Interpersonal neurobiology

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Interpersonal neurobiology (IPNB) or relational neurobiology is an interdisciplinary framework associated with human development and functioning. It was developed in the 1990s by Daniel J. Siegel who sought to bring together a wide range of scientific disciplines in demonstrating how the mind, brain, and relationships integrate to alter one another. In IPNB, the mind is viewed as a process that regulates the flow of both energy and information through its neurocircuitry, which is then shared and regulated between people through engagement, connection, and communication.[1] Drawing on systems theory, Siegel proposed that these integrated processes within interpersonal relationships can shape the genetically programmed maturation of the nervous system.[2] Seigel thus believes that the mind has an irreducible quality which informs his approach.[2]

Interpersonal neurobiology also proposes that there is a substantial impact of interpersonal experiences on brain development during early developmental years.[3][4] Siegel assumes that disruptions to the continuity, presence, and availability of the caregiver result in attachment disorders that manifest as physical changes[5][6] in the neural structures that shape the perception of reality.[7] The claim is that this can influence one's emotional intelligence, complexity of behaviours, and flexibility of responses later in life.[5] IPNB is thereby argued to be a 'cause and effect' systematic interaction between genetic composition and social experiences influencing neurobiological and psychological functioning.[8][9]


At the University of California[when?] Siegel gathered a range of academics from disciplines anthropology, physics, neuroscience, sociology, linguistics, genetics, psychiatry, and more.[10] At this meeting, he argued that contemporary understanding of the 'mind’ and the effect of social relationships on brain development/functioning was underdeveloped.

More generally, at the time there was, and there continues to be, no agreement as to what mind means. The oldest and still common appeal is to Hippocrates text On the Sacred Disease which refers to the mind as ‘brain activity.’ This definition has been argued to be inadequate by some sociologists, linguists, and anthropologists who have argued that the mind also happens between us, not just within us/our heads.[11] Such positions are controversial, and neuroscientists and physicians have ridiculed the absurdity of this relational view of mind instead proposing that all our thoughts and feelings, and therefore our mind, are an outcome of brain activity.[11] This is the standard view in line with William James’ 1890 text Principles of Psychology.[11] However, Siegel argued that because developmental studies of child attachment relationships demonstrated that severed child relationships with parents could impede growth, sometimes even causing death, as first described in Sigmund Freud's 1927 text The Question of Lay Analysis,[12] a more expansive view was warranted.[11]

In disputing the cross-disciplinary working definition of the mind, Siegel proposed instead that the mind is an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information.[2] Over the next four and half years Siegel and those who agreed with him began to construct a framework of interpersonal neurobiology.

Other academics who have also contributed to the concept of IPNB are:


The Brain-Mind-Relationship or Triangle of Well-being concept in IPNB intends to demonstrate how the mind and social interactions shape the neural connections of the brain. Each aspect interacts with the others to create continuous feedback loops, resembling the open system of the mind, brain, and relationships that continually respond to new experiences through neuroplasticity.[13]

Brain and Body[edit]

Like other Mind-Body-Relationship models, IPNB sees the brain and body intimately connected. Indeed, there are multiple "brains" within the body, in terms of neural collections. The human gut has approximately 100,000,000 neurons ("gut brain"), which are connected to other neural networks and the "brain in the skull". Stephen Porges' Polyvagal theory describes how the vagus nerve system is central to connecting neural networks throughout the body.[14]

Siegel's hand model of the brain attempts to simplify the complexity of brain formation in emphasizing interaction between the brainstem, limbic systems (hippocampus and amygdala) and middle prefrontal cortex, thus, brain-mind-relationships.

