Brain Coupling: I CU, UC ME


1 Lonely

Everyone knows what it’s like to be lonely.

It often happens during life’s transitions: when a student leaves home for college, when an unmarried businessman takes a job in a new city, or when an elderly woman outlives her husband and friends. Bouts of loneliness are a melancholy fact of human existence.

Nearly all of the research shows that it is not diet or exercise but strong social connections- that is, friendships are the key to both longer and more satisfying living.

Are we surprised?

Social Glue

Researchers report that loneliness accelerates age-related declines in cognition and motor function, while a single good friend has been shown to make as much as a 10-year difference in overall life expectancy.

A huge meta-study performed in part at Brigham Young University, which reviewed 148 studies with a combined 308,849 subject participations, found that loneliness is just as harmful to health as not exercising, smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and alcoholism, and fully twice as bad as being obese.

Some of this stems from the fact that isolated people tend to exercise less, eat poorly, and drink too much. But some researchers believe that loneliness has a negative health impact all on its own.

When loneliness becomes a chronic condition, the impact can be far more serious, says John Cacioppo, a social psychologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois.

In numerous studies over the past 30 years, Cacioppo, the pioneer of the biological study of loneliness, has found that lonely people have chronically elevated levels of the stress and fear hormones cortisol and epinephrine.

In a 2007 paper published in Genome Biology, Cacioppo even demonstrated a correlation between loneliness and the activity of certain genes associated with systemic inflammation, elevating risk for viral invasion and cardiovascular disease.

“Loneliness is far more than a social misfortune; it is a significant problem of health and happiness that is distinct from but contributes to the likelihood of depression,” says Cacioppo.

You can have a ton of friends and still feel lonely and isolated.

Alone Crowd

Here are some basic questions for measuring friendship.

Can your friends hear what you’re really saying, do they “get you”?

Do your friends, even one, identify with what you’re feeling so you have the experience of felt feelings?

Who are you understanding?

Who’s understanding you?

This capacity to hear what you’re really saying and feel your feelings is the power of “brain coupling.”

What kind of friends do you want?

The kind of friends you most need, in fact, there might be only one, but you desperately need this one kind of friend. That is the friend who can hear you and feel what you feel. And this means that you do the same for them.

If you read this far, here is the most important kernel of truth.

If you want friends who hear what you say and feel what you feel, who give you the experience of understanding, you have to be able to do the same.

Brain coupling goes both ways.

Brain Coupling

If you want to be a really good friend, what helps most is if you know what you think and you can differentiate that from what you feel.

For coaches, it’s an absolute essential to be masters of this skill of brain coupling.

©Dr. William K. Larkin



About the author

Dr. William K. Larkin
  • A Pyatt

    The more truly rich, friendships you have, the more fulfilling your life can be, and the more you truly understand someone and share that with them, the more they will be likely to do the same for you. It’s not just brain coupling, but also the energy given, within a truly reciprocal friendship, that bonds a meaningful lasting friendship. It’s a reciprocal journey that two people take as ‘friends’. It is the ‘friendships’ that are not like this that create loneliness within a ‘crowd’. If there isn’t a connection, there is not areal soul satisfying relationship. On the other hand, if a friendship is not uplifting each of the two people involved, and either person no longer has a sense of feeling protected, this can become a fractured friendship and the deep brain coupling/understanding between two friends can deteriorate. Thus, beginning a sense of loneliness for all involved, as well as a breeding ground for toxic behavior.

    I believe Coaching requires a connection: a real sense of understanding of where it is a Client might be coming from, similar to a marriage. If a Coach and a Client are not connecting than there really will never be any brain coupling, transitioning, or any other meaning making taking place. Without the ability to truly listen, connect, and decipher the emotions from the thoughts, there truly cannot be any real beneficial Coaching taking place.

    • Shelly

      Yes: A Pyatt! The connections we can build in coaching are integral to success. If the client does not feel that the coach “sees them” and “gets them” then they are less likely to fully participate in the co-created relationship that moves people forward. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      • A Pyatt

        Very true about participation! Thanks for commenting! 🙂

        • Shelly


      • kkhm

        Absolutely! You both captured this precisely!

