Sarah Peyton, one of Susan Skye’s students and mentees, speaks about the New Depths process and related neuroscience topics. Enjoy these fascinating out-takes from Sarah’s 70-minute video interview with Edwin Rutsch of the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy exploring Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB) and Nonviolent Communication (NVC). Sarah shares this brief introduction illuminating how needs-based communication (NVC) and IPNB integrate empathy and resonance with an understanding of the brain for sustainable change that feels good. Below is a summary of some of the fascinating information she shares in her conversation with Edwin.
IPNB is the name Daniel Siegel has given to this very new confluence where the knowledge of cognitive neuroscience, social neuroscience, child development research, attachment research, psychology, psychiatry, and even complexity theory are now informing one another. Together they create a deeply powerful tapestry of understanding about how we human beings function neurologically, physiologically, intellectually, emotionally, and socially.
This new, integrated understanding transforms our ability to identify and resolve significant health and emotional difficulties that in the past we couldn’t really heal very well. For example, we understand now that many digestive problems arise from the constant stress and anxiety that’s so common in our modern life, or from unresolved childhood pain, that keeps our emotional and physiological alarm system turned on all the time. In fact, this is what stress IS — when our emotional and physiological alarm system is constantly being restimulated, rather than just being activated once in a great while, like it was designed to be. Now that we know this, we can go right in and identify what is causing our day-to-day stress and heal that childhood pain, with a kind of emotional microsurgery that creates not only a felt sense of relief, but actual changes in our how our brains and body are working. When our emotional alarm system can finally calm down, not just in the moment but overall, our brains and bodies are able to work the way they were designed to again: our capacity to make well-considered, wise choices that serve our well-being — even when we’re in difficult circumstances — is restored, and our bodies stop producing the adrenaline and inflammation that we’ve discovered are the cause of most of the major illnesses we see, from anxiety and depression to heart disease, arthritis, and stroke. Here is just one small example of the research findings that have illuminated this new territory for us: Matthew Lieberman at UCLA connected people to an MRI machine and then showed them pictures of people expressing extreme negative emotion. He discovered that just looking at those pictures not only made people’s emotional alarm centers go off, but it also took their prefrontal cortices (PFC) offline. (The PFC is the part of our brain that takes and integrates all the information from our left hemisphere “thinking/detail/past/future” brain and our right hemisphere “body/feeling/being/global/present-moment” brain. This integration of all that we know enables us to respond wisely to whatever’s happening, in ways that genuinely contribute to our own and others’ well-being. You can think of our PFC as our “Wise I.” When our PFC is offline, our ability to perceive events accurately and to make decisions that really serve us goes down dramatically.) So, when we are merely viewing still pictures of people who are upset, there is an automatic, hard-wired, neurological and physiological “emotional alarm system” that is triggered in our brains that actually stops our stops our PFC from working. When Lieberman had the research subject name the person in the picture, or identify that person’s gender, nothing changed — the emotional alarm system stayed on, and the PFC stayed off line. But when the observing person named the emotion they were seeing (“that’s terror,” “that’s rage”), the neurological reaction went down by half, and their PFC started to come back online again. Just from naming the emotion. (Tabibnia, G. T., Lieberman, M. D., & Craske, M. G. (2008). The lasting effect of words on feelings: Words may facilitate exposure effects to threatening images. Emotion, 8, 307-317.) This gives us just a tiny glimpse into the power of empathy to alter the ways our brains and our bodies function. The other thing that happens with empathy is that we’re really capturing a resonant understanding of ourselves or one another, and that’s what creates the most calming effect on our nervous system and maintains our brains capacity to function in the ways we really want. The sense of being deeply “gotten,” of really being understood, transforms our lives from being run by panic and anxiety, into a sustained, relaxed state where we’re actually able to stay calm and effective when circumstances get difficult, and where we get to be creative and expressive and available to each other for wonderful, authentic connections. And what’s really exciting is that we can even provide this for ourselves, because witnessing our own upsets with deep understanding and compassion also works to heal our brains.