Close proximity between the Limbic System (Hippocampus & Amygdala) and Brainstem
  • Brainstem: A major role of the brainstem involves regulation. This mediation of the autonomic nervous system (including the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system) controls our homeostasis of heart rate, breathing, hunger, and rest, as well as our fight/flight/freeze/faint responses to perceived threats, and more.
  • Hippocampus: The hippocampus is the best recognised memory structure in the brain. It is notably associated with explicit and declarative memory and begins development at approximately 18 months of age.
  • Amygdala: The amygdala primarily processes implicit memories, emotional responses, and decisions. Key to emotional responses is its mediation of fear, rapidly absorbing and analysing information faster than conscious awareness to potentially trigger a flight/fight response through the brain stem.
  • Prefrontal Cortex: Within the prefrontal cortex of the brain is the middle prefrontal region, including the orbitofrontal cortex, medial frontal gyrus and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. These areas are responsible for higher functioning abilities of abstract ideas/thoughts, reasoning/thinking, and planning ahead. The area has also been linked to regulation of the autonomic-nervous system, social cognition, morality, and self-awareness.[10]

Due to the close proximity of the middle-prefrontal cortex, the brainstem, and limbic systems of the amygdala and hippocampus, Siegel argued that it was the integration of these areas via the prefrontal cortex that controlled nine essential neurobiological and interpersonal functions,[10] including:

  • Body regulation
  • Attuned communication
  • Emotional Balance
  • Response Flexibility
  • Fear Modulation
  • Empathy
  • Insight
  • Moral Awareness
  • Intuition


In IPNB, the mind is the embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information both within and between brains.[7] The term mind in the Triangle of Human Existence has been broken down further into the Four Facets of Mind: (2019)

  • Subjective experience - one's respective perception and felt texture of life
  • Consciousness - the experience of knowing or being aware, and the knowledge that we are aware.[11]
  • Information Processing - the same way a computer collects, stores, uses, and produces information, the mind processes energy patterns symbolising a cascade of entities in which this information is accessed and used for other mental activities.
  • Self-Organisation - when the parts of a complex system differentiate and then link, regulating the flow of energy and information of its own emergence. A failure of self-organisation causes a chaotic or rigid unfolding of events.[11] In the case of IPNB, amidst encountering adverse circumstances, individuals spiralled into chaotic/rigid cycles.


In epigenetics, psychological development can occur through bi-directional interchange between heredity and environment, with our surrounding culture and environment influencing one's personality.[15][16] IPNB furthers epigenesis, exclaiming that the firing of neurons from variant experiences/relationships can alter regulatory molecules that control gene expression, thus shaping the activity and structure of neural circuits.[17] Neural networks associated with negative affect experiences develop thicker axons and more dendrites, which allow for this affect to effect behaviour faster and more intensely than information coming from the prefrontal cortex.[18] Neural networks associated with positive affect experiences are believably not as well retained and impactive in the brain due to its lacking importance for survival.[19] Negative experiences in IPNB are then presumably "super highways" of neural connections between the amygdala, and brainstem, which are easily reinforced through mental repetition and attentional bias.[20] From which such human connections can create and shape neural connections, the mind emerges.[21] IPNB argues this directly alters processes of memory, emotion, and self-awareness within the limbic system. This is problematic in developing unfavourable chemical imbalances and neural structural changes associated with depression, anxiety, etc.


Siegel refers to integration as the process of linking differentiated parts into a functional whole. In IPNB, integration is the linked energy and information flow between relationships, and the brain and mind. IPNB deems that interpersonal relationships early in life may shape the neural structures that create representations of experience, allowing a coherent view of the world.[7] Relationships thereby may facilitate or inhibit the integration of a holistic, coherent experience. Using a MEG, connectome harmonics reveals how the brain functions by waves of electrical activity that recruit a range of differentiated regions into a harmonising.[7][22][23] If integration becomes impaired, potentially though poor infant-caregiver relationships, IPNB asserts individuals may fall into 'chaotic' or 'rigid' patterns of behaviour, possibly explaining why development is 'stunted' in such individuals.

Domains of Potential Integration[edit]

In IPNB, Siegel believes there are nine domains of integration imperative for brain health:

  1. Consciousness – differentiating the knowing from the knowns of what we are aware of.
  2. Bilateral – the differentiated functions of the left and right hemispheres.
  3. Vertical – linking the body’s signals and the lower neural regions of the brainstem and limbic area to the higher cortical regions.
  4. Memory – linking the differentiated elements of implicit memory to the autobiographical and factual experience of explicit memory.
  5. Narrative – making sense of memory and experience such that one finds meaning in events that have occurred.
  6. State – respecting the differentiated states of mind that make up the wide array of clusters of memory, thought, behaviour, and action that are the nature of our multi-layered selves.
  7. Interpersonal – honouring one another’s inner experience and linking in respectful communication.
  8. Temporal – the capacity to represent ‘time’ or change in life and reflect on this ‘passage of time’ (e.g. life versus death).
  9. Identity – the sense of agency and coherence potentially associated with feelings of belonging.

