attachment theory

Wired to Connect – The Emotional Brain and “Feeling Felt”



Part 3


Secure attachment is built on the attunement of the parent with the infant. Attunement entails both low- and high-road circuits; ‘‘primal empathy,’’ including nonverbal synchrony, is a subcortical, emotional resonance between individuals; and ‘‘empathic accuracy’’ requires activation of the prefrontal cortex as thought and feeling are joined in understanding the other (Goleman, 2006). Siegel emphasizes contingent communication in healthy parent-child relationships, in which parents modulate and attune their responses to the child’s needs. With parental empathy, the child ‘‘feels felt’’ (Siegel & Hartzell, 2003) and develops a confidence in his or her experience. Self-esteem and self-confidence are built on this interpersonal dance of attunement and empathy. Among the neural components of empathy are mirror neurons. These neurons were first discovered in the early 1990s in monkeys.

An experimenter returning from lunch was licking an ice cream cone as he came into the lab to resume studies of a monkey’s brain, which was wired for the test. The experimenter was astonished to find that the part of the monkey’s brain that would fire if the monkey itself was eating, fired when watching the experimenter eat his ice cream (Goleman, 2006). The mirror neuron system in humans is more complex and allows us to feel what another is doing or feeling as if we were doing or feeling it ourselves: ‘‘This system of mirror neurons may be the early basis for how one mind creates the mental state of another inside itself’’ (Siegel & Hartzell, 2003, p. 65). This ability ‘‘to know another from the inside out’’ (Cozolino, 2006, p. 202) accounts for the immediate, visceral sense of resonance that we experience in moments of connection and empathy. ‘‘Feeling felt’’ is important in adult relationships as well as in parent-child interactions. Empathy soothes us and makes us feel safe. ‘‘An act of empathy is a masterly tension reducer’’ (Goleman, 1995, p. 143). We tune in to each other beneath awareness: ‘‘When two people feel rapport, . . . their very physiology attunes’’ (Goleman, 2006, p. 28). As in infant-parent attunement, lovers attune through the eye gaze. ‘‘Locking eyes loops us. To reduce a romantic moment to an aspect of its neurology, when two people’s eyes meet, they have interlinked their orbitofrontal areas, which are especially sensitive to face-to-face cues like eye contact’’ (Goleman, 2006, pp. 63–64).

Simon Baron-Cohen (2003), in his research on autism, developed the Reading the Mind Through the Eyes test, in which the subject is to read the emotion on another’s face only by looking at the eyes. Autistics score poorly on this test and tend to have damage in the mirror neuron system for reading facial expressions (Goleman, 2006); although able to describe a social interaction, they may not be able to feel it from the inside out.

The downside of empathy and resonance is that we can drive each other into states of dysregulation quickly, and beneath awareness. Through mirror neuron and other neurophysiological systems, we feel with others, for good or for bad. The ‘‘limbic tango’’ (Goleman, 1995, p. 141) of many heterosexual couples in conflict has been studied by Gottman (1999): When a wife raises conflictual issues, the husband’s heart rate may escalate, flooding him physiologically; he then shuts down or stonewalls, leaving the wife with the highly distressed heart rate.

Similarly, emotionally dysregulated parents communicate their distress to their children even if there is no explicit discussion, and even if parents deny that they are upset. To feel empathic with another to have ‘‘mindsight’’ (Siegel, 1999) one must be calm and receptive (Goleman, 1995); empathy does not coexist with agitation or preoccupation. Mindsight is facilitated in children when parents have ‘‘reflective conversations’’ (Siegel & Hartzell, 2003, p. 223) with their youngsters about each person’s experience. Siegel sees us as hardwired for mindsight potential but emphasizes that the capacity is nurtured and shaped through experience.

Empathy is not a steady state; even in healthy relationships, breaks or ruptures in attunement are inevitable. Siegel differentiates between these normative disconnections and ‘‘toxic ruptures’’ (Siegel & Hartzell, 2003, p. 193), as when a parent has entered the low road of rage or reactivity, and the relationship may become traumatic and damaging to the young child. Siegel highlights the importance of repair following disconnections or ruptures; without repair, the child is left with a sense of humiliation (Schore, 2003) and a discomfirmation of his or her experience and self-worth. Siegel and Hartzell note that it is difficult while on the low road of rage to recover immediately and resume the high road; they recommend that parents wait until they calm down before having a repair conversation with their child. Similarly, in working with couples caught up in reactivity and elevated heart rates, Gottman and Gottman (2005) recommend a Take a Break ritual of at least 20 minutes, resuming the conversation when both are calmer. Gottman (1999) also emphasizes the role of repair in couples’ relationshipsFeither explicit repair attempts such as apology and forgiveness, or subtler repair such as touch or humor.

In his latest book, focusing on mindfulness meditation, Siegel (2007) proposes that mindfulness, a kind of ‘‘intrapersonal attunement’’ (p. 16), uses the same ‘‘resonance circuitry’’ (p. 165) as empathy with others, ‘‘harness[ing] the social circuits of the brain’’ (p. 347). He suggests that ‘‘in mindful awareness we can transition from being reactive to becoming receptive’’ (p. 127); this intrapersonal openness would presumably promote interpersonal receptivity as well. In Siegel’s view, mindful awareness both builds ‘‘vertical integration’’ (p. 298) between mind and body and promotes a ‘‘consciousness [that] permits choice and change’’ (p. 298).”

Reference link

  1. Fishbane, M. D. (2007). Wired to connect: Neuroscience, relationships, and therapy. Family Process, 46(3), 395-412.

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