• Brent Stromwall

Logical or Relational: The Biology of Relational Circuits

Pain and Suffering

There’s an old saying, “Suffering will either make you bitter or better.” Which would you prefer? How do we suffer well? How do we get the most from the negative circumstances in life rather than feel the worst? Would you rather live in anger, resentment, sadness, or anxiety? Or do you prefer wisdom, empathy, kindness, and joy? Most, if not all, of us would choose the latter – the better. Our problem is that we didn’t, and couldn’t, make that choice when we first experienced and learned to process our suffering.


We learn how to process pain and negative emotions from others. Those who were closest to us when we were infants and children modeled it for us. Likely, either nothing was modeled for us, or the wrong patterns were modeled. So, we now have pathways in our brain that we follow to process the pain incorrectly over and over, again and again. Not processing pain correctly results in psychological trauma. Seemingly minor circumstances that cause negative pain can also now result in that same trauma. We were designed to process pain in a healthy way, but few of us are aware of this or have learned how.


Modes and Sides

We are designed as relational beings and our brains have built-in pain-processing pathways that, when operating properly, will help us remain attuned, i.e. relationally connected with others. It is important to note that while we are referring to painful or negative experiences, this processing pathway is used for all of our life’s experiences. In his book, Outsmarting Yourself, Dr. Karl Lehman states, “There is a very deliberate pathway that this pain processing attempt will follow, and there are specific processing tasks that we must complete as we travel along this pathway…"[1] This pathway and these steps are called “relational circuits.”

We understand why Lehman uses the term “relational” from this explanation: “When these brain circuits are functioning as designed, our spontaneous, normal experience will be to perceive others as allies, even in difficult interpersonal situations; and as part of this allied attitude we will want to join with them in the collaborative process of exploring the situation together, we will want to understand their perspectives, and we will want to join with them in the collaborative process of working together to find a mutually satisfying solution.”[2] These are just a few of the positive characteristics of our attitude and behavior while we are using these circuits. We will call using these circuits to process the circumstances we experience “operating in relational mode.”


When operating in relational mode, we can achieve the “better” result of suffering. When we are not operating in relational mode, the result will be the “bitter,” or traumatic outcome of our suffering or negative circumstance. More so, when we are experiencing even minor interpersonal upsets or agitation, we can get triggered out of relational mode. This is a result of the way handling this type of upset was modeled for us. We learned it early and now employ that same method of dealing with the upset.


We all have triggers from unprocessed painful experiences that switch us out of relational mode into the non-collaborative, rigid, non-compassionate, non-relational mode.[3] We will view those around us – particularly those who we perceive to be the source of our agitation – as enemies. We call this “enemy mode.” When in enemy mode, a person not only loses their ability to remain relational with the people around them in the present, they “also lose the ability to think relationally, and we even lose the relational connection components of our memories.”[4] All the good, joy-based memories you have of the person you’re with are not accessible. For example, memories of the great lunch conversation you shared, or team/trust-building exercise you completed with a co-worker are simply not accessible. This applies to all relationships: friends, family, co-workers, church family, even your spouse. Yes, when operating in enemy mode you view even your spouse as the enemy.


Relational Circuits

The built-in pain-processing pathway is in the right hemisphere (right side) of the brain. As we process social and relational information, it flows along this path – the relational circuits.[5] As long as we maintain access and use of our relational circuits, we continue to operate in relational mode and will fully process any pain or negative emotion. The moment you switch out of relational mode (your relational circuits have gone “off”) you are predominantly using the left side of your brain to process the information and situation. The left side is the logical, analytical, and linguistic part of the brain. This is where problems are solved, conscious, rational thought is made, and words and numbers are processed. When in enemy mode, you are solving a problem, not being relational, and vice versa. Some people live their lives operating entirely out of their left brain, non-relationally.


The relational circuits are in a series of five different “levels” in the brain. Just as your gastrointestinal system has a path that food and drink follow to be fully processed, social and emotional interactions follow the five levels in the pain processing pathway of the brain. Modern brain science has provided us evidence of this pathway and the major functions of each level. These are literally five unique, physical parts of the brain. Just as the mouth is separate from the liver, so level 1 (the thalamus) is different from level 5 (the left, prefrontal cortex), and each has its own functions.


Just like the gastrointestinal path can be interrupted as a result of bad input (you vomit), the same is true for your brain. When you can’t process social and emotional input well, the relational circuits are “interrupted” and you switch into non-relational (enemy) mode. We are in enemy mode when we are using predominantly the left side (logical, analytical, linguistic) side of our brains. Let’s walk through the path in the order that information is processed:[6]


  • Level 1 (Thalamus): This is also called the attachment center of the brain. This is a subcortical area of the brain where you determine if something or someone is important to you. Your spouse, child, dog, friends, co-workers (some of them) are important. Someone in the car a ½ mile down the road, a jogger in the neighborhood, or someone who got arrested in another country is not important to you. The thalamus asks, “Is this important to me?”

