Cat Thrasher: The Science Behind Family, and How it Informs my Work

Whole-family group shots and interactions between people are my absolute favorite photos to take. While it’s true that a picture of a person alone can be beautiful and dramatic, it’s the interaction between people that gives the viewer insight into what their life is like, and how they carry themselves on a daily basis. In the future, when a family looks back at these pictures, photos showing these familial interactions will provide a deeper peek into their family’s past. One of the reasons that I’m so interested in these kinds of pictures is the nightly discussion I have with my husband, psychological neuroscientist Jim Coan, about what he calls Social Baseline Theory. The theory states that humans are predisposed to be around other people, and when we are separated from our social baseline (e.g., we are isolated), our brain thinks our body has more to do. (Can’t find that address while driving downtown? Doing it alone is even harder!) This is stressful–and stress isn’t good for us. If we’re chronically alone, we get sick more often, our wounds heal more slowly, we feel depressed–we are even at greater risk of dying!

When it comes to families, Social Baseline Theory takes the work done by John Bowlby and other great infant-parent attachment theorists, and applies a neuroscience framework to it. Bowlby says that infants and children need parents around to help regulate them, emotionally and physically, from the moment they are born. Social Baseline Theory further states that the reason for this needed regulation is that infants and small children have underdeveloped frontal cortices, the part of the brain that contributes to the kind of inhibition and emotional regulation that most mature humans use to recover from stress and avoid danger. Children need to “borrow” the frontal cortices of their caregivers while they work on developing their own brains.

Adults also get exhausted when we overwork our frontal cortex, and the more support we have through friends, loved ones, and especially our spouses, the easier it is to return to our social baseline.

However, children get disregulated much more easily, and require more frontal cortex energy from their caregivers to return to their own baseline. This is why children can sap so much of our energy, and many parents are left so super tired at the end of a day with our kids.

So, what is love? Love is many things, one of which is giving up part of your frontal cortex for someone else. Love is sacrificing for our loved ones, giving them our energy and brain/body regulation, when they need it most.

The pictures that follow show a family in various states of emotional regulation, from smiley hugs to tired hugs, to a few fleeting intimate moments. Then comes the very last shot: a tired toddler, gazing up at his parents, asking for help regulating near the end of a long photo shoot. It’s a small moment, but it’s what families are made of, and it’s Social Baseline Theory in action.

About Cat Thrasher, based in Charlottesville, Virginia: Website | Facebook | Twitter | InstagramContact

Cat is a co-founder and regular contributor to Little Bellows. This post was originally featured on Cat's blog, January 14th, 2013.