When relationships are going well, the intimacy states are naturally active—and the feelings they produce are contagious. When one person is feeling sad, tender, playful, or lustful, it's easy for the other to feel something similar. For example, Panksepp has found that distress cries of young animals automatically activate the caretaking circuits of nearby adult animals. UCLA researcher Marco Iacoboni believes that this may be because of "mirror neurons" recently discovered in various areas of the brain. Mirror neurons allow us to feel what another person is experiencing. This is why we cry at the movies when we sense the emotions of the characters, even though we don't know them. Mirror neurons help our brains re-create the feelings inside ourselves, allowing us to be powerfully affected by others.
In our first session, when I helped Grace move from her critical stance to a more vulnerable place, I had bet on Adam's mirror neurons, and I wasn't disappointed. When she disclosed that she was feeling unimportant, Adam's brain automatically responded with tenderness.
Counseling can help clients like Grace and Adam develop the ability to shift from critical and defensive postures to more unguarded internal states. Nearly all neuroscience researchers agree on one thing: The mechanism through which the brain acquires new habits is repetition. One of the most enduring concepts in the field of neuroscience is Hebb's law, which states that when brain processes occur together over and over again, the connections between neurons involved are strengthened, so these processes are more likely to occur in conjunction in the future. I knew that if Grace and Adam could think differently while they were angered, and if they could do this enough times, the new thought processes would begin spontaneously every time they became annoyed with each other, and they'd stand a chance of eliminating their knee-jerk reactions. Rehearsing new thoughts alone would not do the trick. They'd have to practice new ways of thinking under game conditions—that is, when they were actually furious.
The problem was that when Grace and Adam fought, they seemed completely unable to avoid their usual interactions unless I was there to help them. Near the end of our second session, Adam remarked, "I wish we could take you home with us!" I replied, "Maybe you can." I made Adam and Grace each an audiotape that they promised to listen to every time they found themselves ready to smack the other upside the head. This isn't unusual; the way our brains work means most of us require outside input when we're enraged. Prerecorded audiotapes are a great way to get an unbiased perspective exactly when we need it.
Try it: Let's go to the audiotape
Grace first used her audiotape just three days later. Without consulting her, Adam made arrangements to watch Monday Night Football at a friend's house. When he called Grace to tell her, she was miffed but shrugged it off. As the evening wore on, though, she was flooded by thoughts like "He was single so long that he doesn't know how to be in a relationship" and "This man is an emotional moron!"
We Hear You!