Impact on Attachment and Development[edit]

In attachment theory and developmental psychology, interpersonal neurobiology demonstrates how integrative experiences can promote or prune the growth of integrative fibres in the brain.[7] At birth, an infant’s brain is not fully developed, being approximately 25% the volume of an adults brain in its first year and 75% in its second year.[24][25] This underdevelopment thereby allows the environment to contribute towards development, with the subcortical areas in the brain experiencing rapid growth in the first 6 months.[8] Mirror neurons promote this development, as they fire both when one sees an intentional act in someone else and then when they perform that same action, "mirroring" the behaviour of the other. Mirror neurons also stimulate internally what you see someone else feeling.[10] In which mirror neurons are trained through Hebbian learning, the simultaneous activation of cells leads to pronounced increases in synaptic strength between those cells, meaning "cells that fire together, wire together."[26] In IPNB, infants and children learn emotions like happiness and sadness from their relationships with and mirroring of their primary caregivers. The attuned communication of the caregiver being empathetic and presenting their emotional availability to the infant shapes their emotional development, both verbally and nonverbally.[27] The caregivers reactions to emotions also become the way the child understands which emotions are acceptable, with the child's future relationships possibly being contingent upon the infant caregiver relationship.[28] However, regions including the prefrontal cortex develop into the third decade of life, with basic emotional regulation not being an overly reliant factor on the caregiver.[8]

Growing up in stressful dysfunctional family environments or experiencing extreme social isolation can thereby atrophy the 'emotional' areas of the brain (e.g., prefrontal cortex and limbic system).[8][29] For example, toxic parent-child attachments involving arguments, verbal/physical abuse, and regular anger severely impairs the child's sense of agency, coherence, and affectivity in interactions with others.[5] Parents with unresolved personal issues may also arguably be able to project these emotions onto their children. Internally, the elevated neurotoxic cortisol in the limbic region that coincides with suboptimal attachment experiences can kill neurons and alter genes in the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis (HPA), which controls stress hormone release. The regulatory molecules that control gene expression can be changed by stress, leading to the accelerated pruning and restructuring of neural networks increasing one's latent vulnerability to attachment and mental disorders.[10] Altogether, depending on the healthiness of infant-caregiver relationship, distinct attachment styles identified in the clinical observation, Strange Situation, will be wired within the child, including secure attachment, anxious-ambivalent attachment, and anxious-avoidant/dismissive-avoidant attachment. Children lacking a secure attachment with their caregiver a more prone to mental illnesses. For example, Siegel asserts that there are too few inhibitory fibres connecting from the middle prefrontal cortex downward to the amygdala in people with bipolar disorder. So, as an 8-year-old, if you have 900 fibers going down to your amygdala to calm it down, and you need 600 to make it work well, with 900 you are fine.[10] But during the pruning process of adolescence, if a child is subject to high stress levels (as well as probably being genetically induced) and half the inhibitory fibres are pruned, he/she will experience symptoms (like mood swings) due to this restructuring of neural networks.

This also indicates the cross generational challenge of handling stress, as parents with a previous anxious infant-caregiver attachment can unknowingly pass on this attachment style to their own children. Due to the plasticity of the brain not being limited to early development years, effective therapy may be able to create new neuronal connections and neural nets associated with better regulations of emotions and attuned communication, allowing the fostering of better interpersonal relationships.

Applications to practice[edit]

Although there is a lack of empirical research on the in-depth application of interpersonal neurobiology, various IPNB-informed studies suggest its benefit for a range of fields.


