What is resilience: an affiliative neuroscience approach

World Psychiatry. 2020 Jun;19(2):132-150. doi: 10.1002/wps.20729.


Resilience - a key topic in clinical science and practice - still lacks a clear conceptualization that integrates its evolutionary and human-specific features, refrains from exclusive focus on fear physiology, incorporates a developmental approach, and, most importantly, is not based on the negation (i.e., absence of symptoms following trauma). Building on the initial condition of mammals, whose brain matures in the context of the mother's body and caregiving behavior, we argue that systems and processes that participate in tuning the brain to the social ecology and adapting to its hardships mark the construct of resilience. These include the oxytocin system, the affiliative brain, and biobehavioral synchrony, all characterized by great flexibility across phylogenesis and ontogenesis. Three core features of resilience are outlined: plasticity, sociality and meaning. Mechanisms of sociality by which coordinated action supports diversity, endurance and adaptation are described across animal evolution. Humans' biobehavioral synchrony matures from maternal attuned behavior in the postpartum to adult-adult relationships of empathy, perspective-taking and intimacy, and extends from the mother-child relationship to other affiliative bonds throughout life, charting a fundamental trajectory in the development of resilience. Findings from three high-risk cohorts, each tapping a distinct disruption to maternal-infant bonding (prematurity, maternal depression, and early life stress/trauma), and followed from birth to adolescence/young adulthood, demonstrate how components of the neurobiology of affiliation confer resilience and uniquely shape the social brain.

Keywords: Resilience; affiliative brain; biobehavioral synchrony; meaning; mother-child relationship; neurobiology of affiliation; oxytocin system; plasticity; so­ciality.