Shared Meaning
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What is it that gives your life meaning and how much does it have to do with your relationships? Caring and sensitivity to others, and personal awareness and life meaning, are human characteristics elucidated by neuroscience with a clarity previously unknown. These human qualities have unfolded in tandem with the evolution of the brain’s empathy circuitry and developed in the context of our social experience. The quality and kinds of relationships you experience and the meaning that you make of your life are dramatically impacted by your genetic personality and your parenting and culture.

Social interactions prime our relationship networks and in turn our sense of self. Think of the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, cues that let you know how important you are in a community setting. One’s place in the pecking order clearly impacts your sense of self-esteem and chances of survival. Social reciprocity is essential in advanced civilizations. Societies whose infrastructures of communication and transportation foster relationships among different kinds of people tend to promote more diverse relationship patterns and a more intricate self-perception.

Our human need to collaborate in larger social groups was conflated with the growth in the size of the human cortex, our complex thinking center. For example, there is no known hunter/gatherer society that has created a written language. It first evolved in more elaborate communities that pooled resources for the development of agriculture. As human culture progressed with demands for greater communication and collaboration, the brains empathic and self-awareness circuitry grew into new definition. Interestingly, it appears that the empathy circuitry in males developed from genes related to territorial/group protective origins. Capacities for empathy in females originate in genes related to nurturing.

There is an expansion of self and social awareness that is directly related to the societal and family exposure that the growing child experiences. The middle ages resulted in a contraction of social and self-experience following the fall of the more evolved Roman civilization. Beginning in the renaissance, children came to be valued and nurtured to insure that they could effectively negotiate relationships necessary for more urban and cosmopolitan settings that were beginning to bloom. Customs of parenting remarkably changed with increasing networks of societal infrastructure.


Human genetic capabilities do not necessarily become established as brain circuits if there is no environmental experience to initiate the connections. For instance, if you never hear language spoken, then you will not speak a language. If you do hear language, the words that you hear will determine the language that you speak. The so-called mirror neuron circuitry enables us to internally track the words, behaviors, intentions, and feelings of others. Often we are reflecting the movements and intonations of others without even being aware of it. Our early social experience will be sketched onto our brains, delineating our abilities to perceive others and ourselves and to form empathy and attachment. These networks are shaped and reshaped as we participate in human relationships.

By the second year of life children begin to recognize themselves and their family and are able to recall past events. If you stop to consider this you realize that it is extraordinary. We know that there are only a few other animals that recognize themselves in a reflection. The capability to distinguish between yourself and another makes it possible to be aware of your own personal life experience. Autobiographical memory is shaped throughout life by our encounters with others.

The ability of the parents and society to resonate, reflect and sooth the feelings of the child is very important, for it is attachment that helps to shape a sense of self identity and also sets up the emotional regulatory circuitry of the child’s brain. With careful role modeling and nurturing, a competent sense of self-awareness can be mobilized, activating an aptitude to consciously modify feelings and to guide them with thought. The nurturing of human capacities for collaborative relationship and self-awareness has enormous consequences for self-definition and future life meaning.

Happy family and social attachment foster the child’s power to integrate information from different parts of the brain and body, a hallmark of mental health. Good parenting and social validation literally nurture the physical development of the brain, enhancing synaptic connections among cells to stimulate growth factors that increase the complexity and speed of brain signals. The expanded social and cultural context of today’s growing child will be reflected in his awareness of self and others. Our global transportation systems greatly increase our mobility, pushing us towards a world community and expanded consciousness.


Electronic communication that is so common today, especially in children and young adults, has interesting implications for the development of relationships and ones sense of self. While there may be a wider, more diverse social network established through texting and computer exchange, it could be that it may decrease the emotional quality of attachments. Without face-to-face communication, much information may be lost. How will human relationships evolve as we move to video communication?

People are beginning to use the computer and electronic devices to monitor themselves. They are scrutinizing personal patterns like drinking, eating, mood change, work productivity, exercise, etc. Receiving digital data, called self-tracking, about the patterns of these aspects of our lives can be illuminating. Too often we may have overlooked the influence of small experiences or habits that may impact our moods, focus or productivity. How does this feedback affect our sense of ourselves? It seems that it depends on how it is used. If taken as information that may improve life quality, it may be helpful. If used to tie one too closely to digital expectations or as a daily dose of computer generated criticism, then perhaps not. It is hard to fully predict how our relationships with electronic communications and digital feedback will impact our culture and sense of ourselves. Will this be a positive force for the benefit of mankind, to improve our life awareness, intentionality and quality of relationships? No one can be completely sure at this juncture.


Will the quick transmission of electronic information and access to easy travel promote a kind of global awareness that mankind has not previously known? The infrastructure of today’s world is reflected in the complexity of the development of our capacities for self-reflection and attachment to a variety of different kinds of people. Can we adaptively adjust to the massive proliferation of human networks of interaction and communication? Can we move to a more unified global culture that may override our inclinations for aggression towards differences? Geneticists and mathematicians who have teamed to study these issues propose that a civilization based on transparency, cooperation, and firm consequence to group alienating behaviors seems to have very good long-term survival value. The question may be how to establish parameters within a complex globally connected society that can promote peaceful relationships and a sense of meaningful self-awareness.

- Dr. Linda Klaitz, Medical Psychologist


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