The Myth of the Individual

An extract from Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship by Terry Real

For centuries, Western culture has been dominated by the idea of the individual. And what could make more sense? I exist. I, Terry, this individual person hunched over my laptop, am distinct from others. I am an entity bordered by the perimeter of my body. In fact, the very word individual comes from the term indivisible. And I end with my skin. Or do I?

Confined within my body, you’ll find my brain. Is that where my mind also resides? What is the shape of my mind, and does it end with my body? The great anthropologist Gregory Bateson gave the example of a blind man making his way down the street using a stick. Surely the stick and the information it yielded, argued Bateson, were a part of his mind.

The noted philosopher and cognitive scientist Thomas Metzinger began his exploration of the nature of consciousness by recounting the well-known “fake hand” experiment, which he re-created using himself as subject. Here’s how he described it:

The subjects observed a rubber hand lying on the desk in front of them, with their own corresponding hand concealed from view by a screen. The visible rubber hand and the subject’s unseen hand were then synchronously stroked with a probe . . . . After a certain time (sixty to ninety seconds, in my case), the famous rubber‐hand illu‐ sion emerges. Suddenly, you experience the rubber hand as your own, and you feel the repeated strokes in this rubber hand. Moreover, you feel a full‐blown “virtual arm”—that is, a connection from your shoulder to the fake hand on the table in front of you.

Perhaps this philosopher’s Thomas-ness ended at the tips of his fingers—but at the tip of which fingers, the real ones or the rubber ones? Cognitive science teaches us that what we think of as ourselves derives not from a direct experience but from a collage of sensations and images—self-representations, pictures we have of ourselves.

Similarly, we experience the world not directly but rather as it is filtered through our accumulated knowing. We recognize a chair because of its chairness. It fits into a category we already know. Without that cultural knowledge, we would see the world as a newborn baby sees it, as light, shadow, shapes, and smells, coming at us with little or no definition.

In this regard, we are all a type of narcissist. None of us sees ourselves directly—our self-perceptions are filtered through acquired knowledge. Most of us think of ourselves as our bodies, our physical selves. But that image itself is a construction of our minds. Cognitive science reveals that what we call ourself is really a changing tapestry of self-representations, images. And the good news is that how we see ourselves and the world may change quickly, dramatically, and with support, permanently.

Psychologists used to think that character, once developed, was very difficult to transform. They assumed that once a neural pathway was set in the brain, it was set. The discovery of neuroplasticity changed all that. We’ve come to realize that habitual neural networks can open up and re-form—that is, take in new information and restructure. The often-cited phrase is “Neurons that fire together wire together.” Or as neurobiologists say, “States become traits.” In psychotherapy, neuroplasticity is currently the name of the game. In my practice, I have seen that opening neural pathways can lead to profound change, to brand-new traits and behavior, sometimes in a matter of minutes.

“That would stop me in my tracks.”

Ernesto, Latinx and fifty-six, was a rager. He wasn’t a physical rager, thank goodness, but he was a screamer, demeaner, a get-in-your-face-and-say-nasty-things verbal abuser. “It just comes over me too fast,” he tells me about three-quarters of the way through a ninety-minute one-shot consultation with him and his wife, Maddy, also Latinx and a few years younger. Ernesto sounds like many abusive clients I have listened to over the years.

After meandering around for the better part of an hour, I finally ask him a question that hits pay dirt: “Who taught you how to be nasty and mean?”

“You mean like family?” he stutters. “Well, my mother died when I was eight, and my father remarried. Yeah, I guess my stepmother.”

“What was she like?”

Ernesto smiles, shakes his head. “Oh, she was the meanest, worst, most horrible—”

“So, she’s the one,” I say.


“She taught you how to be this nasty?”

“Yes, I guess she did.”

“And what’s it like to see that?” I try to catch his eye as he looks down at the floor. Sitting across from him, I can feel his shame, a flush of warmth up his face. “Ernesto?” I ask softly.

He doesn’t speak.

“Where are you now?” I ask after a time. “What’s going on?” “Oh,” he says, not smiling. “I’m embarrassed. For someone to see me the way I see her.” He shakes his head, looking be- yond me.

I wonder what he’s seeing, remembering.

“I feel mortified,” he tells me.

“That embarrassment is what we call healthy guilt, or remorse. If you had felt that up front, it would have stopped you. Make sense?”

