Interpersonal Neurobiology for Studying Healthy Minds

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Interpersonal neurobiology is essentially an interdisciplinary field which brings together many areas of science including but not limited to anthropology, biology, linguistics, mathematics, physics, and psychology to determine common findings of the human experience from different perspectives. Interpersonal neurobiology ultimately has brought such fields together to create a definition of the human mind and what the mind needs for maximum health.


Dr. Dan Siegal, a pioneer in the field of mental health, is known for his work on interpersonal neurobiology and is an expert on mindfulness. He completed his medical degree at Harvard University and post-graduate studies at UCLA to become a psychiatrist, with training in child, adolescent and adult psychiatry. He is a world-renowned author and educator, having lectured for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Pope John Paul II and the King of Thailand.

Defining the Mind Using Interpersonal Neurobiology

In the early 1990s, Dan Siegal found that despite being among psychiatrists and other professionals in mental health, no one really had a clear definition of mental health or even the mind. He came to define the mind by highlighting its relational underpinnings. In other words, we are who we are, as we are, in relation to one another. He posits that the mind is a relational process that essentially regulates the flow of energy, hence, the "interpersonal" of interpersonal neurobiology.

In his proclaimed audiobook, The Neurobiology of We, UCLA clinical professor of psychiatry Dan Siegal discusses how identity is not contained so much within an individual, but between individuals.

The Theory Behind Interpersonal Neurobiology

At its core, interpersonal neurobiology holds that we are ultimately who we are because of our relationships. Further, because the mind is defined as a relational process that regulates energy flow, our brains are constantly rewiring themselves. All relationships change the brain, particularly the most intimate ones, like the ones with our primary caregivers or romantic partners. While it was once thought that our early experiences defined who we are, interpersonal neurobiology holds that our brains are constantly being reshaped by new relationships.

Proving this theory correct is an experiment that demonstrates how a short-term dose of effective couples therapy, namely emotionally focused therapy, can change the way the brain responds to fear and threat. This is but one of many neuroimaging studies that demonstrate how the brain can change over time based on relationships and new experiences.

We are more social than we realize. Social pain is coded similarly in the brain to physical pain: Both forms of pain signal danger to our survival. Interpersonal neurobiology adds to the growing body of research that demonstrates just how social we are. Because interpersonal neurobiology stresses the importance of healthy relationships for a healthy mind, it also stresses the importance of taking good care of your connections with others.


Interpersonal neurobiology offers great hope to all trauma survivors, psychotherapists, psychiatrists, and their patients. Interpersonal neurobiology explores how the brain grows and changes based on relationships. Positive relationships beget positive changes, which yields healing for those who have suffered from trauma.

2 Sources
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  2. Sturgeon JA, Zautra AJ. Social pain and physical pain: shared paths to resiliencePain Manag. 2016;6(1):63-74. doi:10.2217/pmt.15.56

By Jenev Caddell, PsyD
 Jenev Caddell, PsyD, is a licensed psychologist, relationship coach, and author.