Trust and the Brain

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Trust is the foundation of a healthy society. Difference can be a source of friction, fear, and distrust. Getting to know others more deeply — seeing that they are just as human as ourselves — takes the edge off difference and makes us feel less threatened and more safe and secure. Dialogue builds trust and strengthens community. It is the starting point for resolving many of our most complex problems. It provides the energy for positive change. It is the core of the Integral Strategy approach.


The human brain is still largely a mystery, but science is continually advancing our understanding of how it works, and is revealing the many ways it shapes who we are. We are a social species — a reality reflected in brain structures and neurotransmitters that govern how we relate to each other. We are learning that these same brain structures and chemicals may influence our philosophical orientation, making us more or less accepting of change, more liberal or conservative. This has profound implications for how society works. We collectively defend the status quo — preserving what works — while striving at the same time to make change. The challenge is to harmonize these differences.

Brain Structure

Fear of strangers and anxiety when separated from a parent is a natural stage in child development, occurring in babies around the age of nine months. In most children the phase is brief, ending by the time they are two. In some children fear persists — a temperamental trait called behavioral inhibition. This may lead to later development of social anxiety in teenagers and adults.

Behavioral inhibition is associated with a particular region of the brain. Functional magnetic resonance imaging in teenagers identified as behaviorally inhibited when they were babies showed an overly sensitive amygdala – a pair of almond-shaped structures located deep in the brain. Research at the Stanford University School of Medicine has linked the size and connectivity of the amygdala to the level of anxiety experienced.

The amygdala is widely connected to other areas of the brain. It is part of the brain’s limbic system, receiving sensory inputs, detecting threats, and triggering a fight-or-flight response. It processes emotions and determines what memories to store and where to store them. It plays a central role in our emotional life – mediating both fear and attraction.

There is other confirming evidence of this role. Research has found that the amygdala becomes hyperactive in patients experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It has also shown that autistic individuals with the most social impairment have the highest levels of amygdala arousal.

The converse is also true. Individuals with damage to the amygdala are more likely to see others as trustworthy. Reducing amygdala activity also reduces social fear and anxiety. Scientists at the University of Zurich administered the hormone oxytocin to volunteers though a nasal spray, using brain imaging to confirm that it reduced amygdala activity. The result: these individuals became more trusting.

The Trust Hormone

Oxytocin has been called the ‘trust hormone.’ It plays an important role in romantic relationships and sexual reproduction, and influences social behavior in many animal species. It increases feelings of connection, attachment and intimacy. It is released in the brain when we hug someone or shake their hand. Sometimes a gaze alone is sufficient. The name oxytocin is based on the Greek word oxytocic, meaning ‘quick birth,’ since it also induces labor in childbirth. It plays an important role in mother-infant bonding.

Oxytocin enhances well-being by reducing stress and lowering blood pressure. It has also been linked to spiritual experience. In a study of men led by Patty Van Cappellen, a social psychologist at Duke University, participants reported a greater sense of spirituality when they took oxytocin. Quoted in an article in Duke Today (September 20, 2016), Van Cappellen said, “Spirituality is complex and affected by many factors. However, oxytocin does seem to affect how we perceive the world and what we believe.”

Patients with medical conditions that reduce oxytocin production have been found to be less empathetic. Their ability to recognize facial expressions in standard empathy tests (“Reading the Mind in the Eyes” and “Facial Expression Recognition”) was directly related to their oxytocin levels.

Attitudes Toward Change

Ryota Kanai and co-researchers at University College London surveyed university students to determine their political orientation. Subsequent MRI scans found differences in the brains of liberals and conservatives (Current Biology. April 26, 2011). Those with more liberal views had a larger anterior cingulate cortex – the area of the brain that processes conflicting information. This may be linked to a greater tolerance for uncertainty. Those with more conservative views had a larger amygdala – the brain area that recognizes threats. Other research has shown that conservatives react more strongly to threats than liberals.

This seems to support the experience in most societies that liberals tend to pursue change while conservatives are more likely to protect the status quo. John Bargh, a professor of social psychology at Yale University, wrote in a recent Washington Post article (November 22, 2017): “[O]ver a decade now of research in political psychology consistently shows that how physically threatened or fearful a person feels is a key factor — although clearly not the only one — in whether he or she holds conservative or liberal attitudes.” Everyone becomes more conservative when they feel threatened, scientists say, and feeling safe and secure helps people take a more liberal view.

In a study published in the Nature journal, Scientific Reports (December 23, 2016), Sarah Gimbel and Sam Harris looked at resistance to change. They recruited 40 self-identified liberals, and used functional MRI to see how their brains responded when their political beliefs were challenged. People who were more resistant to changing their minds showed more activity in the amygdala and insular cortex compared to those who were more willing.

Researchers are now asking how much of this is inherited and how much is shaped by the environment. The answer to that question is still unknown.

This article is an excerpt from a book in progress on complexity, collaboration, and the challenges of transformative change. It was first posted on May 15, 2018, on LinkedIn.

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David Forrest

David is the founder of the Integral Strategy Network. He is a writer, futurist, strategist, and facilitator of systemic change.

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