Wellbeing and the power of relationships11 min read

Understanding how we grow and develop highlights the conditions that promote wellbeing – and what to do when things go wrong.

When you stop and think about it, human beings are incredible. We continue to grow, adapt, and develop from infancy through to old age – across the whole span of our lives. And despite the claim that there’s no such thing as society, we’re profoundly social creatures. Our lives are influenced and shaped – from the moment we’re born until the moment we die – by our relationships with other people and by the social context we’re born into.  As we learn more about how humans grow and develop, from childhood into adolescence and beyond, we’re gaining a better understanding of the conditions that allow us to flourish and the factors that impair our wellbeing. And the best thing?  We have the power to heal and transform ourselves.

Relationships, brains and the origins of distress

In a recent survey, an astonishing two-thirds of British people reported experiencing mental health problems [1]. We know factors like poverty, bullying, poor health, discrimination, unemployment, financial insecurity, and disability can severely affect wellbeing; so too can a loss of hope in the future and toxic cultural narratives. But another critical factor in mental health and wellbeing is our experience of relationships. Because, although we often think of ourselves as standalone individuals, the relationships we have with other people and the world around us can have a huge impact on whether we thrive or just survive.

Neuroscience has begun to explain how our brains and wider nervous systems are shaped by interpersonal relationships – in fact, relationships lie at the heart of the process that led to you becoming you and me becoming me. We’re learning how harmful interpersonal experiences can contribute to a whole range of difficulties, from low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety, through to the most severe types of trauma and psychosis. But, we’ve also discovered that the brain has incredible recuperative qualities – neuroplasticity – that can be harnessed to heal, renew and bring about a transformation in our sense of self.

Phineas Gage and the accident that changed the world

Neuroscience is a relatively new discipline and, until recently, our understanding of the brain’s role in human behaviour has been largely inferred from the impact of brain injuries. This link between brain and behaviour was first formally recognised following a single and shocking event, back in 1848.

Phineas Gage, an ordinary, everyday American labourer, was working at the heart of America’s railroad revolution. On an ordinary day, under a cloudless Vermont sky, Gage sustained a traumatic brain injury when an accidental explosion sent an iron rod rocketing through his head. Although much of his brain’s left frontal lobe was destroyed, Gage incredibly survived the accident. But he wasn’t unscathed. As a result of the accident, Phineas Gage – the mild-mannered family man – was transformed into a disinhibited social nuisance who caused trouble wherever he went. Gage’s transformation inspired scientists to explore the brain’s role in human behaviour, and we can truly say his accident has changed the world.

So what have we learned?

Our brains are incredibly sophisticated, split into two connected hemispheres and comprised of three distinct but inter-connected parts: (1) the evolutionarily-old brainstem (which maintains vital biological functions), (2) the limbic system (our emotion- and memory-processing centre), and (3) the multi-lobe cerebral cortex (the seat of higher functions like abstract thought, language, information-processing, and perhaps consciousness).

A typical human brain is comprised of an astonishing hundred billion cells called neurons, each forming an intricate and extensive neural network with around hundred trillion neural connections.  In comparison, worms have a meagre twenty-three neurons. Neurons communicate via electrical signals that are carried by chemical neurotransmitters like dopamine, endorphin and serotonin.  Sound familiar?  That’s perhaps because neurotransmitters are not only known to generate experiences like happiness, but neurotransmitter imbalances have also been implicated in a range of mental health problems.

As a part of the central nervous system, the brain is responsible for:

• regulating our endocrine and immune systems
• relaying sensory information
• coordinating movement
• learning
• activating and deactivating the stress-response system
• encoding and retrieving memories
• mobilising our fight or flight response, and returning us to a state of calm when a threat has passed
• ensuring our needs for food, sex, shelter, sleep and safety are met
• expressing our emotional responses

Our brains give us the ability to empathise and connect with others; to communicate and use language; to make and enact plans; to anticipate and imagine the future; to think in abstract terms; to appreciate art and music; to reflect on our thoughts; and much more besides. Without our brains, we’d have no consciousness, sense of self, morality or free will. This isn’t to say that every thought or behaviour is reducible to what happens in the brain. And it doesn’t mean I think therefore I am, as philosopher René Descartes would have us believe, because we’re more than just our brains. But they’re important. Hugely.

During the past thirty years, with the emergence of brain-imaging technologies, neuroscientists have revealed that our brains are in a constant state of growth, adaptation, assimilation and change because we’re continually interacting with the physical and social world. So it makes no sense to think of the brain – or the self – in isolation from our relationships and the world we live in. Instead, our humanity emerges precisely and only because our embodied brains interact with the world and the people around us.

Our genetic inheritance plays a part, as you might expect, and we’re hard-wired to have the human-type brains described above. But that’s only a part of the story.  Our brains are continually re-wired by our physical activities in the world, like learning a new skill or choosing to step outside you’re home, despite severely disabling agoraphobia. Even our thoughts and emotional responses can restructure our brains, something we’ll be looking to harness further on. And, of course, social context and interpersonal relationships are a powerful – perhaps the most powerful – influences on our ongoing neural development.

So, why should relationships be so powerful?

The power of relationship

Human babies are essentially born premature and, because we’re not born ready made and ready to go, we need our parents and caregivers to provide ongoing developmental support, from infancy through to adolescence. Our brains and nervous systems are surprisingly under-developed at birth, and this explains why we’re dependent on our parents or caregivers for far longer than any other species.  Following birth, the first nine months of a baby’s life sees rapid neurological development.  During this time, the mother or caregiver’s love, care and affection have a direct and fundamental role in the baby’s neurological development.  Dad’s love is, of course, important – but mum is the centre of the baby’s universe [2].

