Resonance: the art of co-existing

Spinoza speculated that if the nature of someone else’s body is like the nature of your own body, so our ideas about someone else’s body, the way we imagine it, will involve an affection of our own body with the affection of another person’s body. Consequently, if we feel someone, like us, can be affected by an affect, this idea will express an affection of our own body, as well as someone else’s.

In psychotherapy, resonance is non-verbal communication. Some authors use different names: for Wilhelm Reich, it is Vegetative Identification; for Jay Stattman, Organic Transference; for Stanley Keleman, Somatic Resonance; for Kernberg, Primitive Unit of Object Relations.

Resonance may be perceived and lived in several ways, such as through breathing or dancing. Dialogues or breathing patterns will be seen as functions of social bonding that create or do not create contact.

Breathing means building connections, communicating, crossing bridges.”

A mother who does not resonate with her baby does not communicate; parents who do not resonate with their children do not understand them; teachers who do not resonate with their students do not communicate; couples who do not resonate do not feel pleasure in living together; governments that do not resonate with the people do not govern.

Relationships that start from resonant experiences mark territory, educate, teach, train and create a musical relationship of singing and dancing that energizes communication, leaving a melody, a sound, an image, which mark the meaning, the encounter, much more than lost words with no connection with the organism, simple attributes.

Thinking of dance as a communication system that brings in itself some content, which defines space and possibilities prior to the gesture, it will be up to us to make ourselves aware and deal with the possibilities of transformation.

The fact that babies are able to imitate others from birth may lead us to think that motor resonance is the source of imitation among men, not as a reflex, as some neonatal studies have shown, but babies intentionally and selectively imitate the actions produced by humans but not the ones produced by machines.

Studies with neuroimaging show that when they observe a person without a specific purpose, the regions involved in motor resonance (limbic system) are activated. Conversely, if they observe a person with the purpose of imitating, the regions of the frontal cortex specialized in executive functions are activated. Thus, imitation cannot be simply reduced to a resonance phenomenon, it implies self-awareness; this experience enables us to differentiate when others are similar or different from us.

Mirror neurons were discovered by chance by the team of neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti, from University of Parma, in Italy.

“Our knowledge of the motor system and our mirroring ability allow us to share a common sphere of action with others, within which each motor action or chain of motor actions, whether they are ours or others’, are immediately detected and intentionally understood beforehand and regardless of any mentalization”, observes Rizzolati.

In the motor resonance system, we may think of the “chameleon effect” which keeps us in a social bond with our groups and sub-groups. Just observe the behaviour of teenagers; each group has a specific way of being, thinking and dressing, producing a resonant movement that keeps them magnetically together and similar to each other, but each one with their own subjectivity.

Corporal empathy favours a safe relationship and encourages a spontaneous expression of the protagonists. According to studies conducted by Daniel Stern, infants mirror their mothers’ faces 36 hours after birth. The pace, intensity and form of the non-verbal relationship mark that relationship, as we will see below.

Professor Gilberto Safra, in his book “A Face Estética do Self “(The Aesthetic Face of Self) — 1999, says that once, when he was visiting an orphanage, he entered a one-year-old baby dormitory. He says there were three groups of babies. In one of them, the infants screamed and waved their arms at whoever entered the room. Another group was indifferent to the appearance of someone, but maintained some kind of activity: swinging rhythmically, or pulling out their hair and eating it. In the third group, the nurses had huge difficulty in feeding them, and anyone could notice the dramatic situation of those infants, who were somewhat losing the creative gesture of the self. They might even die if they lost the ability to express themselves through creative chaos.

Babies create their world through their gestures, and at the same time create themselves. As Safra says, the gesture creates the object, but it also creates the arm or any other part of the body involved in the action, such as the ability to know others and the world.

In its ever-expansive movement, the self develops into gesture, initiating creation, knowledge, love, aspects that can be called ethos.

These aspects are of paramount importance in body psychotherapy clinic. For example, an extremely sensitive patient, despite being able to physically use her arms and legs, had great difficulty in feeling them in affective relationships; it was as if they did a mechanical job that followed the messages sent by her brain. Then one day she got pregnant and her body’s internal reactions seemed completely foreign to her, which made her rather dependent on all the voices around her, especially her doctors’.

During a consultation, she found herself emotionally cornered and started yelling at everyone, saying she knew exactly what she was doing and that her baby was fine and was going to be born well, which in fact occurred. That yell came from her inner chaos, the germinative life force that marked her territory, her ethics.

Stern calls the formation of intersubjective bond development an “evoked companion”, because due to its characteristic of abstract entity, it actively works as “an event” in the period considered.

In a relationship between a mother and her baby, the mother’s actions enable the infant’s self to develop, giving scope for the baby to be an existing being. (Gilberto Safra, 1999).