  • Level 2 (Amygdala): The amygdala (also subcortical) manages our emotional connection to an experience. This is where we determine whether something is good for us or not. An angry dog running across the yard, or a person running out of a bank holding a gun is bad, even scary. Your spouse standing with open arms, a broad smile, and a gleam in their eyes is good. The amygdala asks, “Is this good, bad or scary?”

  • Level 3 (Right, Cingulate Cortex): We also call this the sharing center. This part of our brain is where we maintain an attuned relational connection with someone – even during painful experiences. Someone who is glad to be with you (joy) and is willing to sit listen and affirm your emotions (without trying to “fix” your issue) is someone who wants you to share your emotions. The cingulate asks, “Is this someone I can share with?”

  • Level 4 (Right, Prefrontal Cortex): This “joy center” discerns how we handle our situations. This is where we hold our knowledge of how it is for us to act – how I respond in a way that will satisfy me. The right, PFC asks, “Do I know how to act?”

  • Level 5 (Left Prefrontal Cortex): This is where we determine if we understand or can make sense of a situation. Since this is the left side of the brain, this is where language is used to help us describe and explain the situation. Level 5 functions to interpret the meaning of an experience as it relates to us. The left, PFC asks, “Can I make sense of this?”

As your brain processes information, it is constantly running this path, from level 1 upward and forward to level 5. Any time the function of any of the levels is overwhelmed beyond its skills, or you become distressed, you drop out of this path (the relational circuits switch off) and you are then operating in non-relational, enemy mode and operating predominantly from the left side of your brain. Rather than fully, and healthily processing the pain, the brain is trying to fix the distress – solve the problem.[7]


A client of mine, a leader in an organization, blew up at his team during a meeting. He lost joy with his team and went into enemy mode. He focused on solving his problem rather than processing his fear in a healthy way. If he had remained attuned relationally with his co-workers, shared his issue, discerned (or perhaps learned from them) how to react in a relational and satisfying way, and then consciously explained the circumstance and response, he would have fully processed this fear. The relationships would be healthy and joy would be nurtured. That’s not what happened. Read more about it here. (RARE Leadership, part 2 – Becoming Overwhelmed)


Remaining Relational

As mentioned above, most of us are not aware of these circuits in our brain. Therefore, we don’t know how to use them properly. Part of growing our emotional maturity is by learning to discern whether or not you are in relational mode or enemy mode.


Lehman tells us that while in relational mode, we remain attuned to others and we will:

  • Perceive others as allies,

  • Want to join with them in the collaborative process of exploring the situation together,

  • Want to understand their perspectives (genuine curiosity), and

  • Want to work together to find a mutually satisfying solution.

Can we choose to remain relational? Sadly, no. Our emotional responses to the pain and distress in our lives is involuntary and non-cognitive. But we can sense if and when we switch into enemy mode, and choose to switch back into relational mode. Here are some of the ways you can notice when you are in enemy mode, or your relational circuits are off: 1) you feel annoyed or irritated, 2) you view someone that you usually feel close to as an adversary, 3) you want to isolate, 4) your mind becomes hyper-focused on an issue, 5) you want the problem to just go away, 6) anger, fear, guilt or shame become your motivators, or 7) you become defensive.


There are ways to help yourself get back into relational mode. To remain relational and keep your relational circuits on – or turn them back on – Drs. Marcus Warner and Jim Wilder give us four strategies in an acronym, CAKE. You can read more about them here. (RARE Leadership, part 3 - Relational Circuits)


[1] Karl Lehman, M.D., Outsmarting Yourself: Catching Your Past Invading Your Present and What to Do about It, (Libertyville, IL: This JOY! Books, 2011), 5 [2] Lehman, Outsmarting Yourself, 101 [3] Not all triggers switch you out of relational mode. And, you can be in non-relational mode without being triggered. However, it is most likely that if you’re triggered, you will switch out of relational mode. Also, if you’re not in relational mode it is most likely because you were triggered. [4] Lehman, Outsmarting Yourself, 103 [5] I think of relational circuits not limited to just relationships with people, but for anything that is relatable to my life.

[6] Additional reference: Karl Lehman, M.D., Brain Science, Psychological Trauma, and the God Who Is with Us, Part II: The Processing Pathway for Painful Experiences and the Definition of Psychological Trauma, (K.D. Lehman MD) https://www.kclehman.com/download.php?doc=131

[7] Note: Levels 1 and 2 never go "off." They are both subcortical and will always be functioning.


Acknowledgments

I have to give credit for a good portion of this insight to my friend and mentor Barbara Moon, who patiently invests in me weekly using her book, Joy-filled Relationships.

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