Regulate – Relate – Reason.
I’d like to talk for a moment this week about a tiny kernel of Dr. Bruce Perry’s work, the idea that, as humans, we must be regulated (meaning physically and emotionally settled in our body) before we can relate (feel connected to and comfortable with another human). This relationship with each other allows us to be in dialogue, reasoning with one another to solve problems from multiple perspectives.
I boldly posit that, from birth, this regulation has everything to do with music. To explain, I’ll begin by referring to Daniel Siegel’s Hand Brain model.
If your hand represents your brain, between your wrist and your elbow would be your spinal column and also your vagus nerve. Your vagus nerve sends your emotions to the rest of your body. What’s fascinating is that the vagus nerve sends the emotions to the rest of your body rhythmically. So, one of the best ways to calm the vagus nerve is with rhythm. This is why when we hold a baby, to soothe them and help them co-regulate, we rock them, bounce them, sing a lullaby to them.
Just two weeks ago I talked about co-regulation between an infant and adult from the perspective of the human mirror neuron system. I explained that when a baby is crying, we pick them up. We hold them close. We begin to rhythmically sway. As the baby calms, we respond by calming ourselves. We take deeper breaths. Our little one takes deeper breaths. We are swaying together, looking in each other’s eyes, maybe even cooing. Ultimately we begin to look into each other’s eyes and are in relationship, but before this happens, before we can relate, we must co-regulate. And we instinctively do this through repetitive, rhythmic, somatosensory rocking, often paired with humming or singing. This co-regulation, instinctual for so many, is at the root of our regulation toolbox.
Back to the hand brain: the vagus nerve connects to the very back of our brain, the brain stem. The next part of our brain that rests on the stem is the limbic system. Here’s one of the keys: the limbic system is in charge of felt safety, attachment and regulation.
The Limbic system can be damaged by daily stressors and discrete events, known as Adverse Childhood Experiences and Compounding Adverse Toxic Stressors (ACEs and CATS). When there’s too much stress the fear center gets too large (making us feel unsafe), and the attachment and regulation centers shrink. When we make music together we start the process of repetitive, rhythmic, somatosensory movement. We begin to co-regulate.
When that co-regulation starts happening the limbic system lets the cerebral cortex know that it is safe to come back online and we can begin to reason together, to have dialogue together, in relationship with one another.
Dr. Bruce Perry emphasizes that it is the process of repetitive, rhythmic, somatosensory movement that brings us to a place of regulation so we can be in relationship and ultimately in dialogue. What if we started every meeting with a song? What if we marched in rhythm with our toddler’s tantrum until they marched with us? What if we sat down at dueling drums with our angry teenager? It might sound strange but might it allow us to jump to those deeper level conversations in less time?