The action of the baby that does not meet the mother develops patterns of disharmony when it meets nothing. The action that meets another person in harmony makes attunement become gesture, and it reveals that the pulse of the meeting is humanizing: “Gesture is the poetry of the act” [1]

Bridge, bond and dance

In studies filmed and developed by Dr. E.Z. Tronick and his colleagues in the department of Paediatrics and Psychiatry of Harvard University, very well described in the book Body and Word by psychologist George Downing, we can clearly see how connections are developed.

Through the relationship between a mother and her baby we can see the importance of the effect the expressions of the mother have on the baby’s expressive responses on an emotional, sensitive and postural level, which means a relationship. The films were made with two video cameras at the same time, one on the mother and the other one on the baby.

Tronick created an experiment called still face. In the first version, videos were made and later analysed in slow motion during a so-called “micro-analysis”.

In the videos, mothers interacted with their 3-month old babies. At first, the mothers initiated contact with their babies the way they usually do. Later, at some point of the non-verbal interaction, the mothers suddenly left their face still and froze all body movements. At that moment, the babies, though shocked with the sudden change, reacted with disappointment and anger, turning their faces or looking down.

That experiment dramatically shows the baby’s huge expectation to interact and mainly to keep interacting, and when that interaction is interrupted, it produces an immediate sensation of anxiety and concern.

The second version of the experiment is perhaps the one which most interests us. It was conducted with 6-month old babies. The pairs mother/baby were divided into 2 groups:

1. A group that interacted normally, with positive motor abilities, that is, the mothers were sensitive to their babies and their rhythm in the best form of non-verbal stimulation. Consequently, in this group the pairs developed a mutual competence of interaction.

2. The other group was formed by pairs in which the non-verbal exchange was characterized by a super or sub-control of the mothers. In other words, the mothers super-directed or sub-directed the signs of non-verbal communication of the children. Thus the interactions were established in a non-reciprocal way.

The results were clear and dramatic. The infants in the first group developed active forms to react to still face, either getting angry, or turning their faces or trying to re-establish contact, calling their mother’s attention. The infants in the second group, with low level of reciprocity, first reacted by withdrawing from the relationship like the first group, but feeling disappointed and agitated, they neither started anything new nor tried to re-establish contact, they simply allowed the disconnection to continue.

That study speaks for itself; part of the children built a certain motor way of being in the world, so that the other person is seen as approachable, contactable, and the self is able to bond, to cheer up and build a bridge to the other person. This child learns that their action causes an effect, an affection in the other person, also developing a motor field that is structured intersubjectively according to the relationship.

The other group of children, however, keeps living in an intersubjective field which is structured differently, with different expectations and disposition. For example, for them the sense of building a non-verbal bridge is weak, the motor connection with another individual is underdeveloped. They feel incapable of producing an effect on others, who become something relatively unreachable, unchangeable or even unapproachable.

It is important to emphasize here that this difficulty is a type of bodily difficulty; the body as a whole does not position itself towards desire, it loses the rhythm of movement, it even loses smile and its movements.

Below we can see some photos provided by Dr. Tronick’s group:

1. Mother interacting with her baby.

2. Mother not interacting with her baby, with a frozen face; we can see the same expression on the baby’s face.

3. Invasive mother. She provokes an escape reaction in the baby.

Daniel Stern (1992), in his book “O Mundo Interpessoal do Bebê” (The Baby’s Interpersonal World), explores the concepts of empathic responsiveness and attunement, and affirms that despite the importance of those events, it is not totally clear how they work.

Stern raises questions about acts and processes of how people may know something very similar to what you are feeling, or for example how you can be “inside” the subjective experience of other people and let them know that without having to use words.

Imitation would be a way of showing that, like in the game of facial expressions between babies and mothers. Stern says that actually, babies only know that their mother noticed what they did, they simply reproduce the gesture and need not have experienced anything similar internally.

Consequently, in order to have a truly subjective exchange of affection, just the exact imitation does not work, does not raise awareness; there needs to be attunement of affection and sensation, which expresses the quality of shared affective feeling. The reason why attunement behaviour is so important as a separate phenomenon is that the exact imitation does not enable partners to refer to their internal state.

“Attunement behaviour, on the one hand, remodels the event and change the focus of attention to what is behind the behaviour, to the quality of the feeling that is being shared. It is for the same reasons that imitation is the predominant way to commune with or share your internal states. However, there does not seem to be a real dichotomy between attunement and imitation; on the contrary, they seem to occupy two ends of a spectrum.”

