscious memory system develops. Implicit memories—for nontraumatic as
well as traumatic events—are processed in the right hemisphere and can affect
one in the present even if the event is not consciously remembered.
Stress and trauma often arise from the larger context in which the family
is embedded. Poverty, war, living in violent neighborhoods, or experiencing
discrimination can negatively affect even well- attached parents and children.
While research on the impact of poverty on the developing human brain is
new, data point to the negative impact of poverty- related stress for child devel-
opment (Hackman & Farah, 2009).
HABITS AND CHANGE: NEUROPLASTICITY
AND HUMAN ADAPTATION
Humans are creatures of habit. The human brain, an “anticipation machine”
(Siegel, 2010a), is an organ structured for habit. Habits reﬂect circuits of inter-
connected neurons ﬁring over and over again. This process is captured in
Hebb’s theorem: “Neurons that ﬁre together wire together” (Siegel, 1999).
The more a neuronal network ﬁres, the more likely the whole network will
ﬁre when one of the neurons ﬁres in the future. This process underlies habits,
behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. The more we do, think, or feel something,
the more likely we will do so in the future. In that sense, we are what we do,
as the brain changes and rewires to reﬂect our repetitive behaviors. Indeed,
habits are hard to change for this very reason.
Humans are also creatures of change and adaptation. The brain mecha-
nism for change is neuroplasticity, the ability of neurons to create new synap-
tic connections with other neurons. In addition, through neurogenesis, new
neurons are created from stem cell neurons. The old assumption was that
neural growth and change were only possible in youth, that the adult brain
was unchangeable. However, it is now well established that adults are capable
of both neuroplasticity and neurogenesis throughout the life course. For adult
neuroplasticity to ﬂourish, we need to be open to new experience, learn new
things, pay attention, and exercise both physically and mentally (as children
do naturally). Being stuck in our (neural) ruts, living with “hardening of the
categories” (Cozolino, 2008), and being physically inactive will not facilitate
neuroplastic change as we age.
Neuroplasticity is the basis for resilience in human functioning, for change
in therapy, and for transformation in couple and family relationships. For new
560 ADVANCING FAMILY SYSTEMS RESEARCH AND PRACTICE
habits to take hold and override old habits, “massed practice” (Doidge, 2007)
is necessary, as new neuronal networks are activated over and over again to
become the new default position. Neuroplasticity and brain development,
especially in the prefrontal cortex, continue throughout life—if we nurture
them and are open to new possibilities.
CULTURE AND THE BRAIN
Current thinking in cultural neuroscience emphasizes the mutually reciprocal
inﬂuences between the biological and the sociocultural, between brain and
culture (Zhou & Cacioppo, 2010). Indeed, “human brains are biologically
prepared to acquire culture” (Ames & Fiske, 2010, p. 72), and are shaped by
culture. From perception to neurobiological correlates of the self- concept, cul-
ture affects brain processes (Ames & Fiske, 2010). Research comparing East-
ern (Asian) and Western (European and American) subjects ﬁnds that while
Western perception favors ﬁgure over ground, Eastern perception emphasizes
context and a holistic view. Self- concept, as revealed in both psychological
studies and fMRI scans, focuses on the independent self- versus-other view
in Western subjects, and on the interdependent, self-and-other view among
Asian subjects (Zhu, Zhang, Fan, & Han, 2007). Similarly, deﬁnitions of self
and of family include a wide network of others, kin and nonkin, in African
American culture, captured in the African saying, “We are, therefore I am”
(Hines & Boyd- Franklin, 2005, p. 88).
The “contact zone” (Wexler, 2006) between cultures and races has been
studied in recent years. Empathy, as measured by fMRI, was found to be higher
in subjects observing faces of their own in-group undergoing pain than faces
of other races (Xu, Zuo, Wang, & Han, 2009). Culturally learned racial preju-
dice is evidenced in amygdala activation; the greater the implicit prejudice, the
greater the amygdala activity (Phelps et al., 2000). However, conscious social
goals can ameliorate these amygdala activations (Wheeler & Fiske, 2005).The
interplay between automatic and controlled cognitive processes of perceiving
others (including racial prejudice) is a current topic in neuroscience.
