emotional system

What is good emotional contact

By Anxiety, differentiation, emotional system, togetherness

Dr. Bowen and Dr. Kerr have written about the value of having good emotional contact with family members. But what is “good emotional contact”? How is this different from an emotional connection? How does it relate to one’s level of differentiation? Is this something a person can intentionally work at increasing the quality or amount of emotional contact with others? And importantly, what would the benefit be to oneself and others of having good emotional contact?

What is emotional contact?

Neither Bowen nor Kerr clearly defines the phrase “emotional contact.” Bowen used the term thirty-three times, and Kerr more than that. Dr. Bowen also used “viable” and “meaningful” as part of the term. I will do my best to reverse engineer what I think the meaning is.

Put on your systems hat, as we must think of systems to find meaning. I believe Dr. Bowen intentionally chose the term because it is descriptive and accurate for the idea he wanted to convey.

Emotional connection is different.

Emotional Contact is not an emotional connection. Connection means “connected,” as A and B are connected. This implies that when A moves, B moves. Contact means they are touching, so A and B can move independently of each other.

Bowen was very specific in his definition of emotion, which stems from biology. Emotion relates to our physiological and biological functioning. Having low blood sugar is an emotional level state. Feeling hungry, consciously, is what Bowen called “feeling.” Strictly speaking, an emotional connection is when my emotional state changes in response to your emotional state. I’m automatically getting reactive. The “connection” is strong enough that the reactive behaviour actually gets in the way. I’m not autonomous in my feelings and thinking. This is fusion. You get anxious, and this leads to me getting more anxious. (I’m simplifying things as always.)

Emotional contact – I’m next to you, not stuck to you.

So, with good emotional contact, I’m in contact with you but not “stuck” or reactive to you. I’m at least not so reactive that it impedes my functioning. The topic of discussion is “emotional” in that one could physiologically measure changes that occur. We experience these topics as important and meaningful. They might be very impactful or scary. They could be very positive or negative. But, because I’m only in contact and not connected, I’m better able to manage my level of reactivity. I’m able to listen closely because I am genuinely interested. I don’t have an urge to fix anything or change your mind. I’m thoughtful about what I share, but not so worried about you I do not share my thinking. We have a meaningful exchange of our opinions. We learn about what is important to each other and how we think on that topic.

Emotions are sticky.

It’s easy to get “connected” and lose “contact.” Poor emotional contact can show up in several ways. There is distancing or avoiding on one end of a continuum and being too active and preoccupied on the other end. Avoiding contact or having shallow conversations without any significance falls under the distant side. This distancing is a form of reactivity, actually. But then getting reactive while in contact can show up as avoiding a topic, changing the topic, giving advice, being bored, frustrated or impatient. Trying to fix the other person’s problem trying to get them to change their mind or opinion is also reactivity. All of these mechanisms about trying to manage the anxiety or tension that comes up. All of these things get in the way of managing the tension and just listening with a curious, non judgemental attitude. This doesn’t mean you don’t have your own opinions or that you agree with everything.

Thinking systems can help

One thing I try to do is maintain a systems point of view. This gets me more curious about the *process* of how things came to be the way they are. It helps me avoid the blaming of cause and effect thinking and the urge to get I’m not sure that anyone wants to only talk about important and meaningful things all the time. Just getting know a person, staying informed about their life is also part of a good emotional contact. So don’t go overboard or you’ll stop getting invited to parties! Talk about the weather, sports, food, hobbies. Be open to where it might go. If weather leads to very meaningful and important discussion let it happen.

As with other aspects of working on self, I do this for my growth. I work on this because it’s important and meaningful to me. I also know that having good emotional contact is good for my emotional and physical health. Good emotional contact is an antidote to loneliness. Who will you work to have good emotional contact with? Like any fitness program, too much too soon is not recommended. Consistency is more important than intensity. Slow and steady wins the race.

un-intelligence is head in the sand thinking


By emotional system

How does intelligence get stupid?

