Face-to-Face Synchrony: the human condition


The long history of primate evolution that expanded our social brain, lengthened the period of infant dependence, perfected our empathy and, most important, created the uniquely human way of communicating through the face. Indeed, primates, particularly chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas, can show admirable social abilities beyond parental care. For instance, chimpanzees resolve aggressive conflict with group members by consoling behaviour, stimulating oxytocin. Gorillas form coalitions among large groups of unrelated kin in ways that resemble a small human village. But humans are the only species that orients to, and attaches through, the face. Human neonates selectively attend to the human face, humans communicate affectionately in a face-to-face position, and humans are unique in their ability to synchronise via coordination of facial signals without physical touch.

My research group has studied this face-to-face synchrony for years; when partners synchronise their gaze, smile or emotional expression, that spurs coordination of physiological response. For instance, mothers and infants coordinate their heart rhythms during moments of social synchrony, but not during non-synchronous moments; both mother-child pairs and romantic partners show brain-to-brain synchrony of gamma waves during episodes of behavioural coordination but not otherwise. And synchrony of alpha waves in the frontoparietal regions of the brain and gamma waves in temporal regions emerges during ‘support giving’ moments between affiliated partners (romantic couples, close friends) but also among strangers, particularly when the dialogue is empathic. Face-to-face synchrony requires intimacy and intent, invokes reflection and awareness, and obligates significant effort. When parents can validate their infant in a face-to-face exchange during the sensitive period between birth and nine months of age, they orient their child’s brain to the social world and its wonders. When synchrony fails – for instance, when mothers are depressed or when stress is heightened by poverty, war or abuse – the consequences to the social brain can be devastating, and children can develop psychopathology, loneliness, dysregulated conduct or affective disorders that can limit their capacity to engage.

Is there a solution to the human condition? Given that human love is layered over blind forces that react automatically to the slightest sign of danger, is there any chance for redemption, or are we bound to endless cycles of aggression and destruction?

While any random look at human history tells a grim story and gives ample evidence for a hopeless view, I see three types of solutions based on the work of three great thinkers. I call them ‘face’ (the Levinas solution), ‘light’ (the Freud solution), and ‘humour’ (the Kundera solution). Each witnessed fear and cruelty under pressure, and the immense destruction brought by war. Each in his own way tries to free us from the natural way that our brain interprets the world.

The first of these, the ‘Levinas solution’, is based on the work of the 20th-century French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and his recognition of ‘the face’. How can one create an account of the world that describes what ‘is’ (ontology) without resorting to unchanged, abstract, or metaphysical ideas (the work of Parmenides, Plato, and Descartes come to mind)? How can one ground existence in the daily experience of the self-within-the world (as Martin Heidegger does) without placing the self as the cornerstone of all that is knowable? Levinas suggests that the ‘Other’, as presented through the Other’s face, defines unknown territory that cannot be immediately incorporated into the self. That Other, that face, argues Levinas, substantiates the self and, upon seeing the Other’s face, the only possible response is: ‘Here I am,’ fully committed to that person’s wellbeing and safety or, in Levinas’s words: ‘To see a face is already to hear: “thou shalt not kill”.’ Only then can true knowledge – that is, knowledge that can reach the stars, as Levinas says in Totality and Infinity (1961) – be acquired.

I spent countless hours microcoding videos of parent-infant face-to-face interactions, gradually coming to understand that only upon the parent’s attuned face, careful echo and radiant smile can the infant build a bridge to a reality that is often harsh, painful and oblivious. ‘At first was the gaze,’ says the Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos; humans need a loving gaze to start on their life’s road. Looking at your enemy’s face, we hypothesised, makes it impossible to wish him harm.

Several years ago, we put this hypothesis to the test. We developed a dialogue-based intervention for Israelis and Palestinians aged between 16 and 18 years, when group subordination is at its peak. For eight weeks, the adolescents became familiar first with the cultural rituals, then with the immediate habitat, and finally with the family habits and personal preferences, hopes and struggles of each member, creating a common ground where the ‘other’ became familiar and similar. While each session covered a distinct topic (affiliation, conflict resolution, empathy, prejudice), sessions began with coordinated group activities that involved reciting famous poems and holy texts in both languages, face-to-face encounters for a ‘conflict dialogue’ (on a conflict topic of their choice), empathic giving, joint planning or group games involving joint movement and dance. The adolescents were randomly assigned to intervention or control groups. Before and after each intervention they were tested extensively for social behaviour, opinions and attitudes, and hormonal profiles; we also monitored the social brain using magnetoencephalography (MEG).