Immigration from one culture to another can pose neurobiological chal-
lenges, as the environment in which one’s brain was shaped is left behind
(Wexler, 2006): “Culture shock is brain shock” (Doidge, 2007, p. 299). Immi-
grants often create mini- versions of their home country in the new land, “ ‘as
if’ environments” that “help transform the receiving culture into more famil-
iar places” (Falicov, 2003, p. 293). Recent conceptualization of immigration
identiﬁes creative and ongoing adaptations that integrate the two cultures; in
an age of easy communication, the Internet, and transportation, “transnation-
als” maintain relations that transcend geographic borders, creating “ﬂexible
bicultural identities” (Falicov, 2008). The ongoing process of “selective adap-
tation” to the new culture (Garcia-Preto, 2008) continues to reshape the brain
as immigrants ﬁnd creative ways to “construct the bridges they need for this
journey between cultures” (Garcia-Preto, 2008, p. 273).
Neurobiology and Family Processes 561
Even within the same culture, evolving social practices and technology
such as the Internet affect the plastic brain. The Internet and its distractions
are reshaping the ways we think, leading to greater distractibility and mul-
titasking, and less access to “deep reading” and sustained attention (Carr,
2010). The easy accessibility of Internet pornography is affecting couples’
relationships. Individuals who become addicted to porn are rewiring their
own brains, and are often unable to relate sexually to their real-life partners
(Doidge, 2007). The far- reaching impacts of technology on the brain and on
culture are yet to be determined. The Internet, social networks, smartphones,
and constant (non-face-to-face) connection that constitute our new context
will surely reshape our brains that evolved to navigate face-to-face communi-
NEUROBIOLOGY AND PARENT– CHILD INTERACTIONS
The child’s brain is shaped by early family experience: “Parents are the active
sculptors of their children’s growing brains” (Siegel & Hartzell, 2003, p. 34).
In infancy, most of this occurs through right-brain to right-brain interaction
(Schore, 2003). The infant’s right brain is functioning at birth; this hemisphere
processes nonverbal cues and emotions, and is prepared for the “protocon-
versations” (Trevarthen, 1995), the lilting prosody of give-and-take between
parents and baby in early preverbal life. Infants are not blank slates; they are
born with speciﬁc genetic potential, temperament, and limitations. Much of a
child’s genetic potential is then shaped by experience as nature meets nurture.
The newborn is immature neurobiologically and requires intensive adult care.
Fortunately, infants come ready to connect, endowed with reﬂexes that allow
parents, grandparents, and other caregiving adults to fall in love with the
baby. The earliest infant smile is a reﬂex; the social smile develops later. But
the smile reﬂex makes the caregiver feel loved by the baby, bringing the adult
into the loving loop that is so necessary for the infant’s survival (Tronick,
2007). Through this “lyrical duet” (Cozolino, 2006) of sound, touch, and eye
contact, endogenous opioids are released in the child’s brain (Schore, 2003)
as the bonds of attachment are formed and oxytocin is released in both child
Matching states, or “contingent communication” (Siegel & Hartzell,
2003), is central to this lyrical duet, as parent and infant coregulate each
other. In a series of studies, Tronick (2007) examined this coregulation and
found that parents and infants are in a constant process of responding to
each other nonverbally, each one’s behavior evoking the other’s. While well-
attached pairs enjoy the attunement and attachment of their bond, research
has found these parent–baby pairs to be mismatched or out of sync 70% of
the time (Tronick, 2007). What matters is what comes after the mismatch: the
repair. Well- attached babies and parents repair their break, their out-of-sync
moment, and come back together into sync. Child development researchers
have suggested that these breaks in attunement allow the child to develop a
562 ADVANCING FAMILY SYSTEMS RESEARCH AND PRACTICE
sense of conﬁdence and mastery in interpersonal repair, a capacity that is vital
for healthy adult functioning. Most studies of attachment in early childhood
focus on dyadic relationships (especially between mother and baby). However,
recent systemic research points to the baby’s competence in handling triadic
interactions, navigating differences in contingent communication between
two parents (Fivaz- Depeursinge & Favez, 2006).
