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|Brain to Brain|
Brain to Brain
The talking cure goes beyond words
by Janina Fisher
As I'm trying to prepare dinner, my 6-year-old granddaughter, Ruby, is tormenting her little sister with pokes and pushes. Tired, too, I feel myself tighten up, ready to bark, "Ruby, leave your little sister alone!" But instead, I pause and relax my body. I can see that Ruby is wired after a long, adventurous day at the park. If I reprimand her, I know I'm just piling on stress and asking for trouble. So I take a breath and notice a different impulse about what to do.
Whispering her name with a big smile and secretive air, I motion for her to come over to me. "Ruby," I say in hushed tones, as if conveying a top-secret message, "in a few minutes, Nika is going to start crying," I say sadly, "and then I'll have to give her all my attention." My body takes on the language of disappointment, "And I don't want that: then I won't be able to give any attention to you." She gives me a knowing look, cocks her head, and smiles. Nothing more needs to be said.
So what does this grandmotherly anecdote have to do with brain science? For millions of years, parents of all mammalian species, particularly humans, have had to undergo a crash course in "interactive neurobiology" to nurture their young. Most parents soon learn which postures are soothing, which tones of voice, which kinds of rocking, how much movement. Why do we learn so quickly? Because we ourselves are biologically thrown off-kilter by an infant's cries. Alan Schore calls this trait "adaptive projective identification": an infant communicates distress directly to our bodies, and in offering comfort, we regulate our own discomfort. The sense of soothing and warmth we feel as the baby falls asleep in our arms reflects this phenomenon.
Over time, as parents consistently respond to an infant's distress or pleasure, minimizing the former and maximizing the latter, a nervous system is neurobiologically sculpted to be well-regulated: able to tolerate strong emotions and return to optimal states. Dan Siegel calls this the "window of tolerance," a window that may be wide or narrow, depending upon our experience. Attuned parents, without intellectual awareness of the neurobiological changes happening in their bodies, autoregulate their responses to infants and young children, overcoming boredom, fatigue, and frustration to find—and then repeat endlessly—just the right combination of movements, facial expressions, and tones of voice to elicit optimal arousal states in them.
But while parents clearly need to be attuned in this way, what does "interactive regulation" have to do with psychotherapy? The more we learn about the brain, the more apparent it becomes that, if we're to guide people in the process of change, we need to pay at least as much attention to the body and nervous system—theirs and ours—as to words, emotions, and meaning-making—which, until recently, have been the major focus of therapy.