The idea of mirror neurons continues to prompt considerable controversy; some researchers argue that empirical evidence for the existence of such cells is scant, while others suggest that neuroscience has yet to fully grasp the implications of neurons behaving like mirrors. Regardless, the discussion about mirror neurons has pressed neuroscience into new frontiers, and it has suggested new avenues of inquiry for not only scientists, but also for doctors and psychologists. Among those avenues is a relatively recent field of study called interpersonal neurobiology. The growth of that field is virtually unimaginable without the discoveries by Rizzolatti and his Parma team.
Dan Siegel is the forefather of this recent movement, coining the term "interpersonal neurobiology" in the late 1990s, though others can be attributed with new discoveries in the field as well. Bryson is one of the many researchers to follow Siegel into the field and who've found their own footing as international experts and sought-after speakers; they reflect the expanding influence of interpersonal neurobiology as a way of thinking about family relationships. Meanwhile, Siegel's ideas are still finding their ways into not only parenting networks and the popular press, but also schools across the country. Some, like the Blue School in New York City, even shape their entire curriculum around his ideas.
Interpersonal neurobiology envisions the brain as a social organ, one whose processes can best be understood by its interaction with a variety of complex systems. Among those systems, and one that sets the field apart from simply neurology or biology, is the emotional system that develops in relationships. In terms of what happens inside the brain, that system is just as real as, say, the system that processes our eyesight and deciphers it into meaningful images for us.
Siegel, Bryson, and others in the field simplify the science behind their work by relying on a longstanding theory of the brain that divides the organ into three general parts: the cerebral cortex, the brain stem, and the limbic system The cerebral cortex is our rational, human brain, and the brain stem is our "reptilian" or lizard brain, the one that basically exists to keep us alive in times of threat. The limbic system functions as a connector but remains primitive, often encouraging behaviors without giving the cortex time to process and encourage a different, frequently better course of action.
When we discipline, argue Siegel and Bryson, our limbic system can become reactive and emotional; or worse, the lizard brains take control in not just our child, who is raising hell and biting and hissing like a pissed-off gecko, but in us as well, as we raise our voices and flail about trying to scare off the lizard by transforming into a bigger, meaner one. Will the Komodo dragon beat the gecko? In some ways, sure. But that little lizard learns one thing, and that is for it to win, it needs to grow stronger, get bigger, and bite harder. If, however, parents can channel their inner Steve Irwins and find ways to approach the lizard child with respect for how it is acting—which is ultimately an adaptive and useful way to keep it alive in the face of danger and stress—then we might not only make contact with the creature, but teach it that it has nothing to fear so that it can back away, return to its cave, and let the less hissy, more rational kid come back out to play.