Babies are born with the necessary equipment for attachment, and are
active participants in the dance of attachment with parents. Newborns can
differentiate mother from father from stranger within days of birth. The baby
relies on parents or other adult caregivers for affect regulation. As the adult
responds and soothes the infant’s distress—a process of dyadic regulation—
the baby’s brain is developing structures that ultimately allow that child to
learn self- regulation, an internalization of the parent’s soothing. While these
right-brain processes of attunement, attachment, and emotion regulation are
developing, as the child grows, the PFC, left hemisphere, and hippocampus
develop as well, making possible the acquisition of language and development
of explicit memory in the ﬁrst and second years of life.
The baby’s brain is in a constant state of attention and curiosity; all is new
to the infant. The nucleus basalis in the brain, necessary for paying attention, is
in the “on” position in infants, releasing acetylcholine, which promotes learn-
ing (Doidge, 2007). The infant is born with many more neurons than exist in
the adult brain. Through early experience, some of these neurons form net-
works with other neurons; the neurons that do not connect die off through a
process called pruning or apoptosis (programmed cell death). Thus, the baby’s
brain comes ready to engage and be shaped by experience, most especially by
the family. Early life experience matters; attuned caregiving matters.
Throughout the child’s life, attunement and attachment with parents and
other family members are vital for development of brain and self. Connections
are not perfect and constant, however, even in the best of circumstances. As
with babies, there will be many moments of mismatch between the parents’
and the child’s needs and states. Indeed, the oscillation between connection–
disconnection– reconnection is part of the ﬂow of any intimate relationship.
The key is repair throughout childhood. Even in healthy relationships, parents
may become reactive with their child in the face of current stress overload
or as old implicit memories from their childhood—held in the amygdala—
are triggered while they struggle in the current moment. A dispute between
parents can spill over, or be deﬂected, into upset with a child. Parents can be
reduced to the level of a screaming toddler while reexperiencing a sense of
helplessness and rage felt as a young child or in other situations beyond their
control. In trying to repair these moments with their child, parents should
wait until their own reactivity has calmed; trying to hold a repair conversa-
tion while still emotionally ﬂooded is likely to fail (Siegel & Hartzell, 2003).
The activated amygdala does not easily share airspace with a reasonable PFC,
and the ﬁght can quickly reignite if parents have not had time to regroup and
regain some calm. Later, after the storm, reﬂective conversation is called for as
parents and child revisit their reactivity and repair the connection.
Neurobiology and Family Processes 563
THE ADOLESCENT BRAIN:
CHALLENGES FOR FAMILY LIFE
From a neurobiological perspective, adolescence is a second period of exu-
berant brain growth and transformation. There is a disparity between early
changes brought on by puberty that heighten emotional arousal and intensity,
and later adolescent brain development that allows for greater self- regulation
and control. With puberty, emotional intensity and reactivity increase, along
with sexual urges and romantic interest. Risk taking, sensation seeking, and
sensitivity to peer inﬂuence rise dramatically as well (Dahl, 2004). In later ado-
lescence, changes in the PFC allow for greater emotion regulation and execu-
tive functioning. Synaptic pruning and myelination (the development of a fatty
sheath around the axon of the neuron, which provides speed and efﬁciency in
the transmission from one neuron to the next) within the PFC continue from
adolescence through the mid-20s. So the young adolescent is subject to mas-
sive doses of hormones, intense affect, and heightened responsiveness to social
pressure, while prefrontal processes of “regulatory competence” (Steinberg,
2005), planning, and impulse control are slower to develop. The adolescent
brain is at particular risk for substance abuse, because of both its ﬂuid nature
during this second pruning and rewiring process, and the social pressures on
youths to engage in risky behavior. Sexual urgency may trump common sense
or caution, as the PFC has difﬁculty catching up to the exuberance of the emo-
tional brain, sexual urges, and peer pressure.
