Robert Hunsaker, MD

A graduate of Loma Linda University, Dr. Hunsaker specializes in cardiac anesthesiology.  He is currently living in the Boston area with his lovely wife Andi.

Attunement, Empathy, and Beholding

in Spring 2019   |
Published on 03/01/2018   |
10 min

Attunement. No, not “atonement” (for all of us armchair theologians); and no, not “a tune-up” (for all of us armchair auto mechanics)—but just plain attunement.1

Scientifically speaking, attunement is the process by which infants and children perceive in adults, usually their parents, that their own emotions are being discerned, understood, and validated. For example, when a baby shakes a rattle and squeals with delight, most parents will smile and squeal in response. The infant perceives this response as validating what they are feeling or experiencing; therefore, they are more likely to express those same emotions in the future.

Dr. Daniel Stern, an early development researcher and psychiatrist (then at Cornell University), in “The Interpersonal Worlds of Infants”,2 describes one typical situation of a mother with her twins. This mother, as is common, began to perceive that one of the twin boys was more similar to her, and the other twin boy was similar to his father. Perhaps this led to her relating to them in slightly different ways. The twin more like his father would not maintain eye contact with her but would avert his gaze when she looked him in the eye. She would try to “catch” his eye, but he would always avert. The twin more similar to her, however, would maintain his gaze when she looked him in the eye. As they grew older, the twin that averted his gaze grew up fearful and dependent, and he rarely maintained eye contact with other people as well; his twin, the one who maintained eye contact, grew up more independent and with more stable social relationships than did his brother.

Dr. Stern’s conclusion from this case and multiple similar observations over time through hours of videotape observations, was that these frequently repeated interactions between infants and their parents shape emotional expectations that babies, as adults, will bring to their close relationships. He coined the term, “attunement” to describe these multitudinous interactions that parents and infants have between each other, where the infant or child’s emotions are reciprocated back to them in an affirmative manner, in contrast to being dismissed or not mirrored back in a positive way.

Attunement occurs between infants also. With rare exceptions, from infancy, babies are upset and experience distress when they hear another baby crying.3 Typically when an infant sees another infant shedding tears, that infant will begin crying in response. When one infant views a fall (or other mishap) happening to another infant, the observing infant will look to its own mother for comfort or at times offer its own teddy bear to comfort the misfortunate infant.

This process of attunement is believed to be one of the primary ways of developing empathy. Empathy was a term originally used in the early 20th century as a synonym for “motor mimicry” – e.g., a baby crying in response to another baby crying, etc.

The neurological and anatomical bases for empathy began to be sorted out in the 1970s, when several different types of neurological lesions were reported. Some patients with lesions in their right frontal lobes could understand emotional words but couldn’t process the tone of voice or facial expressions that gave a different meaning to the words. For example, they couldn’t differentiate a grateful “thanks” from a sarcastic “thanks” or from an angry “thanks”.4 Others, with a slightly different lesion, couldn’t express their emotions in tone of voice or facial expression. They had the emotion but couldn’t express it.

It was discovered that connections between the limbic system and visual cortex underlie these important skills. You need to be able not to just understand the definition of the words that someone else is saying, but to also visually observe their “body language” and hear the tone of voice in order to understand what is being communicated.

Attunement is the process that we were meant to go through as infants and children in order to discern these relational realities. And empathy is the character trait that attunement is meant to produce. Empathy is the ability to discern and mirror, or enter in to, the emotions of another.

Jesus as our Model
As we’ve repeatedly discovered in our “Science and Inspiration” series, modern science is only now supporting and reinforcing what inspired writings have been communicating to us all along.

Notice Jesus’ development and how He came to know and understand the emotions of others: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” – Luke 2:52

Jesus increased in wisdom (mental), stature (physical), and favor with God (spiritual) and humanity (social). Christ’s social growth (favor with men) came as a result of His seeing, understanding, and entering into the experiences of those He came in contact with. Notice in John 2 that Jesus “knows” us. “He knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man.” – John 2:24-25 Also, Jesus knew how to speak a “word in season to him who was weary.” -Isaiah 50:4

How did Jesus “know what was in man”? How did Jesus know what the “word in season” would be? Because His mother, Mary, under influence of the Holy Spirit, had done a superb job of “attuning” Jesus so that He would grow up with a character of empathy.

God’s purpose is that the church will mirror this attuning and empathic reality to a callous world. “If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.” – 1 Corinthians 12:26
We must not fake empathy so that we can appear understanding in order to manipulate people into joining our denomination. But, as we have been “attuned” by Jesus, we will actually be able to enter into the feelings, emotions, and circumstances of a dying world.

Just as a mother or father mirrors or “attunes” the emotions of their child, God in Christ has been “attuning” to us. As we reflect on God’s sensitivity to our circumstances, may we be led to be more ‘attuned’ to those calling out for God’s love all around us.

“Not a sigh is breathed, not a pain felt, not a grief pierces the soul, but the throb vibrates to the Father’s heart.” – Desire of Ages p. 356
“Our world is a vast lazar house, a scene of misery that we dare not allow even our thoughts to dwell upon. Did we realize it as it is, the burden would be too terrible. Yet God feels it all. In order to destroy sin and its results He gave His best Beloved, and He has put it in our power, through co-operation with Him, to bring this scene of misery to an end.” – Education p. 263

As we grasp the “attuning” that God has for us, and “as we are changed into His glorious image” – 2 Corinthians 3:18 —may we be “attuned” to our families, church members, co-workers, and the strangers within our gates so that, through cooperation with Him, we may “bring this scene of misery to an end.” – Education
p. 263

1. Attunement is also a term used to describe a “new age” form of “energy medicine”. I am definitely not referring to that form of attunement.
2. Daniel Stern. The Interpersonal World of Infants. (New York, Basic Books, 1987). p.30
3. Daniel Goleman. New York Times, Mar 28, 1989. “Empathy, Neurology, and Developmental Roots.”
4. Daniel Goleman. Emotional Intelligence. p.102

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