He nods, head down.

“Do you have a picture of your stepmother?”

“What, on me? No.”

“Can you get one?”

“Sure,” he says. “Yeah, I can.”

“Good. Here’s what I want you to do. You can rage at your wife. I can’t stop you. But the next time you’re about to blow, before you do, I want you to take out the picture of your stepmother, look her in the eye, and say: ‘I know I’m about to do harm. But right now, being like you is more important to me than my wife is.’ Say that, and then go ahead and rage if you have to.”

Ernesto’s head snaps up, and he looks at me. “That’s not true. That would stop me in my tracks. She’s not more important than my wife is.” He falls silent, reaches out his hand, and places it palm up on Maddy’s lap.

She takes his hand, and they gaze at each other. That was almost fourteen years ago. Ernesto has not raged since.

Our optimal state in relationships

Neurobiologists tell us that it takes two things to unlock and open up a neural pathway. The first is that the implicit must be made explicit. Sometimes you need help seeing what you don’t see. But you must be open to the feedback. Second, there must be some sort of recoil, a sense of discrepancy, of “Oh no, I’m not sure I really want to keep doing that.”

In my interview with Ernesto, I helped make the implicit explicit by putting into words his replay of his stepmother’s behavior. Ernesto supplied the recoil. After that he had, according to current research, about five hours to take in new learning and begin to forge a new neural pathway: “Oh my goodness, I will not replicate the awfulness I grew up in!”

In that moment of recoil, Ernesto awoke to us. This was the woman he loved he’d been yelling at. What had he been thinking? With my help, he shifted out of his left hemisphere into both hemispheres. He was led by the relationality of the right brain, but the practical wisdom of the left collaborated as well. With my help, he remembered the whole, the relationship of which he was a part. This is our optimal state in relationships.

Ernesto shifted from his Adaptive Child—the immature part of him that absorbed his stepmother’s rage and discharged it—into his Wise Adult. He borrowed my prefrontal cortex until he woke up his own. Put most simply, he borrowed my brain. We do this for one another all the time. Current re- search clearly indicates that we are not walled-in, freestanding individuals. Our human brains—in fact, most mammals’ brains—are built for co-regulation.

The Relational Brain

Interpersonal neurobiology is the study of how our brains and central nervous system form through our relationships in childhood and how relationships impact our neurobiology as intimate adults. What we’re finding out is that the mind exists in a social context. Partners in close relationships co-regulate each other’s nervous systems, cortisol (stress hormone) levels, and immune responsiveness. Secure relationships lead to increased immunity and less disease, to say nothing of lower scores in depression, anxiety, and higher reported general well-being. Insecure relationships stress you out and can make you ill.

Research has substantiated what most parents know intuitively, that the neurological development of infants and young children depends on loving, stimulating social interaction. From the first weeks of life, infants actively seek and elicit connection.

Parents provide what one psychoanalyst called a “good enough holding environment” for the child. A toddler falls off his bike and looks to the expression on his caretaker’s face to see how bad the scrape is.

Parents routinely soothe children, lending them perspective—this pain won’t last forever—and emotional modulation. According to the pioneer infant observational researcher Ed Tronick, “Child developmental researchers use the term neuroarchitects to describe caregivers of young infants. A baby’s earliest relationships determine the nature of the wiring—they literally build the brain.”

Every day in my office, I see what happens to people who didn’t, as children, receive help modulating their emotions. Generally, they’re cut off from their emotions. Without ancillary help from a grown-up’s nervous system, they did—and still do—find emotions, theirs and often yours, overwhelming.

Our lifeblood is connection

More and more literature has emerged on the interpersonal nature of our brains and nervous system. Are we individuals? Yes, in a way, but at the same time we are utterly interdependent, neurologically entwined. We are individuals, yes, but individuals whose lifeblood is connection. As the neurobiologist Dan Siegel puts it, “The brain is a social organ, and our relationships to one another are not a luxury but an essential nutrient for our survival.” We are individuals whose very existence is predicated on belonging.

Our nervous systems were never designed to self-regulate. We all filter our sense of stability and well-being through our connection to others. And yet the culture of individualism saturates our society. The idea of a freestanding rugged individualist is a cultural story having little to do with the truth.

If you want to see what a person who is totally removed from relational interaction looks like, examine the brain of someone who endured prolonged solitary confinement in prison.

