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The Neuroscience of Love and Friendship

Our capacity for love and friendship is what sets us apart from all other species on this planet. Recently, researchers at the University of Virginia found that we humans are hardwired to empathize primarily with those we consider to be similar to ourselves, and that it happens on a neurobiological level. “Empathy,” became possible due to the evolution of a special part of the brain known as the Right Supramarginal Gyrus (RSMG).
In a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience on October 9, 2013, Max Planck researchers identified that we humans are inherently egocentric due to the strong influence of our more primitive limbic brain system. (The limbic system functions synergistically for the primary purpose of self-preservation).
On an evolutionary biology level, we humans later developed a neocortex which began to have more and more influence over our limbic system impulses. The RSMG, which is located at the junction of the temporal and parietal lobes, evolved a sophisticated way of allowing us to alter our perspective – to be able to perceive how others might be feeling.
Functionally, the RSMG recognizes when we are showing a lack empathy toward others -and then autocorrects. When the RSMG fails to function properly (when we are under a lot of stress, have to make decisions quickly, or are dealing with a total stranger who is unlike us), our ability to empathize easily evaporates.
In sum, the RSMG helps us to distinguish the difference between our own emotional state and that of others by overriding our limbic “brain” from focusing entirely on our own self-interests. Hence, the RSMG is the neurobiological origin of our ability to demonstrate empathy as well as our ability to show compassion. (A person who lacks this capacity is culturally labeled a “sociopath”).
Interestingly, our ability to “put ourselves in another person’s shoes” is dependent upon whether or not we perceive the other person to be a stranger, someone we know – or as someone who is similar to someone we know. *
Neuroscience research now tells us, that our brain’s organizational system – made possible by the influence of our neocortex- puts strangers in one category and people and patterns we recognize as “friendly” in another.
People in our social network – our “tribe”- literally become integrated into our sense of self on a neurological level – “us” and “them” literally become co-mingled – as experienced when we develop a strong affiliation and co-identity with a sports team.
The evolutionary reason for this cognitive ability arose from two more human “values”: The value of safety in numbers, and our biologically-driven desire to successfully pass on our genome to another generation.
Our RSMG activates -and overrides our limbic brain’s egocentric impulses when it recognizes people who are similar to us, and then triggers an inclusive attitude instead of a response which is entirely focused on our needs and desires. In other words, this is why we respond differently -on an emotional level- to a stranger, than we do a friend, family member or loved-one.
So, what does any of this have to do with the practice of health-centered dentistry? When we are working with relative strangers, we are working with them on a very different emotional level than when we are working with people whom we consider to be our friends, loved-ones, and part of our “tribe.” ( Gary Takacs illuminated this distinction when he talked about the difference between “rapport,” and “relationship” at the L.D. Pankey Alumni meeting last weekend). And because health-centered dentistry requires a high level of trust and collaboration, it‘s rarely successful without the establishment of a deeper and more mutually-meaningful,  relationship with each person first.
So, how do we do that?
Just study what Bob Barkley did, and how he did it, and you will discover all of the answers.
Please consider joining us in Chicago on April 3-4 to learn more about it. PM me for more details about this fascinating two-day workshop.
Paul A. Henny, DDS
*This is why we are ALL “racist” on a neurobiological level – a natural tendency which can only be overcome through greater development of our neocortex through education, exposure to different cultures, people, etc.
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