The desire for independence often outruns the adolescent’s capacity to
self- regulate, think carefully, plan, and use good judgment (all prefrontal
functions). Parents at times need to lend their PFC to their adolescents, help-
ing them make better choices. This is easier said than done with an adoles-
cent who wants nothing more than freedom and autonomy. Cross- culturally,
adolescents do best in close, nonconﬂictual families with authoritative (ﬁrm,
warm) parenting that nurtures both their autonomy and connection (Garcia-
Preto, 2011; Steinberg, 2001). Adolescents use this “social scaffolding” (Dahl,
2004), involvement and monitoring by parents and other adults, while they
learn the necessary skills of emotion regulation and self- control. Such mon-
itoring of adolescents by responsible adults in the community is especially
important, for example, for African American youth in high-crime neighbor-
hoods (APA Task Force, 2008).
While current research departs from the “storm-and- stress” model of nor-
mal adolescence, this period in the family life cycle can be stressful, especially
for parents dealing with their critical or oppositional adolescents (Steinberg,
2001). Relationship plasticity, made possible by neuroplasticity and ﬂexibility
in response to changing circumstances, is key for adolescent and parents as
they evolve and develop a more mature and complex connection. It is precisely
this evolving connection with parents—along with greater autonomy—that
characterizes healthy adolescence, not a radical separation from parents. Like-
wise, the adolescent is not becoming “independent” in the sense of a solo actor;
rather, the teenager’s need for connection is largely transferred to the peer
564 ADVANCING FAMILY SYSTEMS RESEARCH AND PRACTICE
group. The social brain does not stop needing others in adolescence. While
the change processes at this time of life can be daunting for the whole family,
understanding the normal developmental trajectory of the adolescent—and of
the teenage brain—can give perspective and potentially some wisdom during
this challenging time.
ADULTHOOD: NEUROBIOLOGICAL MATURITY
The PFC continues to evolve throughout the lifespan. These changes allow for
growing maturity with age. With myelination of the PFC, greater thought-
fulness, judgment, and response ﬂexibility are possible, and it appears that
myelination, along with neuroplasticity, continues into adulthood (Siegel,
2010b). In the normal maturing brain the PFC develops greater control over
the reactive amygdala; with intentional practice, this inﬂuence can increase.
Since experience changes the brain by creating new neuronal connections,
practices that activate the PFC can build new pathways to the amygdala, thus
increasing emotion regulation. Mindfulness meditation in particular has been
found to impact emotion and well-being positively, facilitating compassion,
positive mood, and immune functioning (Davidson et al., 2003).
Self- regulation and self- soothing (achieved through processes of dyadic
regulation with parents and in transactions with others in childhood and ado-
lescence) are important aspects of adult emotional competence. While the PFC
does exert an inhibitory role on the amygdala, this is not a suppression of
emotion. Rather, it is a collaborative working with and soothing of emotion
that constitute neurobiological maturity. Identifying or naming an emotion,
reading body cues, and labeling the feeling give one the ability to shape it—we
“name it to tame it” (Siegel, 2010a). Naming the emotions activates the PFC.
This self- regulation has been called “parenting yourself from the inside out”
(Siegel & Hartzell, 2003). Siegel (2007) has noted that intrapersonal attune-
ment, reading one’s own emotions and sensations, uses the same resonance
circuitry as interpersonal empathy. The skills of empathy for self and other are
central to emotional and social intelligence in adulthood.
Neurobiological maturity dovetails with the family systems concept of
differentiation (Bowen, 1978). Differentiation requires self- regulation, so one
can engage with others in a nonreactive, thoughtful, compassionate man-
ner without losing oneself, responding with heart and mind in a calm way
(McGoldrick & Carter, 2001). Differentiation involves integration of PFC
and limbic system, thought and feeling, left and right hemispheres, mind and
body, self and others. Differentiation is an ongoing developmental process,
not a state achieved at one time. Changing circumstances in the family, new
perspectives, and ongoing prefrontal development all provide challenges and
opportunities for further growth. Flexibility, aided by neuroplasticity, allows
for adaptation to new challenges in the family system and in one’s own life
course. Siegel (2010b) offers the image of navigating the “river of integration,”
Neurobiology and Family Processes 565
without landing on either the bank of rigidity or the bank of chaos. Research
on family functioning emphasizes the importance of ﬂexibility in couple and
family well-being and resilience (Walsh, 2003).
