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The Still Face Experiment

A mother sits facing her baby, making eye contact, smiling and interacting with her. Baby’s happy and animated, mum is responding to her; everything’s well.

Then mum turns her face away for a moment, and when she turns back, her face is totally flat and devoid of expression. She doesn’t respond in any way to her baby.

And here’s where it gets interesting.

Researchers created this Still Face Experiment in 1975 to explore the effect of maternal depression on infants. They wanted to see how a mother’s lack of response would affect a baby.

From the Still Face Experiment

In this more recent video, baby is at first a little discomfited, trying to make eye contact with her mother. (Just a heads-up that it can be hard to watch, so you might wish to pause the video if needed.) As mum continues to stone-face baby, baby gets more and more agitated and tries harder to get mum to respond. Finally it’s too much for her and she cries and twists her body in distress.

(Thankfully, at that point the mother picks her up and soothes her, and she’s fine again.)

The Still Face Experiment showed how sensitive babies are to feeling seen, heard, and responded to by their caregivers, and that when that responsiveness is not there, babies feel intense distress.

So what does this have to do with you?

Last time I introduced the ACEs Study and how traumatic childhood experiences or environments are directly linked to addictions and chronic health problems (ranging from mental health challenges and gut issues to auto-immune syndromes and major organ disease).

But people who don’t see themselves as having had a traumatic early life can still experience less obvious consequences, like…

On the emotional side:

  • Anger issues (including not accessing anger)
  • Procrastination
  • Persistent feelings of being unlovable, unattractive or unimportant
  • Difficulty with boundaries and close relationships
  • Perfectionism and self-criticism
  • Ongoing feelings of not being able to catch up with life

On the physical side:

  • Migraines
  • Sleep troubles
  • ADHD or difficulty staying focused
  • Coordination and balance problems
  • A history of constipation, diarrhea or other gut troubles
  • Reduced energy, frequent tiredness

But Alison,” you say, “I didn’t have a traumatic childhood. My parents weren’t terrible to me or each other. None of the ACEs apply to me. So why do I have these problems?”

. . .

Let’s go back to the Still Face Experiment.

When social mammals like us are born, we have a biological expectation of warm, emotionally-attuned connection with the adult who birthed us. Because in the wild, if our adults aren’t attending to us carefully or are too wrapped up in their own needs to care for ours, then that essentially means we won’t survive.

And on a nervous-system level, our young bodies respond to this mortal danger by going into stress mode — fight, flight or freeze — like the baby in the video. But the dysregulation of a stress response is only meant to be temporary.

In an ongoing state of vigilance, stress hormones set off a physiological cascade that ends up in physical and emotional consequences. Many of the physical ones don’t show up until years later when the body’s systems are finally too exhausted to maintain our health.

When our adults can’t be there for us

But even if we do have loving, mostly attentive parents, their emotional and psychological state heavily influences our felt safety. If they’re anxious, grieving, preoccupied, or otherwise dysregulated, they will be unable to be present with us and tolerate our more challenging feelings; we quickly learn to keep these in.

(For instance, many of us have a fear of being a burden on a parent — and later, on other people.)

Not being able to rely on our parents early on to help us co-regulate and maintain a basic sense of security can be enough to keep us in a state of low-grade stress.

Sometimes, the nameless danger we feel deep in our bodies is also ancestral trauma. (More on that another time…)

While many of us don’t develop severe health problems, we can still be plagued by these other everyday challenges that reduce our quality of life and our capacity to feel safe to be fully ourselves.

Furthermore, living in a state of dysregulation makes us less resilient. With less capacity to handle and bounce back from difficult events, we may be more deeply affected by them.

Image: Brecht Bug

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