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The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment & the Developing Social Brain

I had barely started this book and was already recommending it to friends and colleagues. Early in the second edition of The Neuroscience of Human Relationships, psychology professor and private practitioner Louis Cozolino challenges traditional Western philosophy of the lone and separate individual. As Cozolino writes, “Individual neurons or single human brains do not exist in nature. Without mutually stimulating interactions, people and neurons wither and die.”

In many ways, I think this should be required reading for pundits and political and economic theorists, at least in the U.S. Too often these talking heads espouse ideas without the backing of legitimate empirical data. They are like Aristotle postulating that women have fewer teeth than men, but never actually counting teeth to test his hypothesis. According to Cozolino, “While thinkers such as Nietzsche, Machiavelli, and Rand have extolled the virtues of the Ubermensch (superman) and society even lionizes those who gain prominence and success, selfish behavior has not proved to be a successful strategy for group survival.”

His book has a wealth of information, all thoughtfully and clearly presented. (Included, too, are 177 pages of studies cited, with about 15 studies per page.) Cozolino tells the story from an evolutionary and developmental perspective that goes across species. In doing so he shows how all of us and everything around us are interrelated, with nothing existing in isolation.

It is fascinating to read how our way of relating to others and our decision-making processes are largely beyond our consciousness, and how that comes to be. It makes for an excellent and thought-provoking book for those who study psychology, sociology, anthropology, or philosophy. And due to Cozolino’s emphasis on attachment theory and development of the mind — including how he uses neuroscience and attachment theory in helping clients to change — I would recommend his work to parents as well.

As the book describes how nothing exists in isolation, it does so at both micro and macro levels, moving from cells and neuropeptides up to tribes and cultures. Some themes in the book sound remarkably like the Buddhist concept of no self. In the last chapter, Cozolino acknowledges that. With so much of our behavior and decision-making beyond our consciousness, we evolved to construct the concept of self. But we most likely developed the concept of other first. Cozolino discusses the development of empathy, mirror neurons, cooperation, and our brain’s way of making sense of things.

We use labels and categories, he writes, but these are constructs. And we are constantly evolving, constantly rewiring our brain to adapt. We can change because we have neural plasticity throughout our lives — we can change our narrative, our story, in positive ways.

Cozolino devotes a chapter each to four ways in which our social brain can manifest dysfunction: social phobia, borderline personality disorder, psychopathy, and autism. Again, he gives us what is known about developmental history, case studies, and the possibility of change.

The final section of the book is about healing. Here, Cozolino brings together all the power of relationships with how we relate to ourselves and others. He posits that having knowledge of how our brains work in relating to what is around us gives us the power to change.

When we realize that our brains evolved to help us survive and, in doing so, gave emotions like fear a higher place than emotions like love, Cozolino writes, we can start to change the pecking order. Fear is “faster, autonomic, unconscious, spontaneously generalized to other stimuli, multisensory, resistant to extinction.” He gives us the biology: how this develops and what parts of the brain are involved.

Ultimately, Cozolino encourages us to listen and to love, to find ways to mitigate our still-primitive brain’s responses. He gives hope to those who did not have healthy attachments as an infant or child by demonstrating that healthy attachments can still be achieved. Indeed, attachment style is fluid, and even those who do have a healthy style can fall into unhealthy relationships.

As the book concludes, “Getting to know another person requires that we know who we are” — which in turn requires “self-insight, curiosity, wisdom and a still point from which to experience the world.” If we know our limitations and biases, Cozolino writes, that knowledge can help lead us to “a more loving world.”

Cozolino strongly recommends that therapists learn about the neurobiology of behavior and relationships so that we can help clients become more knowledgeable and have more tools for change. I have been using Cozolino’s wisdom and work both for my clients and myself since reading this book. The breadth of empirical knowledge and wisdom it contains is phenomenal.

The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain

W. W. Norton & Company: March, 2014

Hardcover, 656 pages


The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment & the Developing Social Brain

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Stan Rockwell, PsyD

Stan Rockwell, PsyD, LPC has been working in the mental health field for over 40 years. He has worked as a therapist at a state hospital, a community mental health center and has been in private practice since 2009. He has also worked in disaster mental health, crisis intervention, as a client rights investigator and advocate, training and research, and graduate student supervision. He is a past chair of professional development for the Virginia Counselors Association. He has been a volunteer field tester for the World Health Organization in the development of the ICD 11 since 2013 and has been reviewing books for since 2012. He also teaches a class at the College of William and Mary that combines taijiquan and qigong with science and Chinese philosophy. He uses eastern and western methods in his counseling psychology practice. You can find him online at and

APA Reference
Rockwell, S. (2016). The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment & the Developing Social Brain. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 17 May 2016
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 17 May 2016
Published on Psych All rights reserved.