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Neuroscience confirms a truth at the core of our faith

Brain with funny labels showing our need for others

John Touhey | Aleteia

Cecilia Pigg - published on 09/05/23

Scientific studies are showing just how essential human interactions and relationships are to our health and feelings of fulfillment.

I thought of myself as a pretty wonderful person until I got married. When I was single, I was so empathetic, so sacrificial, and so kind (and very humble to boot, obviously). But, then slowly over my first few years of marriage, I started to see how self-centered, impatient, and prideful I could truly be.

When I could love other people at a time and place convenient to me, and then retire to my own space and my own interests, I seemed to be quite the generous gal. It’s hard to notice your own failings when you aren’t accountable to someone else. Most of the growth I’ve experienced in the past decade has happened in the context of my marriage and parenting.

Made for community

That shouldn’t be a surprise. Everything in our faith points to the fact that God made us for community — from the moment that God created Eve to His becoming flesh in a human family. And it turns out that research in neuroscience has been catching up to this fact, too.

I have been reading the book Wired to Connect by Amy Banks, and it has been fascinating to learn about studies that show how essential human interactions and relationships are to our health and feelings of fulfillment.

Monkey see, monkey neurons do

In the opening of the book, Banks discusses a 1998 study that wasn’t focused on human relationships at all, but on a certain region in the brains of monkeys. When a monkey reaches out to grab something, certain neurons fire in this region of its brain. One day in a lab, a researcher happened to reach for something while standing in front of a monkey. The monkey was motionless, but the same neurons fired in its brain that would have if the monkey had itself reached for an object. This surprising fact led the researcher and his team to study the phenomenon of mirroring.

It turns out that human beings also have mirror neurons. The research showed how very connected we are without even realizing it.

Created for connection

We are unconsciously imitating and picking up on everything the people around us do all the time. For a time, it was in vogue to believe that mental health and maturity required independence at all costs (including cutting ties with parents and family or creating strong, immovable boundaries), but Banks’ book points to the more current research that reveals our need for connectedness whether we realize it or not. It is how our brains are wired; how we were created.

That’s a very general summary of a very complex subject, but I also drew some personal conclusions from the book that I would like to share.

Investing in relationships

While relationships can sometimes be hard, investing more in my everyday relationships will help me more than avoiding them. The beauty of my marriage is that it propels me into a relationship that helps me grow with numerous daily, built-in challenges and opportunities.

Of course, there remain many times when I would prefer to avoid interaction rather than doing the work of engaging – in my marriage and with others. The simplified lesson here is that science has caught up with the way God created us. Our Creator made us to love other people; we were made for connectedness.

When I choose not to phone a grandparent, when I avoid making eye contact with the casual acquaintance walking towards me on the street, or when I decide that pile of dirty dishes is more pressing than listening to my husband’s newest insights into world politics – I am resisting my God-given need for connection.

Instead, when I take the time to stop and visit a neighbor for a few minutes, when I make that afternoon cup of coffee for my loved one or when I stop and engage with that homeless person on the corner, I am doing what I was made for.

Personal GrowthRelationshipsScience
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