Our findings on the empathic response were eye-opening. To conduct our study, we exposed our participants to a well-validated set of pictures showing hands and feet in physical pain – examples included a hand burnt by an iron or a foot stuck in a door – which reliably elicit the brain’s empathic response. Before each stimulus, a screen announced the protagonist: ‘This is Danny from Tel Aviv.’ Or ‘This is Ahmed from Kafr Qara.’ Adolescents observed an equal number of stimuli where pain was inflicted on members of their ingroup or outgroup. We found that, for the first 500 milliseconds (representing the brain’s automatic response), the adolescents responded equally to others’ pain, whether their ingroup’s or outgroup’s.

However, after this half-second of grace, the outcomes were different depending on whether our dialogue-based intervention was in play or not. Without the intervention, the brain’s top-down mechanisms began shutting down the neural empathic response to the outgroup, keeping activations only for the ingroup. This later, more cognitive-empathic neural response is critical in order to understand the feelings of others, generate compassion, and form a plan of action. Aborting neural empathy midway doesn’t allow the brain to sustain a fully human response that can activate emotional resonance and practical help.

But adolescents who underwent the dialogue intervention learned to include the Other in their ingroup and display a fully human empathic response to members of the outgroup. The face, as Levinas maintains, indeed compels us, even neurally, to save the Other from pain.

The second solution, from Sigmund Freud, looks to light. From Freud’s immense contribution to human self-understanding, I wish to stress his relentless effort to shed light on our deepest (and ugliest) drives, and his conviction that shining the light of consciousness on those hidden, blind and automatic motivations can rescue us from our cruel and pleasure-seeking nature. What a radical position to suggest that sheer awareness can combat the push-and-pull of the subconscious! While Freud emphasised that the road to light is long and arduous, involves walking in the thickets of defences and contradictions, and requires stubbornness and severity, he was the first to suggest that the ‘way out’ of the human condition is through dialogue. Although I have a hard time accepting his neglect of the face for the couch in this important human dialogue, Freud’s model was the first to offer a carefully crafted route to healing through knowledge, toiled by two.

Freud’s quest for light echoes the ancient Greek ‘know thyself’. But I am also reminded of an old Talmudic verse, probably dated from the same era as Socrates: ‘If you meet the devil, shine on it the light of knowledge. If it is stone, it evaporates; if it is metal, annihilates.’ What a triumph to the human spirit is the belief that the hardiness, nastiness and ‘stone-ness’ of our nature can be overcome by the ‘light of knowledge’.

My third solution, humour, is inspired by the novelist Milan Kundera, a victim of the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, exiled to France. Kundera summons the insights on the human condition through the history of the novel, laid out in The Art of the Novel (1986) and Testaments Betrayed (1993). The 400-year journey of the novel, he suggests, is to break the overarching single narrative we form of reality, the one inherited from parents, corroborated by neighbours, tended by culture, cemented by religion, and imposed by totalitarian regimes, which, without a radical shake, would stand to testify for truth. Our brain typically creates a single percept that discards all information not befitting our ‘story’, but the novel upsets this singularity.

And it does so via humour. While truth is dead serious, humour is suggestive, nonsensical, unnerving, contradictory, and functions at multiple nonadjacent levels simultaneously. Humour weaves together a kaleidoscope of images that not only are not neighbours, but have never even resided in the same continent.

Humour is a fine panacea to the pompous ‘together we stand’. Practised to perfection, it knocks precisely those marching soldiers off their feet (letting our ants keep their industrious sisterhood). How easy can it be to march to a humorous idea, fight for an ‘either-or’ programme, or conquer cities in the name of a smiling god? (Kundera began his acceptance speech for the Jerusalem Prize for Literature in 1985 with the old idiom: ‘Man thinks, God laughs.’)

Here’s to three solutions: look at someone’s face with compassion and care; climb the Tree of Knowledge and cherish its multiple branches; and practise a good laugh. These could help tune the environment-dependent, behaviour-based systems comprising the neurobiology of affiliation to a life of lasting love.

While the neuroscientific programme of the human brain is couched in an evolutionary framework, the grand theory of the biological sciences has its limits as a singular window into the human condition. The psychiatrist and neurobiologist Myron Hofer at Columbia University in New York spent his career describing the biological provisions embedded in the mother’s body. He reminds us that, when it comes to human development, an evolutionary viewpoint must be complemented by insights from other fields of knowledge: the humanities, the arts, and clinical wisdom. Hofer maintains that, while evolution is impartial to the individual child, the individual is precisely what matters for human life. The goal of a human programme set to understand how early environments meet or fail the needs of their infants is to enable the individual to benefit from the fullness of the human experience afforded by modern science – long time to maturity, planned parenthood, freedom from infectious disease, literacy and a manageable stress response. Human research, therefore, must translate into brief and widely deliverable interventions that maintain the deepest respect for the individual’s cultural heritage, personal meaning, and life journey.

‘It is time the stone made an effort to flower,’ writes Paul Celan in his poem ‘Corona’: ‘Shine on it the light of knowledge – if it is stone, it evaporates.’

Source: The biology of love

See also: Neuroception – Polyvagal Theory

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