Yvette Larsson is an IB Educator and the Co-Founder of the Learning and Innovation concept AHA. She is an international Swede, who is passionate about applied neuroscience to enable societies to foster healthy relationships focusing on our joint human potential. Her work comprises the key question: What does it mean to be human in a global age of technology? Yvette developed a sense of creativity and entrepreneurial mindset from growing up in Lapland, a UNESCO-protected area with omnipresent nature at her doorstep. She organizes global youth hackathons based on design thinking and project-based learning, to enhance youth voice and agency. Yvette has developed well-being programs and advocates outdoor education and physical activity.
Imagine having a belly laugh with your friends. You are talking about something funny that has happened and you both laugh together. By laughing together endorphins are activated in both of you. Endorphins are the neurotransmitters that the body is producing when you, for example, overcome challenges or when you are having fun. When you laugh together with others you all become more communicative, collaborative, and creative. This in turn will boost trusting relationships among you. When we trust each other, we can move mountains together. The world we live in is complex and by working collaboratively and with excellent communication skills, chances are higher that we can solve things better and create more sustainable societies.
In this article, I will explore the potential of applied neuroscience in enhancing relationship development, by examining the neurological mechanisms underpinning social interaction, the impact of the neurotransmitters’ responses on relationships, and the benefits of incorporating neuroscience-based methodology into any teamwork, especially in learning environments.
Healthy relationships help create a more collaborative and peaceful world. I would like to point out that I am not a neuroscientist, but an educator and innovator in the field of learning, and have, for several years, researched and used applied neuroscience methodologies in my work with teams of learners of all ages.
Let’s start with the brain
When working with teams of learners I like to begin by asking them this question: – What could be the possible capacity of our brain? We usually have quite a philosophical discussion about it. I like to make the analogy of the universe. -Is it infinite? Both the universe and the brain seem to hold answers to mind-blowing information, and we seem to have just started to learn about both.
However, what we do know about the human brain is that it is a complex, powerful tool that plays a critical role in shaping social interactions and building relationships. The more we learn about it, the better we can understand the behaviors of ourselves and others.
The prefrontal cortex mediates our executive functions that are required for successful interactions, planning, and organizing ourselves. The limbic system is responsible for emotional regulation, essential for effective communication. Mirror neurons are responsible for understanding the emotional state of others and empathizing with them. Together, these areas enable humans to understand others’ emotions and respond appropriately to their social cues.
When making decisions, or acting upon something, you may experience a divide between the rational part of the brain and the emotional part of the brain. -It’s messy to be a human! We are frequently not as rational as we think we are. Many daily decisions are made based on our emotions. Bigger decisions are usually filtered through our executive functions underpinned by the rational part of the brain.
When I work with individuals and teams, we start by looking at two components, our inter and intra- communication, and asking questions such as:
- How do I overcome challenges?
- What does my self-pep talk about?
- How do I portray myself to others?
- How successful are my communication and social skills?
- How well do I connect with others?”
Let’s look at relationships
The quality of our life is determined by the quality of our relationships. For example, the quality and the success of the work within a team are based on the interaction between the team members. The quality of learning is also determined by the quality of the relationships between the learners and the educator. When relationships are unhealthy, we become restless and unfocused and we keep coming back thinking about them.
Relationships are a fundamental aspect of human life, historically they even determined our survival from when humans began interacting with each other. They are influencing everything from personal happiness to professional success. However, building and maintaining healthy relationships can be challenging. The quality of interpersonal interactions is influenced by the activity of specific brain regions, as well as the way we respond to each other; the words we exchange, our actions or inactions towards each other, our body language, our facial expressions, and the tone of voice.
Let’s have a more in-depth look at applied neuroscience as such. It is a field that seeks to bridge the gap between the study of the nervous system and its application in the real world. It is transdisciplinary and combines principles from theoretical neuroscience, psychology, biology, education, leadership management, and other related fields to improve various aspects of human life, including relationships.
Applied neuroscience is a field that is gaining traction in learning environments and I am, in this article, pointing out why team leaders and educators must learn about it and use it when shaping sustainable relationships. I dare say, it’s essential for the shaping of peaceful societies.
When we increase our awareness of how the brain works, how it responds to certain actions, and certain ways of communication, we can also improve our communication styles to be more inclusive, and collaborative.
I invite you to take a closer look at the role of neurotransmitters in terms of shaping healthy relationships.
Social bonding is driven by the release of oxytocin, a neurotransmitter that promotes feelings of trust, empathy, and connection. Research has shown that by engaging in activities that promote the release of oxytocin, such as hugging, smiling, or maintaining eye contact, individuals can improve their social bonds, hence boosting their relationships. Oxytocin is first produced when a child is born, promoting the connection with the mother. Oxytocin is produced when we show love and care toward each other. It is even produced just by looking at others being caring to each other or being in the same room, over-hearing others speaking with warmth to each other. Oxytocin produces trust, and when trust is in the room, we become more collaborative, communicative, and creative. When it comes to trust, we scan every human encounter we make throughout the day, as in: is this a safe situation, is this a friendly person, will this person want the best out of me? If the answers are yes, you will then tick all boxes.