How is it that politicians can get involved with affairs, misuse funds, and promote false information? Many politicians have degrees from prestigious universities, so they clearly are NOT unintelligent or uneducated. In today’s world of conspiracy theories, alternate facts, and outright lies, how can one think about this process from a systems perspective?

Level of differentiation and anxiety are two key concepts in Bowen theory. One quality of the level of differentiation is how well an individual can distinguish feelings and subjective thinking from facts and objective thinking. For example, let’s say that I get home late from work. I walk in and say, “Hi, I’m home!” and my partner says, “Well, it’s about time, your late.”

My “intelligence” will cognitively process the sounds I hear and allow me to recognize the words and the tone of voice.

My “emotion” will process the sounds as well, and I will actually pick the emotion that goes best with this situation. This is where the “stupid” can start. I can start to make up a story that my partner is mad and that this is unfair. But we’ll come back to this.

Chat GPT defines intelligence as “intelligence encompasses a wide range of cognitive abilities, including logical reasoning, critical thinking, creativity, memory, perception, and learning.”

Emotion impacts intelligence.

Intelligence is not independent of emotions. Part of processing information is evaluating whether something is a threat, an opportunity, or to be ignored. This requires value judgements related to fear and desire, bad and good, which becomes the behaviour of avoiding or approaching.  Even fruit flies will “decide” to forego reproductive opportunities for food opportunities if they are hungry enough. Otherwise, reproductive opportunities are always their first choice.

Our emotional state does impact our cognitive processing. For example, we can forget what we want to say when we get angry or scared. Or we get very frustrated and then blurt out something we later regret. Stress can degrade one’s ability to make decisions. In terms of human behavior, it makes no sense to speak about intelligence as independent from emotions. Based on observing interactions between parents and schizophrenic children, Dr. Bowen realized how much one’s thinking can be impacted by one’s emotional state. He noticed the impact of anxiety specifically.

Systems thinking: what, where, when, who.

Another aspect of thinking from a systems perspective is that it is more useful to ask what, when, where, who and how something comes about instead of asking why it came about. Asking why implies a direct cause-and-effect relationship, and systems don’t work like this.

When someone starts to believe ideas that many would define as false or incorrect, it can be useful to seek to understand the process of how this came about. Asking how, when, with what information, and with whom does this happen and be useful. How is it that a person doesn’t recognize false information? Or maybe how is it that a person doesn’t seem to care that the information is false? Perhaps there is something else going on.

Sometimes it’s just getting bad information. It appears to be factual, and it’s very hard to determine if it’s false or not. For example, reading something in a major newspaper that was misreported. How would one know?

But often, it’s just an impaired ability to process information in a neutral manner. The information is accessed as something threatening, and our fear circuits light up. In addition, we have built-in biases that can distort our information processing. Recency bias leads one (non-consciously) to favour information that is more recent in our experience. Loss aversion has us overcompensate for the risk of losing something. Frequency bias is when we start to believe something is a fact because we have heard it so often.  All of these have good evolutionary roots, which is why we evolved to have these processes. But anxiety, in particular, has a bigger impact on our thinking processes.

Anxious mind is “losing my mind”

When a person experiences anxiety, their thoughts and mental processes may be affected in the following ways:

1. Distorted thinking: Anxiety can lead to distorted thinking patterns, such as catastrophizing (exaggerating the likelihood and severity of negative outcomes), overgeneralizing (making broad negative assumptions based on limited experiences), or engaging in black-and-white thinking (seeing situations as all good or all bad). These distorted thoughts can contribute to increased worry and difficulty in problem-solving.

2. Selective attention: Anxiety can lead to a heightened focus on potential threats or negative stimuli. This selective attention may cause individuals to overlook positive or neutral information, leading to a biased perception of reality. They may have difficulty concentrating on tasks or absorbing new information due to their preoccupation with anxious thoughts.

3. Impaired decision-making: Anxiety can interfere with decision-making processes. Anxious individuals may become overly cautious or avoidant, fearing negative outcomes or making mistakes. They may struggle to weigh the pros and cons objectively, as their anxiety can magnify potential risks and uncertainties.

