I described the relationship between stress arousal and performance in my previous blog, graphically represented via the Yerkes-Dodson Curve.
The optimal performance, conscious learning, and effective decision-making are most likely to occur at moderate stress levels. With this in mind, our neurobiological window of tolerance to stress arousal is how we can adjust our stress levels upwards or downwards to remain within the optimal performance zone of moderate arousal.
Raising the threshold is the solution to perform better under the same stressful conditions. We call this widening the window.
The wider the window, the more likely we can maintain accurate neuroception and effective integration of thinking brain and survival brain processes, even during the level of high-stress arousal and emotional intensity.
This is what Elizabeth A. Stanley calls: ‘Widening the Window’.
Wired to Connect
In this blog, I want to go a step further. You can extend your window personally but also collectively.
We convey our stress activation to other people, and they to us, through several facets of our neurobiology. The first is stress contagion. Remember that our survival brain notices the physical sensations of stress in our body, which leads it to neurocept danger and increase stress arousal. Likewise, our survival brain picks up on the physical sensations of stress activation in others -especially in people with whom we have attachment bonds or relationships involving power differences, such as boss-subordinate or teacher-student. Stress contagion works through resonance between different people’s nervous systems and stress hormones levels.
A similar dynamic exists with emotion contagion, as anyone who’s ever teared up during a sad movie knows. Especially when we’re not paying attention to this consciously, our own mood can be powerfully shaped by others’ emotions. Researchers who study emotion contagion have found that people tend to synchronize their facial expressions, voices, postures, and emotional behaviours with those around them. As with stress contagion, we’re most likely to “catch” emotions from others with whom we have relationships involving attachment bonds or power.
Neuroscientists have discovered several neurobiological structures that help explain how stress and emotions contagion work.
A few highlights:
1. Social/emotional pain
When we experience distress from social pain (I.e. separation from a loved one), we activate the same pain distress network in the brain as we do when we experience physical pain. This network includes the dorsal ACC and anterior insula, two brain regions that regulate stress arousal and emotions.
Why does our brain treat physical and social/emotional pain the same way? Just as physical pain helps us take actions to keep our bodies safe, we have genetic neurobiological mechanisms that motivate us to stay connected with others. This makes sense evolutionarily because human infants would die without continuous support from their caregivers.
We are also motivated to connect with others through endorphins and oxytocin, two of the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters. We release endorphins when we’re being cared for by others. In contracts, oxytocin increases our willingness to care for others. Oxytocin keeps the nervous system in well-being mode and out of the defensive mode, which supports our social engagement and attachment systems. See my previous blog.
2. Mirror neurons – Motor Resonance
Our brains have a system of mirror neurons, which help us understand the intentions, behaviours, and emotions of others. This is not a thinking brain activity. It’s an automatic, prereflective form of imitation. For instance, picking a cup of coffee ourselves and seeing another person picking up a cup has the same effect on the brain’s mirror system. The brain fires the same way in both situations, just more when we act ourselves.
We experience something known as motor resonance through this inner simulation, which helps give us an embodied sense of someone else’s feelings and intentions. The mirror system plays an essential role in social engagement, helping us unconsciously coordinate gestures, facial expressions, and eye contact. Not surprisingly, it also plays a vital role in emotion contagion and empathy.
3. Mentalizing System
Our thinking brain has a mentalizing system that helps us perceive and understand others’ actions, including their higher-level intentions and mental states, which complements the more motor-oriented mirror system. Likewise, a part of the thinking brain contributes to self-control -including top-down regulation of stress, emotions, and impulses – called the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. This brain region also helps shape our behaviour to comply with our social group’s norms and values.
A similar dynamic exists with the part of the thinking brain that controls our conceptual sense of self, called the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). This brain region fires when we think about ‘who we are’. Interestingly, however, the brain regions also fire when we hear persuasive messages from others (like commercials, etc.)
With all this in mind, we can appreciate how much our culture’s myths of individualism are actually at odds with the truth of our neurobiology. Together, these neurobiological structures show how much we’re wired to be interconnected with, and influenced by, the social environment around us.
For this reason, as we widen our own window and make shifts inside ourselves, we also help shift the social environment for others around us. Thus, one of the biggest gifts we bring to the world can be our own presence and self-regulation.