Integrative Psychotherapy Articles
Contact, Attunement, and Our Vagal Tone
Richard G. Erskine
While flying home this past week after doing a series of workshops in Asia, I had the opportunity to read about current research that verifies what we practice as Transactional Analysts . In Asia I was teaching about Life Scripts. One part of the definition I teach emphasizes that “life scripts are complex patterns of unconscious relational patterns ... that inhibit spontaneity and limit flexibility in problem-solving, health maintenance, and in relationship with people” (Erskine, 2010, p. 1). In both my practice of psychotherapy and in human relations consulting I often focus on the significance of caring and vitalizing relationships in maintaining optimal mental and physical wellbeing. While reading about Barbara Fredrickson’s research in a new book entitled, Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become (Fredrickson, 2013),
I was reminded of two of our purposes as relational and integrative Transactional Analysts: to enhance the quality of relationships in our clients’ lives and help our clients maintain good physical health.
I am always astonished when I observe that many people in public places are bent over a digital screen thumbing their way through an electronic maze. They are deeply absorbed in what they are doing and seem to be out of contact with what and who is in their immediate surroundings. Fredrickson's writings describe how such non-personal electronic button pushing may have a negative toll on our biological capacity to connect with other people. Such habits, devoid of human interaction, eventually shape the very structure of our brains in ways that reinforce our proclivity for that habit. The less we emotionally connect with others, the harder it eventually becomes to connect interpersonally. Donald Hebb, a neuropsychologist from McGill University, has shown that neurons that fire together, wire together. Therefore, repetitive experiences leave imprints on our neural pathways, a phenomenon called neuroplasticity. What we do routinely soon becomes an ingrained neuro-pattern.
In a recent article Barbara Fredrickson (2013b) describes how plasticity, the propensity to be shaped by experience, occurs both in muscles and in the brain. You already know that when we live a sedentary life our muscles atrophy and our physical strength is diminished. In a similar vein, the style in which we transact with others -- our habits of interpersonal contact -- also leave an imprint on our brain. Fredrickson reports that her research team conducted a longitudinal study on the effects of people cultivating warmer interpersonal connections in daily life. They designed a six-week program that trained participants to develop more warmth and tenderness toward themselves and others. The researchers discovered that by the end of the program the participants not only felt more lively and socially connected, they also altered a key part of their cardiovascular system called the vagal tone.
Our brain is tied to our heart by the vagus nerve. Recent research has discovered that minute variations in our heart rate reveal the strength of this brain-heart connection and, as such, provides an index of our vagal tone. The vagal tone can be either “dorsal” or “ventral”. The dorsal reflects passivity and a shutting down that occurs when there has been cumulative neglect and a lack of relational contact. The ventral reflects pleasurable social engagement that comes from such activities as nursing, eye-to-eye contact, soothing touch, kissing, and pleasant voice tones. The higher our ventral vagal tone, the better we are able to regulate the internal systems that keep us healthy, such as our cardiovascular and immune responses. Neuroscientists used to think that the vagal tone was largely stable, like our height in adulthood. Fredrickson’s data show that this part of our brain-to-heart connection, the vagal tone, is plastic and amenable to change. Our ventral vagal tone can be increased by our engaging and caring social habits.
The ventral vagal tone is central to interpersonal contact; it is responsive to facial expressivity, comforting touch, and the frequency of the human voice. As we expand our capacity for person-to-person connection, empathy, and harmony, we increase our ventral vagal tone. In short, the more we are affectively attuned to others, the healthier we become. This mutual influence also explains how a lack of positive social contact diminishes an individual's vitality. Our heart’s capacity for friendship, just like our muscles, obeys the biological law of “use it or lose it”. If we don’t regularly exercise our ability to be in relational contact -- to be affectively attuned to others -- we will eventually lack some of the basic biological capacity to do so.
The human brain, like our body, is amenable to change and growth, provided we exercise it regularly. As we repeatedly engage in activities that include person-to-person contact, nurturing and caring gestures, and full involvement with others we develop new neuro-pathways that increase our ventral vagal tone. The increase in vagal tone affects both our quality of relationships and our physical health. Our individual and collective life scripts will change as we develop these new neuro-patterns.
When we share a smile, have an empathic exchange, or laugh together face-to-face, a discernible synchrony emerges between us -- our gestures and biochemistries, even our respective neural firings, begin to mirror each other. It is in micro-moments like these -- in which waves of good feelings reverberate through two brains and bodies at once -- that we build our capacity to be attuned to the other, to be empathetic, and to improve our physical health. If we do not regularly exercise our capacity to be attuned to the other’s affect and rhythm, to smile and laugh together, to express our gratitude and love for each other, we lessen the capacity to do so. Our physical health then suffers. So, let’s reach out and make real contact, let’s smile and laugh together, let’s be sensitive to each other’s emotions, and let’s stay physically healthy together as we stimulate our brain-to-heart ventral vagal tone.
Erskine, R. G. (2010). Life scripts: Unconscious relational patterns and psychotherapeutic involvement. In (Ed.) R. G. Erskine, Life Scripts: A Transactional Analysis of Unconscious Relational Patterns. London: Karnac Books.
Fredrickson, B. (2013a). Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become. New York: Hudson Street Press.
Fredrickson, B. (2013b). Your phone vs. your heart. International Herald Tribune. March 26, 2013. p.7