As incredible as it may sound, our brains are physically shaped, constructed and re-constructed by the experiences we have in infancy and beyond. Every experience impacts upon the infant’s brain development as new neural connections are continually created, destroyed and rewired as neurons ‘fire and wire’ together.  We also know that the way our brains develop in infancy, childhood and adolsecence will shape our personalities and thus the lives we go on to live [3] .

As we grow from infancy into childhood and adolescence, we begin to interact with other people, the physical environment, and with the myriad forces, traditions, texts, ideas, languages, symbols, and structures that shape our culture and society. From this continually interacting process, we come to have both a conceptual and an emotional understanding of ourselves, of what other people are like, and of the world we live in.  We can think of this model of the self, others, and the world as an internal working model [4].  Whether operating at a conscious, conceptual, emotional or pre-conscious level, internal working models shape our expectations of what the world and other people are like; this also frames how we relate to other people, how we behave, the decisions and choices we make, and ultimately the lives we live.

Many parents and caregivers are able to provide positive interpersonal interactions and developmental support, and this creates a virtuous circle that fosters healthy brain-development and helps us develop the capabilities we need to live rich and full lives.  This cultivates healthy personal-development, helps us integrate into secure interpersonal relationships, and leaves us with a sense that the world’s a good and safe place, other people are reliable and trustworthy, and that we are eminently capable, worthwhile and loveable.

However, when parents are unable to provide optimal developmental support and infants and children aren’t nurtured with love, care and affection, things tend not to go so well.  Parental neglect, over-involvement, abuse, stress and traumatic childhood events like bereavement can seriously harm brain-development [5]. This can inhibit our personal development, hampering our ability to form relationships with other people, and undermining our emotional, psychological and physical wellbeing. The world and other people can feel not just unsafe but positively dangerous, and we can feel helpless and unable to do anything about it. It can be a hopeless place to find yourself.

Even the seemingly benign experience of conditional parental love, where the child is only loved and accepted when she obeys a certain set of rules, can cause unintended harm. These conditions of worth can leave the child unable to express herself fully, and this can lead to anxiety, sadness, rage, fear, depression, defensiveness, distrust and anger. Of course, children are extremely creative and can adjust and adapt to adverse and stressful environments; but, by the time we each adulthood, these creative adjustments may prevent us from living rewarding and fulfilling lives.

Alongside challenging family situations, emerging evidence tells us that intolerable social experiences like bullying and discrimination not only cause emotional and psychological pain, but also harm brain-function – while of course causing significant harm to the person as well [6]. Although we’re told that sticks and stones may break your bones but names will never hurt you, words can be devastating.  And not just for children and adolescents.  Discrimination, prejudice and bullying are as toxic and damaging for adults as for anyone else.

So, instead of a virtuous circle, harmful interpersonal or social experiences tend to create a vicious circle that perpetuates harm and limits the horizons of our everyday experience. As you’d expect, this can lead to the kind of withdrawal we label ‘depression’, the fearful worry and unease we call ‘anxiety’, and an array of problems around anger, drugs, food, sex and self-harm.   And all of this without mentioning trauma and psychosis, both of which really deserve far more care and attention than I can devote here [7].

The processes I’ve described are, of course, far more complex than can be accurately captured in a short article.  However, this gives you the gist of what goes on and how our problems in living are often rooted in our experiences of social and interpersonal relationships. And that’s important for two reasons – it first dispels the myth that the problems we live with are purely personal and rooted in some kind of individual dysfunction that’s completely unrelated to our life experiences. And secondly, it prompts us to look at other factors when thinking about wellbeing, whether the quality of our relationships, the scope of our capabilities, our sense of belonging – or otherwise – in the world around us.  And with this knowledge comes a pathway for enduring change.


[1]  Mental Health Foundation, ‘Surviving or Thriving: The State of Mental Health in the UK’ (2017); downloaded on May 12th, 2017 from https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/sites/default/files/surviving-or-thriving-state-uk-mental-health.pdf

[2]  This is true in western cultures, although there appears to be a diffusion of attachment in more communal societies See, for example, Naomi Quinn and Jeannette Marie Mageo (Eds.) (2013), Attachment Reconsidered: Cultural Perspectives on a Western Theory

[3]  Sue Gerhardt (2004), Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain. Routledge: London.

[4]  John Bowlby (1988). A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. Routledge: London.

[5]  Very few parents intentionally set out to harm their children. Where parents are unable to provide the optimal level of developmental support, this typically points to a lack of ability rather than a lack of willingness. Further, we learn to parent as a result of our own experience of parenting – if we were inadequately parented as children by our own parents, we will likely replicate the same parenting strategies when our own time comes. In turn, our own parents learned how to parent from their parents, thus we can see how sub-optimal parenting can be transmitted across the generations, a phenomena known as poisonous pedagogy.

[6]  Vaillancourt T, Duku E, deCatanzaro D, MacMillan H, Muir C, et al., ‘Variation in hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity among bullied and non-bullied children’ in Aggressive Behavior. 34: 294-305 (2008). See Also Vaillancourt T, Hymel S, McDougall P., ‘The biological underpinnings of peer victimization: Understanding why and how the effects of bullying can last a lifetime’ in Theory into Practice. 52: 241-248 (2013).

[7]  This is, of course, an incredibly complex – and contentious – subject, and I’ll write about it in far more detail elsewhere. A single line is just not enough.

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