Four years ago, some colleagues and I started a study in the department of Communication and Semiotics of the University of Bologna about the relationship and communication between mothers and babies from the first moments of life. The same type of study has been conducted in different cultures so that we can also have an idea whether there are significant differences in the relationship that could help each other inter-culturally. Furthermore, since we record videos during natural situations of the relationship, such as changing nappies, feeding, playing, we revise the videos in the presence of parents, so that they can be used to assist in raising and dealing with their children.

We adopted some procedures suggested by psychoanalyst and researcher Daniel Stern, who tells us that there are three fundamental ideas:

1. It is important to see mothers and babies in natural interactions, because only that way could most capabilities of both be seen and analysed. Stern, like us, believes that babies are naturally sociable and therefore would be able to show their best capacities in a natural situation, and their mothers could be present with their true maternal side, consequently enabling good descriptive observation of the situation.

2. Those experiences allow us to have access to a more precise side of non-verbal communication by repeating the videos as well as in slow motion, observing important moments of the interaction.

3. The interaction could be observed in a clinical and common-sense way between observer and observed, promoting “mutual regulation” as basic concept. Thus, it is verified that the interaction is largely a search for mediation and regulation of the relationship according to the temporary needs of babies and mothers.

The neuropsychologist Allan Schore suggests that the structural development of the right hemisphere mediates the functional development of the unconscious mind. In addition, he believes that the integration between discoveries in neurobiological and developmental sciences may offer deeper comprehension of the origin and mechanisms of the system that represents the centre of psychoanalysis, “the unconscious system”.

Freud (1920) described the unconscious as a “special field, with its own desires, modes of expression and unique mental mechanisms, not operated anywhere else”.

Due to its central role in unconscious functions and its primary procedural activities, some psychoanalysts, stimulated by studies on split brain, started to link psychoanalysis to neurobiology, claiming that the right hemisphere is dominant for the unconscious process and the left hemisphere, for the conscious process.

Watt (1990)[2] suggests that the right hemisphere contains an affective representational system that encodes self-object images, unlike the lexical-semantic mode of the left hemisphere.

In “Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self” (Schore, 1994), the author describes some psycho-neurobiological mechanisms by which experiences of affection specifically reach the maturation of experiences of dependence in the right hemisphere, mediating bonding processes, and also the psychobiological mechanisms by which the “right mind” is organized during childhood.

The right cerebral hemisphere, which is centrally involved in bonding functions, is dominated by the perception of the emotional state of others, a right posterior cortical mechanism involved in the perception of non-verbal expressions embedded in the face and speech of others. It is also dominant by emotional subjective experiences and by the possession of subjective objects.

The interactive “transference of affection” between the right hemispheres of mother and baby or therapeutic pairs is best defined as “intersubjectivity”.

The right hemisphere is always involved in unconscious activities, and the same way the left hemisphere communicates its states to other left hemispheres through conscious linguistic behaviour, the right hemisphere non-verbally communicates its unconscious states to other right hemispheres which are in tune to receive that communication.

Freud affirmed: “It is remarkable how the unconscious of a human being can react to that of others, without going through the conscious” (Freud, 1915 c,p.194).

He also proposed that the therapist should “turn on their own unconscious like a receptive organ to the transmissions of the client’s unconscious….so that the doctor’s unconscious is able to…. reconstruct the client’s unconscious” (Freud,1912, p.115).

He named this state receptive readiness or “evenly-hovering attention”. Bion made reference to “reverie” or “alpha-function”, clearly implying a right hemisphere function.

The same system of right hemisphere to right hemisphere is described in neuropsychological literature by Buck [3] as “spontaneous emotional communication”:

“Spontaneous communication employs specific demonstrations of the sender, who, by paying attention, activates emotional pre-harmonisations that are directly perceived by the recipient…The meaning of this demonstration is directly known by the recipient….This spontaneous emotional communication constitutes the communication between limbic systems….It is a bio-based communication system that involves individual organisms directly with each other: the individuals in communication literally constitute a biological unit”

The more we develop our resonant sensitivity with people and nature, the more we will be able to live a life of vital and productive contact with ourselves and with others.

Therefore, let’s practise RESONANCE and communication.

[1] Galard, J. em Safra, Gilberto, A Face Estética do Self, 1999

[2] Watt, D.F. em Schore, Allan, Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self, LEA, New Jersey, 1994

[3] Buck,R.W. em Schore, Allan, Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self, LEA, New Jersey, 1994

4. Kignel, Rubens, O Corpo no limite da comunicação, Ed. Summus.


Rubens Kignel

Professor and Psychotherapist, PhD in Communication and Semiotics (University of Bologna). He has been teaching in Brazil, Europe and Japan for the last 40 years.

Professor e Psicoterapeuta, Dr. em Comunicação e Semiótica (Universidade de Bologna). Ensina do Brasil, Europa, Japão nos últimos 40 anos.

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