We Are Wired to Connect: The Neuroscience of Collaboration
Updated: Oct 9
Our brains have two main functions that have emerged through millions of years of evolution—to connect us for growth, and to keep us safe. We call these two neural networks the Connected Brain and the Safety Brain. The development of our society has made the Safety Brain our first and main mode of interaction with the world. In keeping the Connected Brain as a secondary mode, we restrict our creativity, productivity, and resiliency.
Our brains metaphorically function like an enormous filing system, collecting experiences over the course of our lives. They file away everything from a scene in a movie to a friend’s laughter, in order to help us make meaning of the world. Our brains are meaning-making machines, they take in information through our senses and use the filing system to analyze and name what’s in front of us. Does Mary’s behavior in our staff meeting or the vibe at the neighborhood party make you want to connect or protect? The files in your system determine that answer, and you are the one who gets to load the system. Nothing has meaning until you assign it meaning.
The Safety Brain
The Safety Brain has one job, no matter what it takes, to keep us safe. Typically, it is the first lens we use to see and interpret the world. It is constantly comparing and analyzing what’s happening around us to everything we know from the past to determine if even the tiniest experience, such as a teenager rolling their eyes, is a threat to our equilibrium. This sets off the stress response system that increases heart rate and blood pressure, and turns off everything that's not essential to surviving, such as compassion and growth.
It's time to turn the volume down on the Safety Brain so it is not assigning negative bias on auto-pilot. But a level of stress is also a natural part of life, it’s going to happen, so learn to use Safety Brain stressful thinking as a messaging system, rather than a warning system. When we use stress as a flashlight on our filing system, we can begin to rewire the mind to pull Connected Brain files as our primary mode of interaction.
The Connected Brain
Our Connected Brain’s main job is to do everything to thrive as we meet our needs for energy, emotional connection, and growth. The Connected Brain experiences being present and can embrace people and situations without needing to fix or change them. It allows us to be in flow with what we are doing and who we are with and can more easily access our ability to design and invent a more desirable present and future.
Creativity, compassion, intelligence and productivity increase when we are calm, alert and connected. When the Connected Brain is our primary mode of interaction, we have the ability to build strong connections and our collaborations are more impactful to ourselves and the whole.
Time to Quiet the Safety Brain
Our human ancestors were built with the same stress response system of fight, flight or freeze that we use today, but they used it in short bursts in response to imminent physical danger—when their lives were on the line. This is important. Stress hormones released to help survive acute physical threats, like escaping the jaws of a lion, are not made for constant, long-term use. Our bodies can’t sustain that level of stress.
Fast forward to today’s complex social world where we constantly worry about money, pleasing the boss, or what other people think. We engage the same stress system on a daily basis, but now it is for future-focused or non-life-threatening situations. Hyper-vigilance has become our new normal. We are applying the stress evaluation and response to more and more social situations, not immediate, physically dangerous ones.
A short burst of adrenaline gives us motivation and energy for the challenges in life, but a steady stream of it just makes us run down. Framed as the much lauded problem-solution model, it is the water we swim in, and thus we are not always cognizant of its impacts. When our Safety Brain continually focuses on problems, even with the added dopamine hit of finding a solution, we give rise to chronic stress.
It made sense for the Safety Brain to evolve an early warning system to detect danger and rev our bodies up to respond. The Safety Brain is an incredibly useful system. Without it, we would be dead. We're not asking you stop using your Safety Brain, we want you to learn how to consciously choose when and how to use it, rather than letting it run you. When you mindfully fill the filing system of your mind with more Connected Brain files, you begin to move at the speed of trust.