The Brain is a Cultural Organ: The Importance of Attunement

Humans, like many other mammals, are social creatures that lead socially complex lives and are highly attuned to the emotions of others in their tribe. Researcher Stephen Porges expanded several of Darwin’s theories and explained why humans unconsciously recognize subtle nonverbal cues to include shifts in facial expressions, tones, body language, etc (Van der Kolk, 2014).  This innate ability allows us to feel relaxed in one situation and nervous in another without really being able to explain why we have these gut feelings. Porges also explained that a person’s ability to deal with trauma is directly related to the vagus nervous system which includes the ventral vagal complex (VCC). This set of nerves, located in the brain stem, tells a person that their natural reaction when someone smiles at them on the street is to smile back and prompts them to nod along during a conversation they are following (Van der Kolk, 2014). Additionally, the VVC is responsible for sending unconscious signals to the body telling it to lower the heart’s rate and feel at ease since it has determined the situation as safe. The VVC is also responsible for regulating the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The more synchronized these systems are, the more connected an individual likely will be to their emotions and subsequently to their community or tribe (Van der Kolk, 2014).

When we are infants our VVC is still developing and highly susceptible to our interactions with others around us. The way in which parents are attuned to their babies’ needs directly impacts how effective they will be at teaching their babies how to regulate emotions. When parents, especially mothers, are naturally attuned of their babies’ needs babies learn their caregivers are reliable which brings them pleasure, security, and builds the foundation for their future social behavior (Van der Kolk, 2014). When a mother and baby share emotional attunement, they are often automatically in sync on a physical level. Mothers soothe babies when they cry to teach them how to handle higher levels of stress hormones, parents rock their infants when they cry in the night to make them feel safe, and dads make them clean and dry when they soil their diapers to show them discomfort is temporary (Van der Kolk, 2014). The baby learns that they can depend on caregivers which allows them to build “the foundation of self-regulation, self-soothing, and self-nurture (Van der Kolk, p. 175. 2014).”

From the moment babies are born they learn from their environment. Ed Tronick explained that “the brain is a cultural organ and experiences shape the brain (Van der Kolk, p. 135. 2014).” By understanding how these early interactions between babies and caregivers aid in the development of the VCC, researchers can also better understand how trauma impacts this development. Babies and children who are deprived of emotional or physical attunement have been taught that their needs are not valid and often adjust their needs to fit those of their caregivers. This inability to understand their own needs often causes them to shut down during periods of both positive and negative emotions later in life (Van der Kolk, 2014).

Treating children who suffered from lack of attuned caregivers and suffered abuse of trauma during their developmental years often require extra thoughtful treatment plans. Mental health professionals have found in recent years that children with these types of histories respond well to treatments that bridge the physical and mental spectrums. Methods like dance, music, gymnastics, yoga, meditation, and massages can help those who lack attunement with their body and emotions (Van der Kolk, 2014). Although great care is needed when executing these treatments due to trauma related sensitivities, when done correctly and gradually they have yielded outstanding results. Overall, attunement begins at birth and aids in the development of critical portions of the brain that control an individual’s ability to cooperate with others, build connections, and regulate their emotions. Although more treatments have become available in recent years, the relationships caregivers foster in the early years are critical to an individual’s ability to cope with stress and develop resiliency.


Van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Viking Penguin.






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