4. Memory problems: Anxiety can impact memory functioning. High anxiety levels can impair working memory, which is responsible for holding and manipulating information in the short term. It can also lead to difficulty recalling information accurately or remembering details due to heightened arousal and distraction.

5. Reduced cognitive flexibility: Anxiety can limit cognitive flexibility, making it challenging to shift attention, perspectives, or strategies. Anxious individuals may become stuck in rigid thinking patterns, finding it difficult to generate alternative solutions or adapt to changing circumstances.

6. Negative self-talk: Anxiety often involves negative self-talk, self-doubt, and self-criticism. This negative internal dialogue can further exacerbate anxious thoughts and hinder confidence and problem-solving abilities.

Differentiation makes a difference.

A person with a higher level of differentiation can differentiate factual information from feelings and subjective thoughts. Dr. Bowen defined being differentiated as having this type of thinking ability. He observed how much emotions negatively impacted an individual’s rational, objective thinking. This tended to increase their reactivity while impairing their ability to think about alternative solutions and different perspectives. Non-factual things can become more believable when anxiety is increased.

If we run this process backwards, irrational thinking in society results from rational thinking impaired by emotions, usually from some perceived threat. For example, the threat can be that an individual might have to change their beliefs, perspective, and behaviour if they think more objectively about a situation. Loss of employment, the world as they see it, status, and financial opportunity can be the underlying threat. It’s easier to blame something (cause and effect thinking) than to think systems about societal issues. An individual has to choose one of two paths. One is to blame other events or people for the situation and take on a helpless position. This avoids the other path, the often unpleasant reality of having to change, work hard, and accept one’s part in an unwanted situation.

For example, suppose a student is worried a lot about their friendships and their future. They don’t prioritize school work like they should to get good markets. So they start doing poorly in school, and they blame the teacher because all teachers are out to “get” them. They never get the “breaks” other students get. This approach, in the short term, is much less work than accepting that the student may need to work hard and face up to their fears, including that of not doing as well as others, in order to get decent grades.

Emotional logic versus intelligence.

Anxious, frustrated individuals want their discomfort to go away. They want a quick fix. They want to blame something so they are not at fault. This allows them to avoid the hard work of change that one is often faced with. One’s rational logic gets overridden by emotional logic. Emotionally, if I can blame something else so I don’t have to do a lot of work and face the risk of failure, I save a lot of time and energy. Emotional logic explains this. But rationally, it doesn’t hold up most of the time. The person has no ability to move forward from this perspective.

A systems perspective would work to understand the facts of the situation and what part I might be playing in the situation. My part might be that I happen to be in a certain place at a certain time. So if “this is what is,” a systems perspective asks, “How do I want to be? How am I going to show up,” given this situation? The answer may be very challenging. Like, stop using substances forever, find a job, and face my insecurities. Or, I have cancer; how will I lean into this and do the best I can? ( Note: It’s not about fairness. There is no checkbox on my birth certificate for “Life will be fair.”)

IQ + EQ = DQ?

I believe the level of differentiation, for fun, let’s call it DQ for Differentiation Quotient, would be a better measure of overall intelligence than emotional or IQ intelligence. DQ would indicate a person’s ability to function in a rational, objective manner, even in a highly emotional situation. They would fully utilize emotions as information without having them distort their ability to think objectively. They would act according to their principles and not cave in and go along with or reactively go against the group’s desires.

The good thing is that we can all work on our level of “DQ” and get smarter at being in relationships. And whatever level of IQ we do have will hold up under emotional pressure. I think this is pretty smart!

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Dave Galloway

Learn more about Bowen family systems theory here.

Watch this thirty-minute video on Bowen Theory on selflessness here.


perception of social threats activate social genonmic networks

Perceptions Matter

By Anxiety, emotional system

Perceptions matter – just ask your genes!

