The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

Family, the Brain, and Differentiation of Self

Authored by Robert J. Noone, Ph.D.

Editor’s note: This blog is an abstract of the topic Dr. Noone will be speaking on at the 37th Annual Midwest Symposium: Family Systems Theory and Therapy—Online May 1st, 2020

The concept of differentiation of self entails two primary aspects based on the observations of Dr. Bowen. The first is that individuals vary in the degree to which they differentiate or develop emotional autonomy in relation to the family in which they grew up. The second aspect is the degree to which an individual’s higher cortical systems, referred to by Bowen as the intellectual system, differentiate over the course of development. The differentiation of this function underlies an individual’s capacity to utilize the intellectual system in self-regulation and self-direction over their life course. This presentation will describe the above and place these processes in the context of the co-evolution of the family and the brain.

Hominid evolution leading to Homo sapiens is marked by two remarkable developments:

  1. The dramatic expansion of the human forebrain and especially the prefrontal cortex
  2. The emergence of the highly integrated and interdependent human family as a self-regulating adaptive system


It seems likely that these developments co-evolved. Over the course of evolution complex systems emerged consisting of what had previously been more autonomous organisms (bacterial colonies, the eukaryotic cell, multicellular organisms, social organisms such as ant colonies). In this presentation, the human family will be described as such an evolutionary development with the human brain intricately related.

It is posited that the evolution of the human family reproductive system represented one of those transformative developments which allowed for the rapid evolution of the human brain. The integration of hominids into what can be observed as the human family emotional unit occurred at multiple levels (genetic, epigenetic, neuroendocrine, etc.). A number of hypotheses have been developed and researched which attempt to account for the rapid expansion of the human forebrain:

  • the social brain hypothesis
  • the social selection hypothesis
  • the cooperative breeding hypothesis
  • the expensive brain hypothesis

These hypotheses are not exclusive to one another and lend support to the view that the family and brain co-evolved. The differentiation of a self entails a maturational process linked to the interdependency of the members comprising the family unit. The family emotional system is viewed to be a self-regulating adaptive system shaping the degree to which its members develop the capacity to self-regulate or the degree to which they are other-regulated. The presentation at the Midwest Symposium on May 1st, 2020 will postulate on the evolutionary roots of this process.


Co-founder, Center for Family Consultation, Evanston, IL
Faculty, The Bowen Center for the Study of Family, Washington, DC

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