Miller et al. 2016[edit]

This study used an IPA framework in evaluated the potential improvements of counsellors clinical practice after learning IPNB in a one-year course. In summary, the counsellors recognised IPNB in facilitating both personal and professional development. Their personal development involved an increase in compassion, empathy, and acceptance towards self and others. They also reported increased self-awareness, presence in relationships with others, and confidence in their own intuitive sense as clinicians, all in which have been proven critical characteristics for effective counselling practice.[30] The majority of participants noted movement toward more secure attachments, allowing them to go deeper with clients.[30] They also noted becoming more aware of reactions to clients that were due to their own personal histories, allowing them to respond more accurately to clients’ needs rather than their own needs. IPNB's perspective on experiences influencing brain development and then the mind helped participants see individuals’ struggles in a less “pathological” manner.[30] This shift in understanding clients’ struggles was deemed likely to improve the empathy and thus, interpersonal relationship and selected interventions between practitioner and client.

The subjective nature of the IPA framework and small sample size of participants (n=6) limits the reliability and validity of the study, and hence, effectiveness of IPNB. Participants also had relatively homogenous gender and ethnic characteristics, suggesting IPNB benefits being potentially invalid for differing identities.

Meyer et al. 2013[edit]

Meyer, et al. (2013) addresses interpersonal neurobiology through the biological and interpersonal processes occurring within infant/caregiver relationships, and what this development of the nature vs nurture debate implicates for counsellors. First, counsellors are encouraged to uptake a holistic approach to practice incorporating natural and nurturing influences, such as viewing the emotions learned from one’s caregivers in relation to current psychological functioning. Counsellors may also measure constructs like affect regulation to understand a patient's emotional development and relate it to the state of integrative fibres in the prefrontal cortex and limbic system.[8] Implementing IPNB concepts of attachment into the counselling relationship was also recommended so that a secure attachment between counsellor and client can be formed and the client can reconstruct new healthy affect patterns in a safe environment.[8] This is claimed to be implemented through the counsellors attuned communication, emotional mirroring, and empathy. IPNB's perspective on early development also recognises client issues may reflect patterns developed during infancy.[8] Counsellors are thereby advised to determine what emotional patterns are presently effective and ineffective for the client and attempt the neural rewiring of healthy patterns.


Badenoch and Cox, 2013[edit]

Badenoch and Cox's (2013) text shares their experience of integrating interpersonal neurobiological aspects into the group therapy process. Firstly, it claims the increased empathetic and mindful awareness between therapist and group members through a thorough understanding of IPNB perspective on the brain and mind. They argue this mindful awareness of the self and others assists the integration between prefrontal cortex and limbic regions, enhancing emotional regulation and sense of confidence, followed by increased compassion.[31] This reported calmness provides a seemingly safer energy in the room, allowing a larger range of deep experiences to emerge in the group. Infant-caregiver relationships in IPNB is also utilised in allowing patients to recognise previously believed 'character flaws' may actually be indicative of neurobiological issues in development, which claims to decrease shame and heighten self-compassion. Information on neuroplasticity suggesting the potential to 'rewire' unhealthy neural pathways is also noted to have alleviated longstanding struggles within the group.

An implicit memory activity developed by Siegel, involving the recalling of a recent pleasant experience e.g. "playing frisbee with my dog in the park last Sunday," and noticing how you're feeling in the body afterwards was also supposedly effective in the group therapy.[31] Reminiscing the feeling of the positive experience allowed the patients to be more in-touch with their emotions and slowly strengthen their emotional control. Understanding these different types of memories and emotions may enable a group therapist to see people entering group with greater clarity and to discern the patterns of implicit memory in the movement or sensations of the body.[31] It may also allow group therapists to maintain therapist-patient connection.


Page, L. 2006[edit]

Page's (2006) journal illustrates the application of IPNB concepts into leadership/management in constituting organisational change. Page states the mindful and social awareness IPNB-informed teachings can induce may allow more collaborative, contingent communication, allowing others to 'feel felt.'[32] Page then believes this attuned communication and energy is then imitated and mirrored by employees. Over time, neural, mental, and behavioral patterns become engrained within the organisation, encouraging employees to take on the challenge of distributed leadership, enhancing individual and organizational complexity.[32]