        • Shelly


  • Shelly

    The thinking/feeling piece is key here. Differentiating between thoughts and feelings is what helps me do the most effective brain coupling. For instance: If I listen to a friend who is going through a really tough time and he or she is highly emotional about it, I’m more likely to “sink” with them emotionally if I let myself sympathize. But if I empathize and use my thoughts to encourage and support them, I find the relationship is strengthened.

  • kkhm

    It sounds as if loneliness is just as detrimental to our well-being and health as a downspiral state. There is likely a correlation with loneliness and the down spiral and vice versa. If one is in a down spiral state, developing, nurturing, and sustaining friendships probably is going to be difficult. And conversely, when one is feeling quite lonely, without good coping skills and tools like the emotional gym or state of mind management, one may descend even further into the down spiral.

    In an UpSpiral, we broaden and build. One of the many benefits of positive emotion is that it contributes to an increase in our resources – including our social resources. Simply by having genuine fun with others, and feeling good emotions, we begin to develop the relationships that support us. Barbara Frederickson says [in her paper The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology] that “Social Play with its shared amusement, excitement, and smiles builds lasting social bonds and attachments which can become the locus of social support.”

    We can go beyond just fun and enthusiastic play to deepening our relationship to another by brain coupling. When we develop relationships of mutual understanding, mutual empathy, we really feel understood. Instead of loneliness, we get connection which I think most of us really want. I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t want to be really understood. When someone really gets us, it provides a sort of validation. It supports what we think, what we feel, and really, who we are. It feels great. And it feels just as great to be able to provide that for someone else. Much of life requires navigation through the unknown or traversing confusing and challenging situations. It instills peace when we reflect on having a kindred spirit with whom we don’t have to work hard to understand or use great effort to figure out. This is beautiful and treasured friendship.

    It’s interesting to explore the idea of brain coupling and the benefits it brings as it supports, in part, the value many find in knowing a God, or supreme and benevolent being. There is a sort of brain coupling that occurs between person and God (or whatever word/name/idea one may choose). It’s a great comfort to think there is one who understands you, in every way, down to your very core, and loves and accepts you as you are. One who never needs explanation or justification but rather always understands. Through prayer, devotion, ceremony, etc. people can return that connection and understanding. Much is written about the positive benefits of spirituality, and I believe the connection with a higher power is a source of some of this as it pertains to the effect it has on our brain through this demonstration of brain coupling.

    This could even be a piece (although not all) of the explanation for those amazing examples who, with a strong relationship to a higher power or through the connection with just one other person, were able to endure with amazing results extreme loneliness such as tremendous isolation through imprisonment or other similar circumstance.

    As this post reminds us in the last sentence, brain coupling isn’t only something for intimate friendship or spiritual connection or a tool of survival. It’s a valuable skill for anyone who wants to relate to others and an essential skill for careers in helping or training professions. Good teachers, supervisors, mentors, and coaches are great examples of brain coupling. Not only do they have knowledge and expertise to impart to those they work with, but they are also are able to relate, on an emotional level, with genuine empathy to a struggle or challenge (as well as joys and celebrations) while remaining in their own personal UpSpiral and while holding their own sense of certitude and simultaneously working toward fostering that same UpSpiral and certitude for the other person. Brain coupling is a strength that can be innate and but also can be learned and developed.

  • Kathleen Burkhalter

    This is so true. Loneliness is so hard for so many people. I have a large family and a happy marriage to someone who “gets” me, so I am not lonely. But I know lonely and wonderful people so I make it a point to invest in them. These friends and family have deep pools of inner riches and it is great to truly connect with them. I have been lonely in the past, and I remember how it feels. Connecting, brain coupling with special people is one of the great pleasures of life. Comprehending the difference between knowing and thinking is the most valuable skill and tool.

  • alberts3

    There is nothing better than to have friends in this world! My friends love me and support me in glad times and sad times. Our relationships are reciprocal because I’m there for them as well.

    I have a different relationship each friend and tend to “couple” with them differently. Each has his/her own strengths and approaches, so I rarely feel at a loss. I realize how very fortunate I am.

    I have several siblings, and all of us but one are very social and have many friends. Some of my friends are their friends, and I’m friends with some of theirs as well. My sister that doesn’t have friends, tends to have many physical and emotional difficulties. I don’t know for sure which came first—the health issues or lack of friends. I have a pretty strong suspicion, though.