Flexibility in current relationships can be undermined when one
becomes reactive in an interpersonal encounter as old, implicit memories in
the amygdala are activated. The past can haunt an individual (and relation-
ships) in the present. Working through unﬁnished business with one’s family
of origin can liberate a person from the grip of these old patterns of reactiv-
ity. As myelination of the PFC continues through the mid-20s and beyond,
life experience combined with brain maturity allows an adult child to view
parents with a more sympathetic and curious perspective. “Waking from the
spell of childhood” (Fishbane, 2005, p. 550) enables one to see parents as
real people with their own strengths and limitations. Holding “interactional
awareness” (Byng-Hall, 2008) of parents’ experience and feelings as well as
one’s own, facilitates this shift. Using this perspective to invite parents to a
“loving update” of relationships (Fishbane, 2005) can be empowering and
transformative for both generations.
In this process, outdated, constraining narratives give way to new nar-
ratives of resilience and possibility. From a neurobiological perspective, a
transformative narrative integrates thoughts and feelings. Indeed, attachment
research has found that having a coherent narrative about one’s childhood,
incorporating the positives and the negatives, integrating both thought and
feeling, is predictive of having children with a secure attachment (Siegel,
2010b). Even when adults have had difﬁcult, painful childhoods, if they have
wrestled with past issues and come to a more integrative, differentiated inter-
generational perspective, they can parent well and create a secure bond with
INTIMATE COUPLE BONDS
Our need for connection with others is intensely expressed in adult love rela-
tionships. Neurobiology sheds light on many of the dynamics of adult love.
According to Fisher (2004), love relationships entail three separate stages, each
fueled by different brain chemicals, and each serving a different evolutionary
purpose. Lust is fueled by testosterone in both men and women. Romantic
love, which focuses on a speciﬁc person with great intensity, is associated with
dopamine and norepinephrine. And long-term couple attachment is fueled by
oxytocin and vasopressin. As Fisher points out, sometimes these systems work
against each other; for example, attachment neuromodulators may dampen
lust at times. Fisher, studying madly-in-love people in the fMRI machine as
they looked at a picture of their beloved, found that the brain circuits for this
state are the same as the addictive cocaine state: Love is a drug high. Studying
the recently jilted, she found that their brains ﬁre like those in withdrawal from
drugs. She points out that this romantic drug high can only last so long in the
brain; at some point (around 18 months or so into the relationship) it yields
566 ADVANCING FAMILY SYSTEMS RESEARCH AND PRACTICE
to a saner, more realistic approach to the partner. For many people, however,
the loss of the romantic high is interpreted to mean that one is with the wrong
partner, and that it is time to move on. The assumption that one “falls in love”
or “falls out of love” is a remarkably passive description, in which the lover
has no power or responsibility. Understanding the brain processes of romantic
love can facilitate a more mature and proactive way of loving. Nurturing pas-
sion in long-term relationships can be challenging, but is important. Touch,
massage, and sex all release oxytocin, the neurochemical that both facilitates
attachment and reduces cortisol, the stress hormone.
The power of intimate relationships to heal or to harm is enormous. The
strain of unhappy love relationships is associated with morbidity and mortal-
ity (Robles & Kiecolt- Glaser, 2003; Slatcher, 2010). Happy couples come to
look like each other over the years, as their facial muscles are co- sculpted
through ongoing synchrony with each other. The happier the relationship,
the more the partners resemble each other (Iacoboni, 2008). Holding a lov-
ing partner’s hand lessens the experience of physical pain (Coan, Schaefer,
& Davidson, 2006). Unhappy relationships, by contrast, can be deleterious
to health, as can loneliness (Kiecolt- Glaser & Newton, 2001; Cacioppo &
Patrick, 2008). Unhappy couples tend to dysregulate each other, setting each
other off in a “limbic tango” (Goleman, 1995). As each feels vulnerable, auto-
matic survival strategies are triggered (Scheinkman & Fishbane, 2004), fueled
by the amygdala’s ﬁght-or- ﬂight reaction.
