- Some reasons why lasting connections seem elusive these days may be related to the addictive nature of digital devices and chronic stress.
- Attunement, the ability to be aware of our own state while also tuning in and connecting with someone else, may help us reconnect.
- Some research suggests that when people are highly attuned during a face-to-face interaction, the rhythms of their brain waves synchronize.
- Some tips to increase attunement during an interaction include being relaxed and aware, and paying attention to the other person's cues.
Quality connections are hard to come by, especially during the pandemic and with social distancing. But even in the before times, genuine, lasting connections seemed elusive.
Part of the problem may include the addictive nature of smartphones and social media. During the pandemic, these devices are a lifeline to our friends and loved ones. But in non-pandemic times, being glued to our screens and devices is more of a boon for marketers and advertisers than it is for the quality of our relationships.
Then there’s the chronic stresses and anxieties we face. It often feels impossible to manage all of the things coming at us. We seem to have a never-ending to-do list. And the pandemic has increased this stress and anxiety to an existential level. So many of us move through our days chronically stressed and preoccupied with our own thoughts and worries, making us unable to really listen to each other for long.
So what can we do?
Why Attunement Is So Important for Connection
We each can work on the almost lost art of tuning in to each other, especially to the people in our vicinity, but even to people we communicate with these days only by phone, FaceTime, or Zoom. The key to this is “attunement”: the ability to be aware of our own state of mind and body while also tuning in and connecting to another person. Attunement is the ability to “make contact” with someone, not only at a thought level, but at a gut and emotional level, too. It’s being able to stay in tune and in sync with both the feelings of others and one’s own feelings, not just in a single moment of understanding or empathy, but over time, during the unpredictable twists and turns of an interaction.
Highly attuned connections come in many forms. Imagine two friends in a conversation that’s flowing really well, with both friends feeling really heard and understood. Or think about two musicians playing a duet, listening to each other attentively, moving together, emotionally in sync. Or picture two basketball teammates on a fast break down the court, always aware of each other and the opposing players in this rapidly changing situation, able to make a well-timed pass and dunk.
Attunement is what makes you feel like you’ve genuinely connected with someone. It’s the “juice,” the secret sauce that makes an interaction or a relationship feel alive. When you feel chemistry with someone, that probably starts with some sort of mutual attraction (as friends or romantically), but a lot of what grows and sustains that chemistry is attunement.
This kind of elevated connection is complex, a bit mysterious, and may seem beyond our ability to fully understand. But neuroscience research is starting to give us some insights, showing us that when two people are highly attuned during a live, face-to-face interaction, the rhythms of their electrical brain waves synchronize. They are literally in sync with each other at the level of their brain physiology.
A study published this year by Suzanne Dikker and colleagues used a "crowdsourcing neuroscience" approach to reveal how in sync we really can become. Over a period of five years, the research team invited thousands of people visiting museums or festivals to participate in the study. Pairs of participants with varying levels of familiarity with each other had a 10-minute, face-to-face conversation while the brain waves of each of them were measured, using a technique called an electroencephalogram (EEG).
The researchers found that the degree of engagement and mutual attention to each other—what we would call the degree of attunement—predicted the extent of synchronization in their brain electrical activity. The more attuned and in sync the interaction felt, the more synchronous the pair’s brain activity. But on the flip side, the more distracted that people were from each other, the less synchronous their brain activity. In addition to distraction, there’s evidence from other studies that stress can disrupt brain synchrony too.
Attunement is the most needed, and most neglected, human capacity these days. It’s a capacity that most of us have experienced in our lives, but it’s gotten quite rusty over recent years, especially during the pandemic. Without it, we can’t make those genuine, lasting connections that we really need. Ramping up the attunement, at least a bit, could really help us feel more meaningfully connected to the people in our lives.
How to Increase Attunement
Here are a few steps you can try in your next interaction with someone to increase your attunement:
- Be relaxed and aware. Just before you engage with the other person, tilt your chin down, and feel as if your head is gently suspended from above. Relax your shoulders down. Feel your belly expand with your in-breath and relax down with your out-breath. Tune in to your environment.
- Listen. Pay attention to the other person’s cues. For at least a minute or two, try to consider what they are saying and expressing to be the most important thing to you.
- Understand. Try to consider what the other person’s experience or perspective might be. How does it differ from your perspective? Be tolerant of the possibility that your perspectives may differ.
- Be responsive. Meet the other person where they are mentally and emotionally. Keep your responses on target, connected in some way to what the other person just said or did. Try to stay with them in the flow of the interaction, at least for a few minutes.
These tips may sound simple, but there’s a lot to them, and practice will help. In our blog, we’ll continue exploring the science and practice of attunement.
Note from the Authors: Ashley Pallathra and Edward Brodkin share their views here for educational and informational purposes only. The views expressed in this blog are not a substitute for individualized psychological, psychiatric, or medical care from a clinician familiar with your specific circumstances.
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Dikker, S., Michalareas, G., Oostrik, M., Serafimaki, A., Kahraman, H.M., Struiksma, M.E., Poeppel, D. (2021) Crowdsourcing neuroscience: Inter-brain coupling during face-to-face interactions outside the laboratory. Neuroimage 227:117436 doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2020.117436
Azhari, A., Leck, W.Q., Gabrieli, G., Bizzego, A., Rigo, P., Setoh, P., Bornstein, M.H., Esposito G. (2019) Parenting stress undermines mother-child brain-to-brain synchrony: a hyperscanning study. Scientific Reports 9:11407. doi: 10.1038/s41598-019-47810-4