Thursday, January 17, 2013

Affect Mirroring Builds Baby's Brain

At TBIPS, we are blessed with a community of clinicians whose families are ever growing. Yesterday, one of our candidate’s first born (left) turned one year old. Additionally, one of our instructors, Ray Roitman, pictured  with his new grandson (below), recently became a grandfather.

Also yesterday, the second year class, in its Developmental Issues: Narcissism and Development of Shame Throughout the Life Cycle course, discussed a paper that I thought fortuitously coincident with our expanding village: Gergely and Watson’s (1996) The Social biofeedback theory of parental affect-mirroring: the development of self-awareness and self-control in infancy. IJPsa., 77:1181-1212.

In it, Gergely and Watson speak to the developing brain-mind of the infant, including sense of self and intersubjectivity aided by mentalizing, and to the caregiver’s role in facilitating this development. When an infant, for example, imitates facial expression and/or the tone and prosody of the caregiver’s voice, the parts of the infant’s brain commensurate with the affect associated with this facial musculature and voice are stimulated. The caregiver’s affect then, signaled by face and voice, stimulate the infant’s commensurate feeling. The caregiver’s brain is building the networks of the baby’s brain! Perceptions (sound, sight, proprioception, etc) build representations in the brain; behavior is mapped as representations in the brain.

This imitation by the infant becomes the first building blocks of sense of self, as well as of empathy and mentalization (knowing the contents of one’s mind and of another’s). When the caregiver feels happiness/joy/pleasure upon holding in her/his arms a responsive infant, the happiness of the caretaker is evident in facial expression and voice. The imitation of these by the infant stimulates a similar area for registering emotion in the infant’s brain.  The infant, too, feels this happiness/joy, such that the infant and caregiver are now on the same wave link, a meeting of minds, sharing a like experience where each ‘knows’ what the other feels.  This procedurally stimulated joy lays the ground work for, first, the felt worthwhile self and, later, the symbolized thoughts such as ‘I am worthwhile and loveable.’  Repeated experience encodes the brain to ‘know’ self and self with others. Likewise, the caregiver’s disdain, contempt, anxiety, and depression can be transmitted intergenerationally.

Matching and mirroring from the caregiver of the infant’s emotional state is always imperfect, ideally introducing an otherness sufficiently familiar for the infant to feel understood and of like minds, but sufficiently different to allow the inchoate thirdness of intersubjectivity as well as to, when necessary, function to soothe, contain, mitigate and modify the infant’s disorganizing emotional states so that regulation occurs. (The experience of regulation first supplied by the caregiver eventually is encoded sufficiently in the brain to provide for self regulation.) Meanwhile, mutual regulation is taking place when infant and caregiver respond rhythmically riffing off each others’ emotional states. The pleasure in this toddler’s face and the hope of this grandfather is constitutive of the experience of mutual regulation.

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