Adult love entails an oscillation between connection– disconnection–
reconnection. Like well- attached parent– infant bonds, secure adult partner
attachments include many moments of out-of-sync experiences; what is key
in both cases is repair. Happy couples have conﬂict, but they repair well and
often (Gottman & Gottman, 2008; see Driver, Tabares, Shapiro, & Gottman,
Chapter 3, this volume). When reactive, with amygdala activation, partners
are unable to repair successfully. Using a time-out to calm down is essential
before beginning the repair process. Flooding, or DPA (diffuse physiological
arousal; heart rate over 100 beats per minute) interferes with the ability to
think clearly and solve problems (Gottman & Gottman, 2008).
The power of repair is crucial to successful relationships. Relational
wounds (Johnson, Makinen, & Milliken, 2001), when not addressed by the
couple, tend to fester and get retriggered over and over as the amygdala associ-
ates a current slight to an older, unprocessed wound in the relationship. The
normative need to be understood by one’s partner fuels repeated attempts to
get through to the partner about one’s pain. These attempts may misﬁre as the
wounded partner speaks in an angry, accusatory tone, leading to a defensive
response in the other. Learning to speak without attacking and to hear with-
out becoming defensive are key processes for successful relationships.
Empathy is key to repair. “Feeling felt” (Siegel & Hartzell, 2003) allows
one to relax, to be held by the partner emotionally, and to let down one’s
neurobiological guard. One mechanism for feeling felt is eye contact, which
activates the medial prefrontal and orbitofrontal cortex, among other areas
Neurobiology and Family Processes 567
(Senju & Johnson, 2008). Early in a relationship, as partners are falling in
love, each looks in the lover’s eyes and sees the self reﬂected back in a loving,
afﬁrming gaze. The mutual empathy of partners can soothe distress, an inter-
personal process of coregulation. While self- regulation and differentiation are
crucial in relational functioning, soothing each other is a powerful source
of well-being in happy couples (Greenberg & Goldman, 2008). The balance
between coregulation and self- regulation is part of the dynamic of a healthy
AGING BRAINS, AGING FAMILIES
Given that families change with the evolving developmental needs of their
members, it is good news that neuroplasticity can continue throughout the
life course. Even as young adults are navigating their new lives with changing
brains, their parents, in middle age and beyond, need to adjust their expec-
tations and behaviors accordingly. It can be difﬁcult for parents of young
adults to learn that their children no longer welcome advice or guidance unless
requested. Young adults want to be accepted by parents and are sensitive to
perceived criticism. Yet they often need emotional and ﬁnancial support, and
may even need to return home to live with parents in harsh economic times. At
this phase of family life, parents often ﬁnd that they have little leverage over
their adult children and need to mind their boundaries and their manners—a
delicate balancing act. Navigating relationships with adult children, sons- or
daughters-in-law, and grandchildren can be daunting for parents who have
been responsible for guiding their children’s entire development and ensuring
The aging brain is more resilient and capable of change than previously
thought. While there is cognitive and memory loss with age, the resilient
mature brain compensates—for example, using both hemispheres for a task
in which younger brains use one hemisphere. These adaptations in the aging
brain can foster greater integration and wisdom (Cozolino, 2008). Older adults
tend to approach problems in a more positive, integrative, and thoughtful
manner, achieving greater perspective (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008; Mather &
Carstensen, 2005). Emotion regulation and social processing—tasks involving
the middle PFC—often improve with age. “The taming of the amygdala may
be one of the primary gifts of aging and an important component of becom-
ing a wise elder” (Cozolino, 2008, p. 154). Thoughtfulness about the meaning
of one’s life and efforts to achieve “family integrity” (King & Wynne, 2004)
in intergenerational relationships are key processes in successful aging. This
focus on integration and meaning reﬂects the capacities of the mature brain
and can enhance well-being in the whole family.