A newer field of study in biology is called social genomics. It is the study of how and when different genes are activated based on social interactions. On one level, it is very obvious that relationships affect our physiology. We can get anxious if someone is angry with us, which would show up as an increase in cortisol in our blood. But the study of social genomics goes much, much further and looks at all the genes that get activated. This provides clear evidence for a physiological mechanism of how lower levels of differentiation can negatively impact health. The same mechanism provides for how higher levels of differentiation can promote health and mitigate the effects of stress.

How does Social Genomics work?

Our DNA, our genes, are used for making proteins. We use proteins in chemical processes throughout the body. The process starts with the body making a copy of or transcribing a piece of DNA, and this copy is called RNA. When a gene is “expressed,” the body produces RNA molecules that are a copy of the section of DNA. Each bit of RNA is specific to the DNA or gene it is “expressed” from. Biologists can do analysis to determine which of these RNA molecules are around, and that tells them what genes are being transcribed. (The collection of RNA molecules is called the transcriptome).

So you take a group of individuals and expose them to a social threat, and then you measure all the bits of RNA that get produced. This tells you all the genes that just got activated, or more activated, by the social threat. The results are both amazing and important.

What has Social Genomics found?

This area of research has found two important and broad findings. They are how our inflammation and antiviral systems get turned up and down in response to social interactions, i.e. in relationships. These two systems are evolutionarily important. They are part of our natural defence against a) wounds and bacterial infections and b) viral inflections. Our inflammation system gets activated to promote healing and anti-bacterial defence. For example, when our ancestors were out hunting or fighting and got wounded. Our antiviral system, our immune system, is used to protect us from viruses, which often get transmitted from human to human. For example, in the winter, while in close quarters with our group (and not out hunting as much).

Fast forward to today, and your partner is angry with you. Your body believes this to be a physical threat – you could be wounded (not infected). So it cranks UP the inflammation response system and cranks DOWN the immune response. It turns one up and the other down to conserve bodily resources.

What’s wrong with a bit of inflammation if it helps us?

Inflammation responses and immune responses are “point in time” defence mechanisms. Like fire departments and hospitals, they are very useful when you need them, but you better not need them a lot. You definitely don’t want a fire truck parked outside your house all year! Yet repeated exposure to social threats activates the inflammation system, weakens the immune response, and keeps them chronically like this. This is not good. A house that has repeated fires is not a healthy house.

What is a social threat? It is what you think it is.

Social threats are things like conflicts (arguments), social rejection, social isolation, and loneliness. But it also includes one’s physical environment overall and not just family. For example, if one lives in a dangerous area and is always more vigilant when going out, these systems activate. In fact, just thinking that one is threatened can activate these processes. Analyzing one’s “transcriptome” would tell you if you were “walking on eggshells.” In fact, one doesn’t even have to have the subjective feeling of walking on eggshells, yet the body will react as if it was. The body knows.

Good emotional connections matter

What these social genomic studies have found is that we can do things to minimize the effects of social threats. First, all the things that help combat stress, like sleep, mindfulness, yoga, and exercise, are helpful. But healthy relationships are critical, as these can be the original source of the impact. Any relationship that *regularly* creates tension is not a healthy relationship. No relationships are not healthy, either. Studies have shown that isolation during COVID-19 had negative effects on immune system functioning, for example.

Thus, working on having even a few good emotional connections can counteract the negative effects of social threats. So the ideal goal is to minimize difficult relationships and maximize positive relationships. A measure of a healthy relationship is how much you can discuss meaningful topics with little worry about what the other person might think.

Defining self also matters

There is another very useful antidote to the negative effects of relationships that tie directly to defining self. Researchers have shown that individuals who derive happiness and satisfaction from meaningful, purposeful activities have much healthier systems than those who just pursue fun and pleasure. The effects of eudiamonic happiness (purpose) versus hedonic happiness (pleasure) are profound. So getting clear – defining self more – about what one believes in and has a conviction for and being able to lead a purposeful, meaningful life is very important. This is also the foundation for defining self more in relationships.

We evolved to be in relationships. We evolved to have positive and meaningful social connections, as it was key to our survival. This is why even perceived threats to our social world activate these systems. These systems provide a linkage between healthy relationship systems and healthy individuals. And vice versa. How you think about your relationships makes a difference.