  1. ^ Clinton, Tim; Sibcy, Gary (June 2012). "Christian Counseling, Interpersonal Neurobiology, and the Future". Journal of Psychology and Theology. 40 (2): 141–145. doi:10.1177/009164711204000211. ISSN 0091-6471. S2CID 141499141.
  2. ^ a b c "The developing mind: how relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are". Choice Reviews Online. 50 (2): 50–1164-50-1164. 2012-10-01. doi:10.5860/choice.50-1164. ISSN 0009-4978.
  3. ^ Bowlby, John. (2 December 2008). Attachment and loss. ISBN 978-1-4070-7132-9. OCLC 1005519675.
  4. ^ Schore, Allan N. (December 1997). "Early organization of the nonlinear right brain and development of a predisposition to psychiatric disorders". Development and Psychopathology. 9 (4): 595–631. doi:10.1017/s0954579497001363. ISSN 0954-5794. PMID 9448998.
  5. ^ a b c Ng, Sharon Joy (2017-08-04). "Developmental Interpersonal Neurobiology, Attachment Style and Mindsight". Psychology and Cognitive Sciences - Open Journal. 3 (3): e9–e13. doi:10.17140/pcsoj-3-e007. ISSN 2380-727X.
  6. ^ Lipton, Bruce H. (2012). Spontaneous evolution : our positive future (and a way to get there from here). Hay House. ISBN 978-1-4019-2631-1. OCLC 866088900.
  7. ^ a b c d e SIEGEL, DANIEL J. (2020). DEVELOPING MIND : how relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. GUILFORD. ISBN 978-1-4625-4275-8. OCLC 1113408719.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g Meyer, Dixie; Wood, Sara; Stanley, Bethany (April 2013). "Nurture Is Nature: Integrating Brain Development, Systems Theory, and Attachment Theory". The Family Journal. 21 (2): 162–169. doi:10.1177/1066480712466808. ISSN 1066-4807. S2CID 10449229.
  9. ^ Griffin, William A.; Greene, Shannon M. (2013-10-28). Models Of Family Therapy. doi:10.4324/9780203727584. ISBN 9780203727584.
  10. ^ a b c d e f Codrington, Rebecca (September 2009). "A Family Therapist's Look Into Interpersonal Neurobiology and the Adolescent Brain: An Interview With Dr Daniel Siegel". Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy. 31 (3): 285–299. doi:10.1375/anft.31.3.285. ISSN 0814-723X.
  11. ^ a b c d e f Siegel, Daniel J. (June 2006). "The mind in psychotherapy: An interpersonal neurobiology framework for understanding and cultivating mental health". Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice. 92 (2): 224–237. doi:10.1111/papt.12228. ISSN 1476-0835. PMID 31001926. S2CID 121658470.
  12. ^ Schore, Judith R. (January 2012). "Using Concepts from Interpersonal Neurobiology in Revisiting Psychodynamic Theory". Smith College Studies in Social Work. 82 (1): 90–111. doi:10.1080/00377317.2012.644494. ISSN 0037-7317. S2CID 9976100.
  13. ^ "Triangle of Well-Being | Trauma Recovery". Retrieved 2020-02-07.
  14. ^ Flores, Philip J.; Porges, Stephen W. (2019-12-18), "Group Psychotherapy as a Neural Exercise: Bridging Polyvagal Theory and Attachment Theory", Attachment in Group Psychotherapy, Routledge, pp. 46–66, doi:10.4324/9781351010818-4, ISBN 978-1-351-01081-8, retrieved 2020-11-09
  15. ^ Gottlieb, Gilbert (1991). "Epigenetic systems view of human development". Developmental Psychology. 27 (1): 33–34. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.27.1.33. ISSN 1939-0599.
  16. ^ Erikson, Erik H. (Erik Homburger), 1902-1994. (1968). Identity, youth, and crisis : Youth and Crisis. W.W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-31144-9. OCLC 566548838.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  17. ^ Doidge, Norman, author. (3 April 2017). The brain that changes itself : stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science. ISBN 978-1-5252-4513-8. OCLC 993445153. {{cite book}}: |last= has generic name (help)CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  18. ^ Beaudoin, Marie-Nathalie; Zimmerman, Jeffrey (March 2011). "Narrative Therapy and Interpersonal Neurobiology: Revisiting Classic Practices, Developing New Emphases". Journal of Systemic Therapies. 30 (1): 1–13. doi:10.1521/jsyt.2011.30.1.1. ISSN 1195-4396.