Resilience, wisdom, and neuroplasticity in the aging brain are not guar-
anteed, however. Luck plays a role, as do genes and life circumstances; disease
or injury can limit neural capacity with aging. And lifestyle habits matter:
568 ADVANCING FAMILY SYSTEMS RESEARCH AND PRACTICE
Regular exercise, nutrition, and healthy habits in middle age can affect later
brain plasticity (Ratey, 2008; Strauch, 2010). Mental exercise and exposure
to new challenges also promote neuroplasticity, as does paying attention.
Whereas paying attention, modulated by the nucleus basalis, is the baby’s
natural state, for the older adult, attention needs to be more intentional.
Recall that the human brain is an anticipation machine, always predicting
what will happen based upon past experience; there is a pull for relying on old
habits in the adult brain as it ages. For the aging brain to keep growing and
adapting, it needs stimulation— cognitive, social, and emotional. Attention,
curiosity and a readiness for surprise prime the aging brain for adaptability
and change. Focus, new learning, and practice affect neuroplasticity: “Use it
or lose it” characterizes adult brain function. How we live affects our brain,
which in turn affects our life choices. Keeping vital, alert, socially connected,
and active, both cognitively and physically, enables neuroplasticity to ﬂourish
into old age.
For all the positive news of brain potential, there are undeniable losses
associated with aging. Memory and cognitive loss, even in the absence of
dementia, can have painful impacts on functioning and self- esteem. And
dementia rates rise with age. Loss of a spouse can be a traumatic blow that
affects the survivor’s health and longevity, and is a neurobiological challenge
as well, as the intimate environment to which the brain has adapted is lost
(Wexler, 2006). The loneliness of old age as partners, friends, and relatives die
can leave the older adult without the social supports so necessary for healthy
functioning. Losses due to illness can be debilitating for the whole family.
When an older adult is ill or experiences dementia, the primary caregiver in
the family, often a spouse or an adult daughter, can experience massive stress
that negatively affects the caregiver’s immune system (Kiecolt- Glaser, Dura,
Speicher, Trask, & Glaser, 1991). Yet old age and the challenges of caregiving
offer opportunities for care and repair in the multigenerational family system
(Walsh, 2011). Utilizing the care-and- connection system (Taylor, 2002) can
enhance the well-being of elders and their adult children,
IMPLICATIONS FOR CLINICAL WORK
Clients come to therapy to change, yet they may be ambivalent about change.
Neuroscience sheds light on this dynamic. Some difﬁculties with change stem
from neural wiring and the tenacity of habits. Understanding how habits or
behavioral ruts reﬂect—and reinforce— neural ruts enables therapists and cli-
ents to have more compassion for the challenges of change. In other language,
clients’ survival strategies, which have helped them navigate the world in the
past, may be interfering with current relationships (Scheinkman & Fishbane,
2004); but survival strategies are protective and deeply wired. Helping clients
build on their own strengths and addressing change in a collaborative manner
allows them to balance the stability of their familiar modes of coping with the
Neurobiology and Family Processes 569
ﬂexibility of new adaptations. Offering “neuroeducation” (Fishbane, 2008)
about the challenges of change and neuroplasticity in the adult brain can be
empowering. Maintaining new habits can be difﬁcult, as old habits tend to
reappear in times of stress. Therapists can normalize this and suggest that
overlearning and “massed practice” (Doidge, 2007) are often necessary for
new behaviors to become wired as the “new normal” in relationships. Thus,
neuroeducation can be used both to normalize setbacks and to offer hope and
a blueprint for change.
Emotional reactivity and power struggles can pose dilemmas in couple
and family therapy. Mutual escalation and blame often ignite quickly as fam-
ily members become dysregulated and resort to attacking or stonewalling
behavior. Partners in unhappy relationships may turn away from or against
each other rather than turning toward each other (Gottman & Driver, 2005;
see Driver et al., Chapter 3, this volume). This dynamic has neurobiological
underpinnings. According to the Polyvagal Theory (Porges, 2007), we auto-
matically assess for safety or danger with others. A sense of safety prompts
social engagement (turning toward); threat prompts turning against or turn-
ing away—ﬁght or ﬂight. The freeze response may be activated in situations
of extreme threat or trauma. It can be empowering to help clients identify
the neurobiological underpinnings of their reactive moments, to give them a
“peek inside” their own brains.
