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How we know what others are feeling: emotional autoregulation and coregulation

We know what others are feeling by looking directly into their eyes. Eyeball to eyeball, mirror neuron to mirror neuron, we experience the emotional state of another person when we look into their eyes.

Neurons are brain cells. Mirror neurons are specialized brain cells that register the emotional state of another person.

Mirror neurons let us know when another person is happy, or angry, or frightened. They tell us whether we are safe with the other person or are in danger.

Evolution has given us the ability to read what another person is feeling, using our mirror neurons, so that we can live successfully in groups.

How do mirror neurons work? And when do we develop them? Mirror neurons are present in a baby’s brain at birth. They help the mother (or another caregiver) regulate the baby’s emotional state.

When a baby is born, it’s visual focal length is about 18 inches. This is about the distance between the baby’s face and the mother’s face when the baby is being held in the mother’s arms.

Being able to focus further than this at birth isn’t necessary because a baby spends the first several months of its life either lying down or being propped up. It can’t turn its head, but it needs to be able to see its mother’s eyes.

Babies are unable to regulate their own emotions. They are unable to calm themselves down. They are distressed when they are hungry, or tired, or they want to be held. They are distressed whenever they have a need that is not being met. And they communicate their distress through crying.

Babies are unable to self-regulate, or autoregulate, their emotions. Instead, their emotional state must be coregulated by their mother (or father, or caregiver).

In response to a baby’s distress, the mother picks up the baby and looks into the baby’s eyes. The baby looks back into the mother’s eyes, the baby’s mirror neurons register the mother’s emotional state, and the baby assumes the mother’s emotional state. This process is called emotional coregulation.

Let’s look at another related situation to explore the concept of coregulation further. Let’s say the mother asks a teenager to pick up the crying baby, and the teenager experiences anxiety. When the teenager picks up the baby, the baby continues to be distressed and does not settle.

What has happened? The baby has assumed the teenager’s emotional state by looking into the teenager’s eyeballs. The baby’s mirror neurons have picked up the emotional state of the teenager and has assumed the teenager’s anxiety.

When the mother sees that the baby has not settled, she takes the baby from the teenager and the baby immediately settles. This is because the baby’s mirror neurons have registered the emotional state of the mother through her mirror neurons, which is calm.

To this point in the blog, I have talked almost exclusively about babies and mothers. But the ability to communicate eyeball to eyeball, and mirror neuron to mirror neuron, continues over the lifespan.

Using your mirror neurons is how you know the emotional state of your child, your spouse, or your parent. It’s how you know the emotional state of your co-workers or your employees. It’s how you access empathy – or understand how the other person feels. It’s also how you are able to coregulate another person’s emotional state.

As babies grow into preschoolers, their ability to regulate their own emotional state improves, so that by the time they leave for kindergarten they are able to autoregulate their own emotions to some degree.

Most adults autoregulate their own emotions so that they can live independent and mature lives. Adults don’t always autoregulate their own emotions, however. Sometimes they will ask another person to help them coregulate their emotions. They turn to their spouses, family members and friends for this.

I have written a couple of blog posts that you might want to review at this point so you have the language you will need to understand the remainder of this blog.

One is titled Fight, flight or freeze: Adult responses to childhood trauma.

The second is titled Feigned death: An alternative to fight, flight or freeze responses.

In each of these posts, I wrote about being in the window (or in optional arousal), versus being out of the window (in either hyperarousal or hypoarousal).

We can experience a wide range of emotions when we are in the window. We can autoregulate our emotions, although sometimes we will ask someone to help us when we are feeling challenged.

One difference between being in the window versus out of the window concerns whether we can access our thinking brains, or whether our thinking brains are off-line. When our thinking brains are off-line, we are being run by our emotional brains and are unable to autregulate.

When we are unable to autoregulate, it’s possible for someone to help us get back into the window using coregulation.

Coregulating another person’s emotions occurs when we are in the window, and we use our own mirror neurons to pull another person back into the window. They assess our emotional state using their mirror neurons, and assume own emotional state, which ideally is calm.

How do we do this? By looking at the other person, eyeball to eyeball, and mirror neuron to mirror neuron, just like a mother does with her baby.

Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist

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