Connection and the biological roots of survival

Survival through the feeling of connection is a visceral and subjective experience of being merged with the environment in a way that is free of destructive conflict. It is primarily a deep, emotionally invested concept because it is tied to survival. It is the felt reality of being connected to the gravitational field and held by the space around us. This feeling is cultivated again and again throughout our lives by our way of relating to the environment. It is not an innate experience; in fact, it is imprinted during the bonding process and reinforced in every relationship we have.

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Bonding and the human experience

The bonding process is psychological in nature but is deeply rooted in the essential biological demand of survival. A baby cannot survive without bonding to a primary caregiver, thus the felt experience of this original connection is associated with survival.  The caregiver feeds, protects, but most importantly, models to the baby the emotional and social skills necessary for independent survival. The psychological feeling of attachment for a person is molded by his own experience as an infant and the biological requirements for survival.  

According to the psychological models of attachment theory, how this bonding process happens is important to emotional health because it establishes a pattern, on a neurological level, of how we establish attachments in future relationships.


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Touching, pressure, and the definition of self

How does the bonding process get encoded into a nervous system? The tactile experience of bonding is one of the primary ways this happens. In the skin, there are specialized receptors that respond to changes upon it: light touch, pressure, pain, vibration, deep pressure, tension, stretch, temperature, pleasure. In his book Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind, neuroscientist David Linden describes how deeply touch and emotions are linked through receptors that are specialized to communicate affect.   

The bonding process is a practical proving ground for the newly forming brain. Before seeing colors or learning how to clap her hands, a baby drinks in the feeling of being connected to the caregiver. The experience of connection is a physiological process, not a loosely defined existential concept. This feeling is the root of our psychological understanding of connection. The receptors in the skin, joints, muscles, and ligaments transmit signals to the brain, defining self-identification in terms of spatial real estate.  Studies on touch at the Haptic Research Laboratory in Germany indicate that “tactile stimuli go much deeper than visual or auditory stimuli and they are recalled for much longer.”

Being held confirms to the brain that “this is the boundary of my body”, “these are the limits of my volume”, “these are the borders of my being”. As pressure gets tighter from the outside in the form of a hug, the contents of the body put more pressure against the skin from the inside and against these organs. These cavities in the body have more room for variation than those cavities in the body. Being held is literally learning more about what sort of volume one inhabits.

Touch has been shown to increase weight gain in premature babies, decrease levels of stress hormones in the bloodstream, and improve immune function. Touch deprivation makes for a poorly defined sense of self. That is a literal sense of self, of boundaries, of limits. This literal sense forms the basis for the psychological sense of self, boundaries, and limits.

In a series of studies on anorexic women, Dr. Martin Grunwald illustrated how a dysfunctional sense of self can be rectified by directly affecting the receptors in the skin. Dr. Tiffany Field of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami in Florida notes that in friendly touch, the Pacinian corpuscles (pressure receptors in the skin) send signals directly to the vagus nerve, thereby stimulating a slowing of the heart and decrease in blood pressure.

Facial expressions and emotional vocabulary

Humans are social creatures, wired for living with others beyond the bonding phase of life. Before language, there is communication through facial expressions. One of the most disabling aspects of being on the autistic spectrum is the inability to measure the social temperature through facial expressions. Discerning emotional cues is something we learn to do by example and is perhaps the single most important guiding principle we possess as social creatures. In his book Building Healthy Minds, Dr. Stanley Greenspan states that emotional processing - far from being regulated by intellectual vigilance - is instead the internal architect, conductor, or organizer of our minds. So emotional processing, not cognitive thinking, drives our psychological profile, which in turn lays the foundation for our cognitive processing.

The infant learns what is dangerous and what is safe in order to survive by attuning first and foremost to the social and emotional responses modeled by the primary caregiver(s). The bonding process is less about what a caregiver does for the child and more about what the caregiver implicitly teaches the child about behavior for future survival. In this bonding process, the infant’s neurological system is learning a style of interaction that sustains life. Ideally this style has a feeling of safety, but many times the process of bonding for survival may not feel safe. For example, unpredictable behavior from a caregiver that creates an environment of “walking on eggshells” entrains a person’s nervous system to remain on high alert. Or at the other extreme, the example of expressionless reaction to life due to depression can stunt the emotional modeling that should occur during this process. Abuse or neglect in the relationship with caregivers negatively affect a person’s capacity to easily form meaningful bonds in later years.

Sound as origin of connection
Our systems start contextualizing in the womb.  The ambient, low frequency, rhythmic noise of heartbeat, fluid movement, digestion and breathing creates a backdrop of white noise, a matrix of sound that surrounds and secures the fetus.  Then a high frequency sound pierces the matrix - it is the voice of the mother. It’s pacing and melodic range stands out from the background and arrives on the sound landscape irregularly. This novelty sparks a curiosity, a desire for connection.  The fetus is drawn to the sound and from this moment on, the organizing principle of sound (and in particular the melodic organization of language) provides context and meaning. The interest and desire to connect has been established. French ENT Dr. Alfred Tomatis inspired the field of modern sound therapy through his discovery of the complex and essential function of efficient and meaningful sound processing on the human system.

Orientation to gravity
Beyond the early bonding process as modulated by the orientation of the baby to the primary caregiver, we ultimately evolve into adulthood by becoming our own caregiver. More than feeding, dressing, and providing for ourselves, we physiologically learn to rely on ourselves through the correlate of dynamic balance in the face of an unstable premise: balancing on two small things called feet while creating stability in a stack of bones called a spine. We accomplish this by feeling and managing the internal support structure designed to orchestrate our bodies against the single most consistent force in our lives: the gravitational field.

Organizing ourselves in the pull of gravity is the vestibular process. We orient to gravity dynamically, guided by the information gathered to a large degree by the apparatus in our inner ear, eyes and feet. This is the triad of orientation to gravity, the triangulation of three main sources upon which we rely for balance on two feet. Balance is a not a static function - it is not gripping to stay still against the force of gravity. Rather, it is the dynamic process of remaining comfortably organized as you move about in the world. It is being able to stay oriented to the constant pull of gravity even when the visual world shifts quickly. Balance is being able to adapt quickly to changing terrain beneath our feet. Balance is being able to trust ourselves as we move through space.

Orientation to gravity is the capacity to be ‘grounded’. To relate to a force in our life that never changes, is continually present, and exerts a consistent force is to have a reference that we can rely upon, quite literally. Gravity is a constant and learning to connect to it builds confidence. When we find ‘ground’ through connection to gravity, we have the security of connection to a constant. This allows greater freedom in how we engage with the environment around us (let’s call that ‘space’) because we are literally secured and anchored. Between having ‘ground’ and interacting with our ‘space’ environment, we have the full complement of being connected, i.e. feeling secure in our survival.

Summary: Connection felt as support; satisfies drive for survival
The top-down concept of survival is psychologically felt through the bottom-up sensory experience of feeling connected. Feeling connected happens through the bonding process and through the constant of gravitational pull. Gravity is our constant reference and we relate to it through our vestibular system. It is primarily associated with the inner ear, feet, and eyes.