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The Still Face Experiments

by Dawson Church, PhD

One of the questions that’s really perplexed me is why, in the course of evolution, we developed emotion. After all, getting angry, frustrated, and resentful feels awful.

The part of the brain that processes emotion is called the limbic system or midbrain. It sits on top of the reptilian brain, the hindbrain, and it evolved much more recently than the hindbrain. The hindbrain is at least 500 million years old.

The hindbrain is great at survival, regulating breathing, heart rate, and all the other functions of life, including the all-important fight-flight-freeze or FFF response.

These are all part of the autonomic nervous system. For “autonomic” you can substitute the word “automatic” since it governs all the automatic functions you don’t have to think about consciously.

The midbrain is over 200,000 years old and was evolved by mammals. That mammalian brain is where emotion starts. Your earliest human-like ancestors only began to evolve 5 million years ago, and modern humans with their large frontal lobes or forebrain sitting on top of that evolved in the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms, starting only about 200,000 years ago (Timeline: Evolution of the Brain).

Since the hindbrain was so good at FFF and all the survival functions, what purpose was served by the evolution of the midbrain with all its messy emotions?

The reason that emotions gave our ancestors an evolutionary edge was that ability to feel emotions like love and fear made them even better at survival. The midbrain contains several sub-structures that tag experiences with strong emotion, enabling the organism to distinguish between a non-threatening stimulus, like an innocuous plant, and a threatening one, like poison ivy. The stronger the potential threat, the stronger the emotion.

Later in his career, Charles Darwin became fascinated by emotion and wrote a book about it, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

Emotions are also a vital part of bonding between individuals. Emotional bonds clearly help with survival, such as when a platoon of soldiers works together, or a mother cares for her baby.

Just how important emotions are is shown by the ability of newborn babies to recognize them. In a series of experiments called the Still Face Experiments, researcher Edward Troninck had mothers keep their faces impassive when interacting with their infant children.

The children responded by initiating behaviors intended to evoke emotion in the mothers, such as smiling, gesturing, and vocalizing. When the mothers’ faces remained still, the babies responded by becoming even more animated as they attempted to elicit an emotional response.

If this failed, the babies would go into extreme distress, to the extent of losing control of their autonomic nervous systems. Watching video clips of parent-child interactions that are part of the Still Face Experiments is fascinating (see an example here).

The phenomenon is true not just of mothers, but of fathers too.

It persists across cultures and national groups, demonstrating that it’s an innate brain-based phenomenon and not learned behavior. The reason we developed this bonding ability is clear in evolutionary terms. A human infant is helpless, and only with the attention and affection of its mother will it survive.

It was highly adaptive for infants to possess this ability, and during the first 18 months of life, the limbic system is the fastest-growing part of the brain.

One lesson of the Still Face Experiments is that we don’t need to be abused as children in order to become traumatized. The simple withdrawal of parental interaction can be deeply distressing to a child. What happens if you had a childhood that was lacking in affection?

That’s where EFT comes into the picture. I’ve found that clients processing early childhood distress can make real progress with EFT, especially the 9 Gamut procedure. One of the many benefits of this powerful technique is that you don’t need to remember specific events in order to discharge emotional trauma. It works on even problems that pre-date your first memories (usually around age 3 or 4).

I also talk about the Still Face experiments, and why human beings evolved emotion, in chapter 6 of The EFT Manual, and show how the three EFT “Gentle Techniques” can be used to address traumatic memories, and when to use the 9 Gamut technique. After you use these methods, you often feel better even if you, like most of us, received less attention and love as a child than you needed.


dawson-church-phd-headshotDawson Church, PhD, is an award-winning science writer with three best-selling books to his credit. The Genie in Your Genes was the first book to demonstrate that emotions drive gene expression. Mind to Matter showed that the brain creates much of what we think of as “objective reality.” Bliss Brain demonstrates that peak mental states rapidly remodel the brain for happiness. Dawson has conducted dozens of clinical trials, and founded the National Institute for Integrative Healthcare (NIIH) to promote groundbreaking new treatments. Dawson shares how to apply these health and performance breakthroughs through EFT Universe.

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