    My sister, now 78, is the first born of six children. She was very intelligent and could read early. Since they didn’t have kindergartens then, she started first grade but was soon promoted, as a 5 year old to second grade. That, I think gave her a pretty rocky start to learning how to connect with peers. She was so bright, there were many expectations of her from my parents and those in the school setting and became very focused on her academics. She was on her own at age 16, supporting herself as she completed nursing school.

    I don’t remember her having friends, but since she never came back home to live, I wouldn’t really know. I know I never met any of her friends, and never even heard her talk about any. She never married, and I remember her having one boyfriend. She’s a lovely woman, very kind with good social skills, and relies on her siblings when she needs something. As long as I’ve known her as an adult, she’s never seemed to want any friends, a real lack of desire to connect or “couple” with others.

    My sister’s been on medication for depression most of her life, has had many car accidents, broken bones, three shoulder surgeries with two replacements, hip replacements, and has been diagnosed with adult ADHD. We’ve had to clean out her home twice, using a dumpster each time, because of her hoarding. She has many pets, and those give her unconditional love. They mean the world to her.

    We love our sister and make sure she has some social time with us and when possible, with our friends. My sister doesn’t seem to feel she missed out on a life of friends, which seems odd yet understandable. I don’t think she connects any of her health issues with a lack of positive social relationships. Perhaps she felt as though she had to rely on herself and her own resources for so long, she didn’t really require anyone else.

    I’m glad there were so many of us so we can fill in for her, acting as the surrogate friends she never had.

    • A Pyatt

      oh Judy you are so brave to post this. I think sometimes some people really just do not have it within their brains to ‘want’ friends. That maybe it is literally not ever a blip on their radar? I have wondered this previously, because of an autistic gentleman I worked with. It led me to wonder about people who just do not seem to want, or even need friends. Is it the same as an autistic, in that they just do not connect? Or their brain does not signal that want? I am sure I getting the ‘why’, within the brain functions wrong, for someone with autism wrong. But the point is, I really believe some people just do not want this and do not and see it as something that might need to be corrected. I have had times in my life where I had friends, for sure, but really just would rather keep my own constitution. So I can totally understand where she is coming from there. I too have really been on my own since I was about 16. Granted I still lived in my mother’s home, but she was never there and even when she was, she either wasn’t present, or I made myself scarce and never saw her. So I understand the thinking, ‘I have always handled my own things, adding a friend into the mix of MY issues will just further complicate things’. I get that. In fact, until someone recently pointed out that I have a habit of not sharing what my issues are, that I tend to isolate that part of me, from what I reveal to other’s, did I specifically go about further nurturing the friendships I have. There’s a reason some of my oldest friends call me ‘the cleaner’. I tend to clean up everyone else’s messes. And as someone who was in the hospitality industry for years, sometimes, when I would get home from work, the last thing I wanted to do was deal with more people – and it did not matter who it was. So it might also be the exhaustion of being a nurse, and how focused she might have been on her patients needs, that maybe by the time she even thought of developing friendships or a social life, it might have been too late for her. I understand some of this, and empathize with her. Sorry to make it seem as if I making this about me, I can just so see where had I turned a different corner, or not had a need for a friend, I so could have been your sister. I am only relating that I know how easy it would have been to fall into the life you described of your sister. But, I will say, I am so damned proud you and your siblings have never neglected her. That is just amazing.

  • Mary Garvey Horst

    As I read this post, I was reminded of the ongoing power of the UpSpiraLife Group. There are four key questions found in this blog article targeted toward friendship(s) that are used weekly as a part of the UpSpiraLife format. Gratefully, I have had the consistent experience of “brain coupling” with other USL members within our group. With regularity, both understanding another and being understood by a caring other creates a level of connection that uproots feelings of loneliness. If you are not currently a member of or facilitating an ongoing USL group, consider doing so. These Twelve New Steps for a New Millennium were designed by Dr. Larkin to create “sanctuaries of positivity” world-wide.

  • Dr. gloria wright

    Loneliness is not good for us. That’s not new news, but having respected research to back that fact up is heartening. Prevalent research shows that strong social connections increase the satisfaction and longevity of our lives.

