Feeling the Love: Brain Science is Relationship Science!


Whether you are a speller, parent, professional, family member, or friend, in the world of spelling to communicate, we can all agree on one thing: a supportive relationship ranks high on the list when achieving your goals on and off the boards. We all benefit from connections that reciprocate, that respect, that encourage us to rise to challenges while giving us a safe space to land. Many of us don’t realize, though, that achieving and keeping healthy, fulfilling relationships means keeping our brains healthy and happy!

Ok ok, I know you might be thinking “Sounds great, but I can only do so much to change my brain – at a certain point we’re all hard-wired to interact in certain ways!”  It can be easy to assume that, especially as we get older, our neurons lock us into patterns of being, but fortunately evolutionary science and neuroplasticity are on our side with this one! We know more everyday about the flexibility of the brain, and how our awareness of and choices about our actions can build the neurological connections that serve us and the people we love best: in S2C, this can mean helping you AND your speller calm anxieties, develop your flow, test yourselves with new skills, and communicate more effectively. 

Knowing how to use our brain to our advantage means understanding a few of the key players, so here goes a mini anatomy and physiology lesson! First up is our brainstem which controls autonomic (i.e. unconscious) functions necessary for life like our heart beat, breathing rate, and digestive activities. It also controls the arousal vs. calming mechanisms of our nervous system (the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, respectively) to help us respond to threats when needed and rest when we are safe: many factors can stimulate the action of either system including-you guessed it-our interactions with other people!

The next three players are part of the limbic system- the hypothalamus, which-among other functions-regulates hormones and emotion; the hippocampus, which allows us to save experiences as explicit memory, or memory we can recall consciously; and the amygdala. While we think of the amygdala as only an alarm system (there’s a bear, run!), evolutionary science is showing us that it is also highly important in social interaction! Because ancestral humans relied on each other for survival, they had to know who they could trust and who they couldn’t. The amygdala used its strength of quick risk assessment and applied it to our relational experiences to tell us rapidly which people or social situations were “safe” vs. “unsafe”. In other words, we can thank our amygdala for trying to tell us public speaking is risky business.

Of course, our ancestors (and we!) needed a lot more than the quick-to-judge amygdala to navigate relationships, and that is where our frontal lobe steps in-in fact, scientists now believe the frontal lobe developed because we became social! Two areas specifically, the medial pre-frontal cortex (mPFC-our social brain!) and the anterior cingulate (which focuses attention) act to help us emotionally regulate and experience empathy. The mPFC-stimulated by the bonding hormone oxytocin from our friendly hypothalamus- extends neural connections down to the amygdala, helping to calm fear and intense emotion. The more the mPFC is engaged, the stronger these connections become!

The beauty of this system is that we can activate our mPFCs both with our own thoughts or choices AND through the support of others who have strong mPFC skills! Our frontal lobes love getting input from those around us, pulling clues from each other’s words, voices, facial expressions, and perceived emotions and holding them up as a mirror for how we can “be”. Basically, if the person I trust is calm and empathetic, I can be so too, and my brain becomes better at being calm and empathetic itself as it learns from these examples. 

What does this mean for us in S2C? Well, as with any relationship, we learn best when we feel calm, supported, and accepted. As speller and CRP teams, the more readily we can reach this state individually and together, the more easily we can step into the exhilarating challenge of building board skills or developing other purposeful motor goals. Everyone’s road to becoming an mPFC superstar will differ, but a few key tips can get us all on the right path.

  1. Find your Regulators – Spend time with the people in your life that give your mPFC calming and regulating feedback, and let your frontal lobe benefit from learning by example. 
  2. Try mindfulness exercises – This can be anything that lets you pause and check in. Deep breathing, a hand to the heart, meditation, etc. are all practices that put us in touch with our autonomic and limbic system responses and get our mPFC back online to help regulate them. Experiment with some options to find what works for you as individuals and as a team!
  3. Communicate, communicate, communicate – Hearing and meeting each other’s expectations goes a long way toward building trust and those calming neural networks. Take the time to check in with each other (the corresponding lesson to this blog can be helpful!) so that you can both enter practice time with your mPFC already online and ready to engage! 
  4. Move Toward – When a stressor does arise, often our limbic/autonomic responses will tell us to try to control or disengage. Learning in and asking ourselves questions like “What could be affecting the situation?” and “What does this person need at this time?” though, activate our mPFC and its strengths of empathy. Empathy helps to grow those fibers down to the amygdala even more, meaning a stressor can become a chance to strengthen our calming circuit. 
  5. “Venture into Error” – All good things take time and practice, and almost always mean learning curves! This is ok, and is a great opportunity to engage your empathetic mPFC-remember you are both doing your best in any given moment and you are developing tools for the long run.


Feeling the Love-Brain Hacking Your Relationships Lesson

By Bryana Williams, M.S. CCC-SLP and Registered

I-ASC S2C Practitioner 


Resources and Links






The mission of I-ASC is to advance communication access for nonspeaking individuals globally through trainingeducationadvocacy and research I-ASC supports all forms of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) with a focus on methods of spelling and typing. I-ASC currently offers Practitioner training in Spelling to Communicate (S2C) with the hope that other methods of AAC using spelling or typing will join our association.

Posted By on Wednesday, February 19th, 2020 in Education,Families,Motor,Nonspeakers,Research,S2C,Spelling to Communicate

2 responses to “Feeling the Love”

  1. Grace Costanzo says:

    Bryana, The reading was so informative. You put so much thought into your explanations. Yes everyone’s road to being a Superstar differs. Presume Competence-Know that it’s all attainable.
    ♥️Your key tips to help get on the right path.
    Thank you, Grace Cohort 6

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