Comparing Neural Pathways and Healing Networks

Comparing Neural Pathways and Healing Networks

Hebbes’s principle, proposed by neuropsychologist Donald Hebbe (Hebbe 1940), states that synaptic connections are strengthened when two or more neurons are simultaneously activated in the brain. Neural pathways begin to develop and are strengthened when the individual continues to experience the associated thoughts, behaviors or emotions that relate to these connections. These connections are strengthened  through forward (anterograde) and backward (retrograde) neural communications, and this principle gives us the expression “neurons that fire together, wire together”.

Neural evidence of resilience is seen when an individual engages in new problem-solving activity (thoughts, feelings, or behaviors) in the face of a challenge. The goal of effective crisis response is to establish a safe environment that allows the individual to move past feeling overwhelmed and begin to create a plan to use helpful coping strategies. New behaviors lead to new neural pathways, and hopefully, a new state of equilibrium for the individual when the issue is resolved. For others, particularly those with significant histories of abuse or those under unrelenting stress, their coping mechanisms can be overrun, leaving them further traumatized and in need of support. This is happening very frequently these days and points to the importance of creating vital and effective crisis response networks, which serve their communities to support individuals experiencing crises.

Crisis response networks can learn from Hebbe’s principle by considering the strength of network connections, particularly the forward-and-backward communication between the essential elements of the system that conveys the information to assist individuals in crisis. Crisis response networks are typically a system with many entities: 911/988 crisis lines, Emergency Room (ER) or Comprehensive Psychiatric Rehabilitation (CPEP), Mobile Crisis teams, outpatient behavioral health, Crisis Stabilization Centers, etc. It is beneficial to recognize and strengthen the connections across the continuum through the building of professional relationships and sharing of essential communication. This communication can be client-specific or related to data on key system trends. These relationships represent the “social synapses” and flow of information between people that are essential to building a strong crisis response network.

Psychologist Lou Cozolino, in
The Neuroscience of Human Relationships (Cozolino 2014), used the phrase ‘social synapse’ to describe the “space between us” and the strength of our connections with each other. In responding to an individual in crisis, it is vital to approach the situation with great caring and empathy to ‘tune into’ the individual’s inner world and create a safe space for them. By patiently seeking to understand and validate their experience, we can begin the process of relationship building and supportive problem-solving. It is important to note that individuals who suffer from isolation do not have the benefit of having their thoughts, feelings, and emotions reflected back to them by a caring individual. This type of social connection is vital to help people whose unrestricted thoughts lead them into anxiety, depression, or some other ‘dark’ place. Hopefully, a crisis responder who has built a relationship with an individual in need can help them understand the benefit of longer-term support and connect them with the behavioral or physical health services they need.

Just as evidence of an individual’s resiliency can be seen in the many new neural pathways that are created and strengthened through new action, a local crisis response system can be strengthened through increased communications and connections across the continuum of services. Effective information sharing across 911/988, Mobile Crisis, ER/CPEP, inpatient, outpatient, etc. is needed to support the engagement of individuals in need. It is also important to develop a crisis response ‘nerve center’ responsible for communication across the reach of the system. The greatest priority is to provide timely, trauma-informed responses to individuals in crisis so that we can understand their needs and connect them to longer-term supports. Combining a trauma-informed connection with effective communication and engagement across the system will strengthen crisis system pathways and benefit  individuals in crisis.


Hebb, D. O. (1940). ”
Human Behavior After Extensive Bilateral Removal from the Frontal Lobes“. Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry. 44 (2): 421–438.

Cozolino, L. J. (2014)
The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain (2
nd Ed). W.W. Norton & Company.