    Dr. Larkin reports from research “that loneliness accelerates age-related declines in cognition and motor function” – even more than lack of exercise, smoking, alcoholism and obesity. But loneliness is not always abated by just being with people. It’s about deep, meaningful connection. In science this is called brain coupling. Really good news here – we can learn to connect on a more personal level.

    My guess is that not everyone knows “how” to connect on a deep level. Texts and emails are not bad, but Dr. Frederickson (UNC) points out the importance of voice and/or face time for meaningful connection. It also means getting yourself off your mind – and moving into empathy. We all have a deep need to be understood. Sometimes the first step to being understood is to first understand.

    How do you know when you’ve really gotten someone? Reflect back what you just heard (not parroting-use your own words) and add the inflection of your own similar experience. That doesn’t mean that you switch over to your story. It means that you focus on their story with additional empathic understanding from your experience.

    Dr. Cacioppo, from the University of Chicago, stresses that “Loneliness is far more than a social misfortune; it is a significant problem of health and happiness that is distinct from but contributes to the likelihood of depression.”

    Until you can learn and practice to deepen relationships, get a dog – or cat. It will make a difference. But animals cannot replace the companionship of a good friend. A friend of mine describes a good friend as “someone you can be your favorite self with.” That means being authentic. Authenticity is another subject to ponder.

  • Beverly Harvey

    When you brain couple with someone, it is a very sweet moment of connection that warms the heart. As Dr. Larkin mentions in Facebook post, “Does This Raise A ‘Red Flag’ In Your Mind?”, I too always try to connect with people who are serving me. In the grocery store and restaurants, I always initiate the process with the checkout clerk or wait staff and I have developed a good rapport with many of them. On a deeper scale, I have several close friends with whom I’ve bared my sole and felt the brain coupling and loving support. And, of course, there is the reciprocation. A few years ago I helped a friend overcome a series of major transitions in her life that left her in a severe downspiral. She had not asked for help, I just reached out and offered because we had that deep connection and I couldn’t bear to see her in that condition. Today she is soaring.

  • Beverly Harvey

    As an executive resume writer, I partner with senior level executives in helping them create their marketing materials. With many of my clients, I’ve been able to brain couple with them and they’ve told me things they would never say in an interview in an effort to develop a strategy for moving forward. Clients often tell me they have never discussed “this” with anyone. A couple of clients call me before anyone else – even their wives – to share career-related news – good and bad. Having been in this field for more than 20 years, I’m able to “get them” – get their pain and concerns and help them progress in their careers.

  • Beth Montgomery

    Brain coupling is a two way street. I think listening and “hearing” someone is such an important skill and one we can always work on. Being heard is something to feel grateful for and adds to human connection on such a deep level. This is satisfying to both parties and creates warmth, gratitude and so much more. I feel grateful to have people in my life that “I get” and that “get” me. My sister, my life love and friends…brain coupling at its best, open conversations where sometimes words don’t even need to be said.

  • Jo-Anne

    It is interesting, and heartening to see that there is finally research to support how dangerous loneliness can be to one’s health. As a health care provider, I have seen the effects of loneliness during illness. There are times, myself, when even in a crowd I have felt alone. I now understand it is because I was in a place that wasn’t authentic, and I wasn’t being “heard”, and how significant the impact of that was. I also have felt the blessings to “brain couple” with several close friends, and my sister. I agree that often transitions in our lives can put us in a lonely place. What is exciting to me, with this work at ANI, that we have tools at our fingertips to work with that keep us in the UpSpiral, where we are much more inclined to reach out, connect and brain couple with others in a meaningful way. I have said in other posts, that along this path with ANI, I find myself wanting more of those “authentic ‘ relationships in my life.

  • kathy poehnert

    I have always distinguished between being “alone” and being “lonely” I enjoy solitude, and have always enjoyed my own company, yet I am also someone who “comes alive” when I am around others- a lot of my energy comes from being around people. It seems as if loneliness may be a choice, based on what we are learning- the more that the brain moves towards the idea that “no one understands me”,” no one hears me,” the greater the degree of loneliness I would imagine. I also wonder if loneliness may also stem from that idea that the brain needs novelty to continue to grow as we age. Perhaps lonely people come from a neuroceptive place of threat, and may be fearful of meeting new people, or trying new experiences that would help them to feel more connected and less lonely.

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