Neuroscience of Social: Attunement

My mom read me some advice out of a magazine once, that if you're going to lose weight, you need to get yourself a full-length mirror.  What you can't see, you can't heal. 

Something similar was said at a music workshop; if you want to become a better musician, record and listen to yourself repeatedly.  What you can't hear, you can't improve.

This very same principle applies if you're lonely or feel awkward around people.  Learn how to observe yourself through mindfulness.  If you can't attune to yourself through your highs and lows, you're going to find it hard to find a lover or a group of friends who are willing or able to attune to you in compassion and love.

Attunement is the result of feeling connected to someone, like your emotional state has been "felt" by them, or as Dan Siegel defines it, "how one person... focuses attention on the internal world of another".  Since pre-civilization, our brains have come with a circuitry that allows us to understand others' minds. He describes it as being able to come up with maps of other peoples' attention and intentions.  As the most fundamental example, when parents are in the present moment with their children, "the child's internal world is seen with clarity by the parent, and the parent comes to resonate with the child's state.  This is attunement."  Attunement has as its foundation an approach of curiosity, openness, acceptance and love (COAL), which contributes to healthier intimate relationships, resilience and overall health for the child.

Lily Aldrige and Taylor Swift are best buds.

As adults, having friends (and a spouse) is important to our mental, emotional, and physical health, and has been scienticially shown to affect how long we live.  Single people die from every disease at a higher rate than married people, and several studies have shown that people with only a few social ties and memberships in groups are between two and four times more likely to die sooner than people with many social ties, all other factors taken into consideration.  Loneliness is even a factor in developping cardiovascular disease, Alzheimers, and cancer.  "It is deeply human to have a strong need to belong, to feel a part of something larger than oneself, to be in relationship with others in meaningful and supportive ways" (Kabat-Zinn, pg. 264)

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn is one of the most famous neuroscientists because he's the one who first paired mindfulness with neuroscience at UMass in the 1970's.  In recent times, a Stanford team took his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program that he designed and applied it to people with social anxiety disorder.  Those subjects showed improvements in anxiety and depression and an increase in self-esteem. Furthermore,

when asked to practice awareness of breathing in the scanner, the MBSR group also showed what the researchers describe as decreased negative emotion experience, as well as marked reduction of activity in the amygdala, and increased activity in brain regions involved in regulating where one's attention goes. 

When others reject us or skim over us, it makes it hard for us to look at ourselves.  Majorly embarassing yourself in front of a crush usually makes you want to peel your skin off and get a giant eraser to remove the episode from your brain.  That self-aversion is not being able to "see" yourself.  When you can sit with yourself through compassionate awareness in your neediness and pain, you're developping your "inner observer", which Siegel says is like becoming your own best friend.

So if you're wanting to develop better or more relationships, start by cultivating a mindfulness practice.  You need to see yourself in all your stressful, lovely, delightful, and varied states before you can be "seen" by others in all your states.  In other words, you need to love yourself before you can be loved by others.

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