Serotonin is another neurotransmitter that plays an essential role in social behavior and mood regulation. When Serotonin is in the room we create a rapport with one another, by acknowledging the other person with a “hello”, “good-bye”, and “How are you?”.
When I talk to students, I refer to the “Avatar 2” movie and how they express the “I see you” gesture to each other. That is a good example of how serotonin is produced in us. The opposite is when there is a lack of serotonin. Let’s say you arrive at work and you say “hello” to a group of colleagues that you pass by, but nobody responds. Here there is a big chance that cortisol, survival instinct, kicks in “Why didn’t they say hello?”
By engaging in activities that promote the release of serotonin, such as exercise, mindfulness, or socializing, you can improve your mood, reduce stress, and enhance relationships. A simple example, from the world of school, is to stand outside the classroom and say hello to each student before entering the classroom. It is beneficial, as you have already created a relationship with the student for that particular lesson. At that moment you can also read your students’ mood of the day. If someone is sad, angry, or happy, you can be curious about it, and offer support to someone who looks troubled, for example: “I can see that…” (serotonin), “Could I support you somehow?” ( oxytocin).
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that is associated with intrinsic motivation, it’s the hook in a book, and it’s the cliffhanger in a film. It is connected with our pleasure and reward system. It can be used to boost relationships by creating engaging and fun activities, setting goals, celebrating achievements, or engaging in playful activities. Dopamine enhances social bonds and boosts relationships. In an educational environment, it can be used to spark curiosity, inquiry, and lifelong learning. Dopamine is typically ignited when there is a challenge to solve. Think authentic project-based learning, think connecting with the outside world of a school, getting an answer from an email being sent to an influential person who may want to collaborate. It’s exciting, and excitement is what we want to achieve when it comes to learning together!
The downside of dopamine is the addictive behavior that can occur when, for example, scrolling social media apps. It’s important that young people become more aware and digitally literate to understand the underlying psychology of the apps. In Denmark, Dr. Imran Rashid is initiating a “borgerforslag”, a petition, where he proposes for the state to establish legislation about social media and young people.
Let’s get back to endorphins, the neurotransmitters that are responsible for pain relief and stress reduction. They can promote feelings of well-being, relaxation, and happiness. Endorphins are in the room when we laugh together. Notice the word ‘together’. When somebody is being laughed at, cortisol is in the room. Engaging in activities that promote the release of endorphins, such as yoga, meditation, running, or spending time in nature, can help you manage stress and stay calm in challenging situations, thus enhancing relationships. If we bring this into the world of school, and the urgent need to focus more on learners’ well-being, it is of utmost importance that educators start including more physical activities and being outdoors, compared to traditional schooling. Outdoor education has a positive impact on young people’s well-being and academic achievements.
The last neurotransmitter that we will look at in this article is Cortisol, which is a stress hormone produced in response to threats. It usually has a negative impact on relationships. Cortisol can hinder memory and learning, causing the inability to retain and apply knowledge effectively. Cortisol is in the room when there is, for example, polarization, anger, worry, and fear. We will learn out of fear, but we will be less communicative, collaborative, and creative. In a school environment, cortisol will be engaged when students, for example, are having a fight at the playground. It can also be two teenage students that are having an argument online. When these things are left unsettled the students will find it difficult to concentrate and learn. It is important to pick up these things rapidly and offer help to solve the situations. Hence, it is strongly encouraged for educators to teach applied neuroscience strategies in school, so that young learners are aware of what is going on in their brains when they argue, and that they may need a pause, to restart their dialogue.
What is also necessary to know about cortisol is that it is one of the neurotransmitters that work on our survival. Throughout the history of humanity, cortisol made us alert to possible threats. It simply helped us to survive.
When we work with teams, it’s beneficial for everyone to have a basic understanding of applied neuroscience to be able to communicate effectively and create a culture that promotes trust, collaboration, success, and well-being.
By using applied neuroscience to enhance relationships, we have the possibility to create more sustainable and peaceful societies.
- “The Survival of the Friendliest”, Hare and Woods.
- “Humankind”, Rutger Bregman
- “Homo Sapiens”, Yuval Noah Harari
- Harvard Graduate School of Education, Mind, Brain and Education.
- Centre for Neuroscience in Education, University of Cambridge
- Mind, Brain, and Education Journal https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/toc/1751228x/2023/17/1
- Stockholm University
- Researcher Mary Helen Immordino-Yang