Neuroscience: What is neuroscience, and why are relationships so important?

What is neuroscience, and why are relationships so important to how our brains function? Researchers who study neuroscience and behavior have discovered that one of the biggest moderators of human health is having good human relationships. After a brief overview of what neuroscience is, Notre Dame faculty members Nancy Michael and Connie Snyder Mick will discuss how the field can naturally integrate with the mission of Our Lady’s University, through the lived portions of spirituality. They will be joined by the University of Notre Dame sophomore Arafat Aliyi to discuss how understanding neuroscience and living your faith can provide you with a compassionate perspective about others.

Read the event recap, watch the video, or listen to the podcast below.


  • Spirituality need not conflict with science but can instead provide a reason for investigating the brain and human connections (5:25)
  • “The more I learn about Catholic social tradition and really get to experience just incredible people of such deep faith, it really is astounding to me how much neurobiological mechanisms support all of the compassionate service perspectives of so many faith traditions and just morality in general” (Nancy Michael, 5:25) 
  • “Having a scientific lexicon to talk about and understand what you’ve been through personally is incredibly helpful, and doing that also builds your own capacity for empathy and understanding the challenges that others face (Connie Snyder Mick, 8:07) 
  • “I think that’s one of the unique things about Notre Dame, that we can bring our whole selves to our teaching and to our research and that makes it stronger and more compassionate and empathetic in the long run” (Connie Snyder Mick, 8:31) 
  • “The Center for Social Concerns allows us to do neuroscience differently here. The idea of community-based learning and community-engaged research that the CSC does so well has really become a bedrock of what makes our program so special” (Nancy Michael, 15:22) 
  • “Being able to have a solid understanding of who you are allows you to flourish within a community.” (Arafat Aliyi, 18:48) 
  • “Being able to incorporate my knowledge of neuroscience and comparing that to how children look at their view of the self is something that I found astonishing and has actually influenced me to participate in another Service Learning Project, seeing how…communication and development of children has been severely impacted by COVID-19” (Arafat Aliyi, 19:27) 
  • “From a developmental perspective…it’s critically important to understand that the brain actually has expectations from the environment, and [those] are not only central to a child’s sense of safety and well-being but also form the constructs of worth and efficacy.” (Nancy Michael, 22:26) 
  • “Buffers are those human and material resources that help protect and heal. And the Center [for Social Concerns] has always been about that. We don’t want to just address a problem, we want to build healing and protection into the system” (Connie Snyder Mick, 25:04) 
  • Empathy and experience are essential to both helping people and studying neuroscience (27:25) 
  • “Poverty studies is not about studying poverty. It’s about experiencing. It’s about how we can reattribute social bias, how we can redistribute resources, how we can walk and witness to really understand” (Nancy Michael, 28:05) 
  • Interdisciplinary collaboration benefits both community service and the study of neuroscience  (30:09) 
  • Interpersonal relationships are essential to the development of both children and adults (35:57) 
  • “Being told that you should be functioning on your own takes away that idea that humans are social beings…We do not become good people on our own. We look at good people, we see how they have a positive [influence] on the community, and we desire to be like them.” (Arafat Aliyi, 37:56) 

Event Recap

The first virtual event of the Neuroscience and (your) Behavior series featured a discussion on how scientific understanding of one’s own and others’ brains can foster development, solidarity, and the principles of Catholic social teaching in communities. The event was led by Nancy Michael, Neuroscience and Behavior Associate Teaching Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies, with special guests Connie Snyder Mick, Center for Social Concerns Senior Associate Director and Director of Academic Affairs, and Arafat Aliyi, Notre Dame Class of 2023. The speakers shared how their own experiences with interdisciplinary collaboration and service enhanced both their intellectual and spiritual pursuits. 

After introducing the work done by the Department of Neuroscience and Behavior and Center for Social Concerns (CSC), Michael and Mick showed how collaboration between their areas of expertise can help them better engage with disadvantaged communities. Mick explained that as the CSC partners with a number of different organizations on campus, neuroscientists give them more precise language to discuss the vulnerabilities that people face and how to heal these problems. In turn, Michael conveyed how the community-based learning strategies employed by the CSC enhance both neuroscience students’ and professors’ sense of mission in their discipline. Aliyi then described how the summer and winter session service learning projects she completed last year have helped her put the neuroscience knowledge she gained in the classroom into practice, as she helped children cope with the adverse developmental and social effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Just as interdisciplinary collaboration promotes better understanding of both science and service, Aliyi’s experiences illustrated how interpersonal interactions are neurologically necessary for one’s sense of self. These relationships form an especially essential part of children’s development, as the people around them shape their expectations. Michael explained how young people’s brains are particularly neuroplastic, meaning that they create associations and connections more easily. Thus, they are vulnerable to adverse childhood experiences and must rely on the people around them to develop buffering strategies and mitigate these psychological injuries’ negative effects. However, this importance of relationships does not disappear as one ages. Michael and Aliyi argued that society must think of growing older not as increasing independence but rather a transition from dependence to interdependence, with a continued focus on learning from and growing with each other. 

Interpersonal relationships do not just help humans develop individually, but they also foster solidarity, giving people the knowledge and empathy to assist each other in times of need. While the pandemic has further highlighted the disparities in society and the human need for connection, Michael, Mick, and Aliyi have come together virtually with ThinkND to show how neuroscience and service can together create positive change. 

View the discussion recorded on Thursday, March 18, 2021, with Nancy Michael, Associate Teaching Professor, Neuroscience and Behavior, and special guests, Connie Snyder Mick and Arafat Aliyi ’23. 

At the end of each session, Nancy Michael invites the participants to listen to the same song and consider how the meaning changes as we deepen our understanding of the neurobiological need for interdependence:
for KING & COUNTRY – TOGETHER (feat. Kirk Franklin & Tori Kelly)

Listen to the discussion wherever, whenever, on The ThinkND Podcast:

Other recaps:

Part 2: How experiences influence brain function and long-term health

Register to participate in future discussions.

Health and SocietyScience and TechnologyElizabeth ArchieConnie Snyder MickBiological ScienceSouth BendBrainCenter for Social ConcernsCollege of Arts and LettersCollege of ScienceDiversityKristin ValentinoNancy MichaelNeuroscience and BehaviorPsychologyWilliam J. Shaw Center for Children and FamiliesWomen