Maybe, in the future, your counsellor will ask about your family diagram and your transcriptome.

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Dave Galloway

Learn more about Bowen family systems theory here.

Watch this thirty-minute video on social genomics here.

This article summarizes this excellent review of social genomics and is here.

Humans Dogs and Emotional Systems

By emotional system

What can Parents Learn from Obedience Training?

Humans domesticated dogs around 15,000 years ago. More recently, we have trained dogs to recognize the emotional state of individuals with PTSD in order to help those individuals cope with aspects of PTSD. Researchers have also shown dogs to recognize human facial expressions, especially those involving the area around the eyes. Dogs also show signs of grieving because of the loss of their owner. They have been known to lose their appetite, get lethargic, or become more “clingy” by seeking more attention. It seems clear to me that an emotional level connection can exist between humans and dogs. Like other humans, they provide attention and acceptance, and they have a calming influence.

A recent article in the Washington Post about training dogs caught my attention. It asked an important question. What kind of owners make for better trainers? The answer to this is directly useful for thinking about training children. Yes, children go through obedience training, whether or not we want to call it that. What is also similar is that one can’t solely rely on intellectual ability in both situations.


Trainees agreed that listening to their dogs is a key skill in being a talented trainer. But of course, dogs don’t actually talk, so you have to observe and pay attention to your dog. This means you can’t be reactive. Calmness, paying attention, and observing helps one get the other’s attention and pick up on what’s going on with the other, be it a dog or a child.

Be Flexible

Suppose you want to get your dog to be comfortable moving through a tunnel. One approach would be to go first and hope they follow. You could try to pull them through, or you could try to push them through. Or you could toss a favourite toy through and have them simply chase it. Notice that you would have had to first pay attention to your dog to learn what its favourite toy was. The seeking behaviour of following the toy “actually inhibits anxiety circuits in the brain. So leading with “carrots” to engage in seeking is a good approach.

Parenting Style … for dogs

Dogs appear to respond best to what is called an authoritative parenting style. This style, adaptive from Attachment studies, is firm but warm and adaptive. What’s important is that the expectations are clear and are expected to be achieved. I think it is interesting that, like a good parent, a good owner has to define self in their relationship with their pet.

Another skill for an owner to build on is being attentive. It’s about noticing what might work better for the dog or not. Is the dog tired? Have you been training too long or too intensely? Are you pushing too hard to get a result because you want to feel better about your dog? Anxious-driven training will not be effective with dogs. And it’s not with kids, either.

Attention and Approval – a common emotional force

I think dogs (and cats even) and kids enjoy their owners’ attention and approval. Lack of this can underlie certain behavioural issues. What obedience lessons have taught us is that OWNERS have a lot to learn in order to be effective. It starts with paying calm attention and requires firmness and clear expectations. Sound a lot like “defining self.”

Perhaps we would all be better parents and partners with some obedience training.

Thank you for your interest in thinking systems.

Dave Galloway

If you want to learn about effective parenting, check out our conference on Parent Hope.

To learn more about Bowen Theory click here.

Ideas for this post were taken from this Washington Post article: How to train dogs better.

How emotionally mature are you?

By emotional system

Emotional Maturity – What is it?

A challenge with discussing Bowen Theory is that the terms emotion and emotional system mean something different from the usual understanding that equates them to feelings. Dr. Bowen believed emotions to be more like instinctive biological processes. Food digestion is an instinctive process. Our body’s circadian system is instinctual because it develops automatically and operates outside our awareness. Our reactivity to others is instinctual – it is a natural process of our development, and it operates automatically. My reactions to differences in my family members’ facial expressions, word choice, tone and volume of voice, and body language are automatic. And their reaction to my reaction is automatic. This automatic reaction and reaction to reaction makes this a “system.”

The development of the emotional system and emotions is very complex. As infants, we respond to comfort and discomfort. Very basic stuff. As we develop, we learn to be (feel) comfortable or uncomfortable with various situations. We also learn how to regulate our emotions. We learn how to tolerate discomfort and delay gratification. In essence, we learn how to be more self-responsible for our level of comfort and discomfort.