On June 19, 2012, Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at University of California at Santa Cruz, told the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, “The conditions of confinement [for the eighty thousand U.S. inmates enduring often long periods of solitary imprisonment] are far too severe to serve any kind of penological purpose.” They can precipitate for some prisoners a descent into madness. The APA Monitor went on to report:

Former inmate Anthony Graves, who spent 18 years on death row, including 10 in solitary confinement for a murder he didn’t commit, drove home Hanley’s points. “I would watch guys come to prison totally sane, and in three years they don’t live in the real world anymore,” he said. One fellow inmate, Graves said, “would go out into the recreation yard, get naked, lie down and urinate all over himself. He would take his feces and smear it all over his face.”

Behold a totally freestanding individual! Deprived of all social connection, we deteriorate, even unto madness.

All manner of new research is emerging that examines the borders between us, the ways one partner’s emotional state, often inarticulate, even unconscious, will affect the other’s. Of the many emerging descriptions of our social brain, for me the simplest and most elegant is the highly regarded Social Baseline Theory of Lane Beckes and James A. Coan, two researchers at the University of Virginia.

The prefrontal cortex is a wise, highly adaptable, extraordinary calculating device made up of billions of neurons. It is the complex mainframe we need for thoughtful, deliberate, intentional action Wise Adult capacities. But it’s energetically costly. Scientists have known for decades that the brain relegates more habitual jobs (like checking breathing and heart rate) to less thoughtful, more automatic, less energy-draining parts of the nervous system.

But Beckes and Coan reviewed a vast array of studies and deduced that the energy-costly prefrontal cortex not only offloads, as it were, less demanding functions to other parts of our nervous system, it also does a fabulous job of conserving energy by offloading one person’s brain functions onto other people’s brains.

Previous research had shown how people seek others for co-regulation. Social Baseline Theory goes further, asserting that no matter the culture, “close proximity to social resources is the baseline assumption of the human brain.” Our brains assume we are embedded in a familiar, rich, interdependent web in which a variety of what might have been individual neural tasks are spread out and appropriated by the group. Let’s take an extraordinarily simple example. I tend the fire. You’re on the lookout for attack.

New research showed how humans help regulate tough emotions like anger, fear, and pain in one another, but Beckes and Coan went further. Their revolutionary insight was that when people interact socially, it isn’t so much that their prefrontal cortices work overtime to deal with negative feelings, or even that they supplement each other. It’s that the emotional stress doesn’t arise as much to begin with.

The emotional load sharing and efficiency of the “group mind” leaves each individual’s prefrontal cortex with a lot less work to do than it would have on its own. Neither self-regulation, nor even human co-regulation, has as much rea- son to occur because the security of “group mind” (I’ll build a fire, while you look out for bears) leaves us with less that needs to be regulated. Our brains assume a baseline of shared social competence. Here are the authors:

Social proximity can offset much of the costs associated with the [prefrontal cortex]. For example, individuals who have recently entered a romantic relationship may come to rely less on their own personal activity to regulate their behavior, because they will begin to perceive the environment as less threatening, dangerous, and difficult to cope with and because their partner will engage in behavior (e.g., supportive hand holding) that will help achieve regulatory effects without having to regulate themselves.

And the more intimate the bond, the greater the relaxation. When someone is undergoing a difficult medical procedure, holding a stranger’s hand increases their security and decreases their pain and anxiety. Holding a friend’s hand is more potent, and holding a loved one’s hand is the best analgesic of all. All this led Beckes and Coan, and many others since then, to question the wisdom of singling out the individual as the proper unit of study in human psychology. The labor-intensive processes of self-regulation seem rather muscular and inelegant in the light of the idea that social connection gives connected individuals less stress to need managing.

Those of us who are in long-term intimate relationships may instinctively understand this as a both/and situation. Yes, our rich social connections protect us from the savagery we would unleash on ourselves in, for example, solitary confinement. Yes, connection gives us a deep sense of ease. But we also know from experience that few things can trigger us or make us go crazy like our intimate relationships can.

Love is like a Roto-Rooter—it will push every button you own; it will bring up to the surface every unhealed wound and fissure that has lodged inside your body. Nothing stimulates hurt quite the way love does. 

To learn more about letting go of the delusion of individualism and opening up to ecological wisdom, the relationality of thinking like a team, I invite you to get yourself a copy of my New York Times bestseller, Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship.

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