I have watched this video at least 100 times. I’ve told my friends about it, lectured about it, learned from it. The Still Face Experiment video on Youtube showed me, in three minutes, what connection and disconnection look like, and its effects on us. Perhaps it is why I am so fascinated by connection. When you see it, really soak it in, and think about all its implications, it changes everything!
In the Still Face Experiment, a doctor attempts to prove that babies crave connection, and that they can communicate their needs to the mother through their body language, long before they can speak.
Please watch it and pay close attention, and ask yourself these questions:
How do the mother and child connect with each other?
How does the child try to connect with the mother when the mother has a still face?
What is your reaction (emotions and body sensations) to the video (please post your reactions in the comment section!)
Here is what I noticed from the video:
At first, the mother interacts beautifully with the infant. They are mirroring each other: smiling together, moving their hands together, following each other’s cues, and when the baby points, the mother looks. When studying healthy parents who are instructed to play with their infant, this type of attunement, “acting the same way at the same time,” only happens on average 13% at 3 months, 10% at 6 months and 21% at 9 months (Tronick, 2007 p 155). Acting the same at the same time only happens ~15% of the time in normal infant-mother interactions, so don’t worry if you are not doing this all the time!
When studying healthy parents who are instructed to play with their infant, this type of attunement, “acting the same way at the same time,” only happens on average 13% at 3 months, 10% at 6 months and 21% at 9 months (Tronick, 2007 p 155). Acting the same at the same time only happens ~15% of the time in normal infant-mother interactions, so don’t worry if you are not doing this all the time!
Holding hands together, mirroring expressions. Both showing surprise expressions, holding each other. Baby points and mother looks joyfully. Mother tickles his foot and they look at it together. Both laugh and have mutual enjoyment, notice their smiles both are genuine
Various authors call this type of connection: synchrony, reciprocity, matching, coherence, mutual delight, affective attunement, and intersubjectivity.
Then the mother is told to not move and hold a “still face.”
In contrast we can think of many reasons why a “still face” would happen over and over frequently through a child’s life:
- Alcoholic parent: the parent’s intoxication prevents normal mirroring.
- Drug using parent: consider a mom on meth who is frantic, hyper or crashing into sleep, and is not emotionally responsive.
- Self-focused parent: too busy with work or their own activities to pay attention to the child.
- Distracted parent: the TV or phone replaces face to face time with the baby.
- Depressed parent: the depressed mother or father whose face shows less emotion will affect the baby. A study has shown that depressed mothers were only in social play 5% of the time whereas infants of normal mothers were in play about 13% of the time (Tronick, 2007 p 160).
- Foster care or NICU babies: inconsistent social and emotional interaction can deprive a child of needed engagement.
In this video, the baby has different tactics to re-engage the mother. Think about how we also have these tactics to engage other people! The child tries to signal the mother to re-engage in all the ways he has in the past. This is done by either signaling with positive affective tones (cooing), neutral affective tone (pick me up gestures), or negative affective tones (making a fuss).
The baby shows surprise at the mother’s blank face (eyebrows move up together). The baby does a playful act but is unable to get the mother to smile and laugh. The baby smiles at the mother. The baby points without engaging the mother. The baby puts his hands out to touch mother, which likely normally elicits connection. The baby has a body posture change and expression of anger (eyebrows down and together). The mother seems sad here as the lateral upper eyelids seem to drop.
You can see the child pointing, trying to touch the mother, and then scream… all things that normally would elicit some connection.
This baby isn’t just having a temper tantrum—he is trying to communicate in the only way that he knows how. Then the child bites himself and goes into what I would consider a fight and flight sympathetic state. Anger expressions are evident. He tries to self-comfort, which you can see in this particular scenario as oral sucking, self-clasping, or rocking. He also tries to shift his focus on objects and on his self.
The baby claps his hands which is a self-soothing technique. The baby screeches and has a look of fear (eyebrows up and together). The infant bites his hands and grimaces in anger. The infant turns away, trying to shift his focus. The infant’s composure is lost and he has an expression of agony.
When the child goes into shut-down or dissociation, biologically the child enters a dorsal vagal state and certain higher functioning brain areas are going off line. In dorsal vagal state—think of an opossum playing dead—certain higher functioning brain areas go offline, and the child freezes. He looks away. Body posture falls apart, and at this state, if you are tuned in, you might feel slightly light-headed even watching it. You can see the distress in part on this mother’s face, who is trying her best to follow the research protocol. In the still face experiment they classify these states as withdrawal, escape and avert/scan.
Research showed that when that child was re-introduced to the same room months later, cortisol levels (a stress hormone) were higher than normal.
Finally, within seconds, they reconnect, baby and mother mirroring each other.
How this changed my life:
1. I started noticing when I was disconnected or “still faced” with my family and those I interact with professionally.
2. I spent time breaking down the components of connection and disconnection which I will further elaborate in future posts.
3. I started noticing the world of non-verbals more.
4. I now consciously notice when I receive a “still face” from someone else, and it affects me emotionally.
So have you ever noticed when someone is mirroring you or not mirroring you well? What have your experiences been like?