Emotional maturation involves the ability of an individual to regulate their emotional reactivity appropriately. One learns to recognize emotions and the feelings they foster. Over time, they learn to regulate their display of how they are feeling. They learn how to regulate facial expressions, tone of voice, volume of voice and choice of words. While a child may scream out, “Chris made me do it,” not taking any responsibility for their own actions, an emotionally mature person takes responsibility for themself.

Mature Responsibility for Self

This development includes the increasing awareness that I am responsible for my sense of comfort and discomfort. This development also includes the understanding that since I’m part of the system, I need to observe, understand, and be responsible for my actions and their impact on the system. In a system, everyone is to blame, and no ONE person is to blame. Thus, blame is not a useful concept. How I am functioning and how I can change my functioning is the only thing I can (effectively) work on. An emotionally mature person recognizes this aspect of emotional systems and takes responsibility for their functioning.

Dr. Bowen wrote the following about emotional maturity.

  • “I have put the entire range of human functioning on a single scale with the highest possible level of differentiation of self (theoretical complete maturity) at the top of the scale “(p. 109).
  • “In broad terms, [a scale of differentiation] would be similar to an emotional maturity scale, but it deals with factors that are different from “maturity” concepts. (p. 472).
  • “Theoretically, a mature person can objectively evaluate both the internal and external factors and be responsible for the part self plays. The more immature the people, the more intense the blaming and self-blaming” (p. 128).
  • “There is an infantile self in the most mature of us” (p. 128).

Emotional Maturity Checklist

Here is a checklist you can use for years to come. After all, who would claim to be fully emotionally mature? This is a work-on-these-things kind of checklist taken from Dr. Bowen’s writings.

I can listen to the attacks of others without responding (p. 178).

I can live with “what is” without trying to change it (p. 178).

I can define my own beliefs and convictions without attacking those of others (p. 178).

I can observe the part that self plays in a situation (p. 178).

I can relate personally to another individual without talking about others (triangling) and without talking about impersonal “things.” (p. 540).

I take responsibility for my own comfort and discomfort and don’t expect others to do for me what I can do for myself.

I hope you notice I didn’t put a rating scale on this list. That’s because it will vary depending on the relationship, the situation and how much stress an individual is dealing with.

Emotional Maturity for Valentine’s Day!

An indicator of emotional maturity would be the ability to talk to your valentine about this topic without getting anxious about your or their response. And without modifying your response to “please” them. And without trying to change their response, especially if it makes you uncomfortable. (The valentine’s reference is because I published this post just after Valentine’s day.)

Emotionally mature individuals can be closer to others because they are not putting expectations on others. They can listen without judgment and without trying to change the other’s point of view. They can be fine with disagreement because they know their point of view is just their opinion on whatever the topic is.

Ironically, emotionally mature individuals can be very independent and interdependent at the same time.

Like other aspects of improved functioning, increasing my emotional maturity takes conviction, commitment, time, and effort. Given the alternative of lower functioning borne out of my immaturity, I keep on keepin’ on. After all, isn’t this choice recognizing “what is”?

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Dave Galloway

Learn more about Bowen family systems theory here.

Watch this thirty-minute video on Bowen Theory in everyday life here.

I took the above quotes from Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, Jason Aronson, Inc. Kindle Edition.



family system

Emotional Contagion

By emotional system

Emotional contagion is real

Emotional contagion is a field of study that validates much of what Dr. Bowen conceptualized in the 1960s. Dr. Bowen, who read widely across scientific disciplines, believed that we inherited the basis for the human emotional system from other species. It involves all the automatic physiological responses to external and internal stimuli. For example, you don’t have to “think” about backing away from a cliff. Or being attracted to another person. Or shivering if you get cold enough. I’ll use the word emotion to mean a non-conscious, physiological response to stimuli.