If couples or family members are caught up in a recursive pattern of
criticism– defense, with each becoming dysregulated, the therapist can help
them calm down, become more thoughtful about their own reactivity and
mutual escalation, and learn how to self- regulate when upset. Techniques such
as focused breathing, mindfulness meditation, naming one’s feeling with com-
passion, or holding a hand on one’s heart can soothe the agitated amygdala
and bring the PFC back online. Imagery work, such as picturing one’s own
PFC soothing one’s rowdy amygdala, promotes resilience in the face of inter-
personal upset (Fishbane, 2007). These techniques help family members
become more relationally competent and empowered, and less prone to power
struggles with each other (Fishbane, 2010, 2011).
For clients who become agitated and hyperaroused, or for those who shut
down and go to hypoarousal, expanding the “window of tolerance” for affect
(Fosha, 2000; Siegel, 2010b) is important. Learning to read and label one’s
own emotions is key; the PFC–limbic system circuit is activated in this pro-
cess. Likewise, learning to speak one’s needs respectfully in a relationship
is important. Therapists can encourage clients to “make a relational claim”
(Fishbane, 2001), in which they speak their needs while holding the needs of
their partner and of the relationship at the same time. These skills involve inte-
gration of PFC and limbic system, mind and body, left and right hemispheres,
and self and other. Siegel (2010b) considers these levels of integration key to
Helping family members listen to each other with empathy can be trans-
formative in mind and body, since empathy releases oxytocin, which reduces
570 ADVAN CING FAMILY SYSTEMS RESEARCH AND PRACTICE
cortisol, the stress hormone. The therapist can frame empathy as a skill that
can be learned. Indeed, empathic accuracy has been shown to increase with
motivation (Ickes et al., 2000). Clients who ﬁnd empathy difﬁcult can develop
this skill by learning to pay attention to their body cues, through guided
body visualizations and body scans (Kabat-Zinn, 1990; Siegel, 2010b), and
by explicit empathy- building exercises such as the speaker– listener technique.
Family members can also be encouraged to offer each other gentle hugs and
other forms of safe touch, which release oxytocin and lower the stress hor-
mone cortisol. Facilitating the care-and- connection system in the family offers
an antidote to cultural messages of competition and individualism that con-
tribute to reactivity and polarization in relationships.
Neuroscience points to our fundamentally social nature. Helping couples
and families to utilize the social contexts in which they are embedded and to
seek out additional social resources is key in therapy. The impact of poverty,
marginalization, racism, isolation, or violence can be devastating. The thera-
pist must use a wide lens to understand clients-in- context. Social support is
vital to mental and physical health; however, forms of social support may
differ culturally (Kim et al., 2008). Therapists must be attuned to clients’
cultural traditions, beliefs, and expectations in order to facilitate new adapta-
tions while building on resources and strengths within the family and larger
Therapy often challenges clients’ familiar modes of operating, beliefs, and
survival strategies. Deep internal or relational change—the work of therapy—
can feel at times like venturing into foreign territory. Learning new skills,
shifting perspectives, and changing constraining practices can feel disorient-
ing. The therapist’s respect, acceptance, and empathy ground this process of
transformation. For clients to work toward rewiring their brains, habits, and
relationships, they need to feel safe. It is imperative for the therapist to create
a shame-free, blame-free zone in the therapeutic setting (Fishbane, 2010), so
clients can risk the journey of change. When working with couples or families,
extending “multilateral partiality” (Boszormenyi-Nagy & Spark, 1973), con-
cern and care, to all of the individuals involved promotes safety and facilitates
change. To do therapy with the brain in mind, to participate in neurobiologi-
cal change, the therapist joins clients in the limbic zone, bringing prefrontal
thoughtfulness to the process of personal, relational, and contextual transfor-
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