  19. ^ Kensinger, Elizabeth A. (August 2007). "Negative Emotion Enhances Memory Accuracy". Current Directions in Psychological Science. 16 (4): 213–218. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8721.2007.00506.x. ISSN 0963-7214. S2CID 16885166.
  20. ^ "A Closer Look at Children's Skills", Boosting ALL Children's Social and Emotional Brain Power: Life Transforming Activities, Corwin Press, pp. 27–47, 2014, doi:10.4135/9781452284958.n3, ISBN 978-1-4522-5836-2
  21. ^ Siegel, Daniel J. (2009), Mindsight : the new science of personal transformation, Brilliance Audio, ISBN 978-1-5012-2358-7, OCLC 962743641
  22. ^ Atasoy, Selen; Donnelly, Isaac; Pearson, Joel (2016-01-21). "Human brain networks function in connectome-specific harmonic waves". Nature Communications. 7 (1): 10340. Bibcode:2016NatCo...710340A. doi:10.1038/ncomms10340. ISSN 2041-1723. PMC 4735826. PMID 26792267.
  23. ^ Atasoy, Selen. Deco, Gustavo. Kringelbach, Morten L. Pearson, Joel. (2018). "Harmonic Brain Modes: A Unifying Framework for Linking Space and Time in Brain Dynamics". The Neuroscientist. 24 (3): 277–293. doi:10.1177/1073858417728032. OCLC 1051960991. PMID 28863720. S2CID 21655571.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  24. ^ Weyandt, Lisa; Weyandt, Lisa L. (2006-04-21). The Physiological Bases of Cognitive and Behavioral Disorders. doi:10.4324/9781410615695. ISBN 9781410615695.
  25. ^ Berger, Kathleen Stassen, Verfasser. (2 January 2017). The developing person through the lifespan. ISBN 978-1-319-01587-9. OCLC 990765389. {{cite book}}: |last= has generic name (help)CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  26. ^ Acharya, Sourya; Shukla, Samarth (2012). "Mirror neurons: Enigma of the metaphysical modular brain". Journal of Natural Science, Biology and Medicine. 3 (2): 118–124. doi:10.4103/0976-9668.101878. ISSN 0976-9668. PMC 3510904. PMID 23225972.
  27. ^ Haft, Wendy L.; Slade, Arietta (1989). "Affect Attunement and Maternal Attachment: A Pilot Study". Infant Mental Health Journal. 10 (3): 157–172. doi:10.1002/1097-0355(198923)10:3<157::aid-imhj2280100304>;2-3. ISSN 0163-9641.
  28. ^ Hooper, Lisa M. (July 2007). "The Application of Attachment Theory and Family Systems Theory to the Phenomena of Parentification". The Family Journal. 15 (3): 217–223. doi:10.1177/1066480707301290. ISSN 1066-4807. S2CID 145625155.
  29. ^ Joseph, R. (1999). "Environmental influences on neural plasticity, the limbic system, emotional development, and attachment". Child Psychiatry and Human Development. 29 (3): 189–208. doi:10.1023/A:1022660923605. PMID 10080962. S2CID 22812181.
  30. ^ a b c Miller, Raissa M.; Barrio Minton, Casey A. (January 2016). "Experiences Learning Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis". Journal of Mental Health Counseling. 38 (1): 47–61. doi:10.17744/mehc.38.1.04. ISSN 1040-2861.
  31. ^ a b c Badenoch, Bonnie; Cox, Paul (2018-05-15), "Integrating interpersonal neurobiology with group psychotherapy*", The Interpersonal Neurobiology of Group Psychotherapy and Group Process, Routledge, pp. 1–23, doi:10.4324/9780429482120-1, ISBN 978-0-429-48212-0
  32. ^ a b Page, Linda J (2006). "Thinking Outside Our Brains: Interpersonal Neurobiology and Organizational Change". International Journal of Coaching in Organizations: 22–31 – via PCPI.

Further reading[edit]