“Operationally, I regard an emotional system as something deep that is in contact with cellular and somatic processes, and a feeling system as a bridge that is in contact with parts of the emotional system on one side and with the intellectual system on the other.” (Dr. Bowen)

The scientific literature isn’t as clear as Dr. Bowen’s on the distinction between emotion and feeling. I think of feelings as the conscious awareness of some change in the emotional system. For example, if my blood sugar levels drop enough, I’m likely to become aware of that via the feeling called hunger.

What is emotional contagion?

Researchers define emotional contagion as the transmission of some emotion (aka feeling) via non-cognitive processes between individuals. It involves a transfer of physiology as measured by specific physiological markers. We find an example of contagion in mimicry. Mimicry is often used to describe how humans automatically mimic the facial expressions and body posture of the person they are interacting with. Gaze, pupil size, sweat production, and blushing can also be involved in this process. These items become an emotion or feeling because we interpret how the body is feeling (interoception) and what we are seeing and hearing. Researchers separate emotional contagion from feelings like empathy and sympathy.

Empathy and sympathy involve cognitive processes because these feelings involve the awareness of “us” and “them. “Cold” empathy is a mental process of understanding another person’s feelings. “Hot” empathy or emotional contagion is the process of one’s affective and physiological state becoming like others. One person is mimicking the other. Researchers believe that mimicry is the biological foundation that supports empathy and sympathy.

Mimicry runs deep

We can observe mimicry in infants long before they have any ability to be empathetic. Very young infants exhibit “crying contagion,” with the highest level of contagion being in response to cries of pain (in carefully controlled studies). Skin-to-skin contact between mothers and neonatal infants can reduce mortality because of the positive effects mimicry has on neonatal physiology. This mimicry, or emotional contagion, is at the physiological level of heart and breathing rates. Adults also exhibit the automaticity of mimicry. Adults subliminally presented with emotional faces responded with involuntary facial muscle movements, just as they would if they were consciously aware of the faces. This automaticity in infants and adults shows how deeply ingrained our emotional systems are. Also, it shows how important this kind of contagion is since evolution doesn’t keep features that aren’t useful.

We can transmit stress

In a 2014 study, researchers found that a father’s, mother’s, and adolescent’s cortisol levels were positively correlated. Various studies show that the mother’s profile affects the physiological profile of the child. The field of study called “autonomic mimicry” looks at the mimicry of heart rate, breathing, pupil diameter, and hormone levels. The foundation for how anxiety can move through a family is in the biological processes of mimicry. We automatically mimic the emotional state of those we interact with. A 2017 study found that individual cardiac activity changed in response to watching others in a stressful situation. It also showed that individuals with higher dispositional empathy responded more quickly.

Emotional contagion is for survival

Joseph LeDoux, a leading neuroscientist, proposes that all organisms evolved to detect threats. The individuals that were best at detecting (and overcoming) threats were the ones that survived, resulting in threat detection being naturally selected. Even bacteria can detect phages, a class of bacteria infecting viruses. Because of this, we have automatic physiological processes that respond to whatever we deem a threat. However, the conscious interpretation of the threat and the labelling of the threat with a feeling is a separate process and came much later in human evolution. Dr. Bowen preceded LeDoux by thirty-six years, but both distinguished between emotion and feeling, between the non-conscious physiological states and the consciously aware states of feelings.

We’ve come by this honestly

All the above shows that we are a) more connected with others than we might realize because b) this connectivity is automatic and non-conscious and c) this is an outcome of our evolutionary past. So we have come by this honestly. But it’s because the automaticity of our emotional contagion with others is so deeply embedded that I must be willing to keep working on being more differentiated. The environment I now live in differs completely from that of 10,000 years ago, let alone 200,000 years ago. My smartphone battery running low is not a threat. A child not wanting to eat kale isn’t a threat, either. But I am wired the way I’m wired. Luckily our wiring is plastic, so we can change it over time if we work on it. I think that the effort is worth it.

Thank you for your interest in learning more about systems.

Dave Galloway

To learn more about Bowen Theory, click here.

For a video series by Dr. Bowen: Bowen Basic Series

Read more about emotional contagion: Emotional Contagion