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From Me to We: The Science and Emotion of CalmConnect

by | Nov 17, 2022 | Blog

After more than a dozen years we’ve gotten pretty used to hearing that people don’t understand how something that looks so simple can change behavior so effectively.  Yet, CalmConnect reduces anxiety and depression, improves self/co-regulation, and facilitates sleep (among other things) for people of all ages and abilities.

CalmConnect is a scientifically based, patented system that uses authentic human emotion to calm the vagus nerve, leading to increased social connectedness and emotional wellbeing.

CalmConnect draws in part from relational neuroscience, which holds that the human brain is designed to operate within a network of caring relationships.  When we’re isolated or cut off from others – our emotional, mental, and physical health suffer.

We worked very hard and operationalized groundbreaking research in developing a patented program that would be easy for anyone to use.

Below is a review of some of the work underlying CalmConnect:  The social pain overlap theory, the polyvagal theory, audiovisual synchrony, rhythm and shared synchronicity, and the dopamine reward system.

The Social Pain Overlap Theory                                                                                                                        

 In 2004, Naomi Eisenberger and Matthew Lieberman published the first study demonstrating that social connection is critical for survival.  Being left out or rejected from the social group is processed by the brain (in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, dACC) the same way as physical pain.

Repeated social exclusion draws on painful experiences as a model for future social interactions and relationships. The more times that someone is left out or rejected, the more the experience of being left out is knitted into neural pathways.

Amplifying the importance of social connectedness, pioneering cardiologist Dean Ornish confirmed that psychological and social variables are better predictors of late-life well-being than medical ones. He described the results of several studies which examined the impact of social support on older men and women (331 men and women, above the age of 64 in North Carolina). After controlling for risk factors including age, sex, physical health, socioeconomic status, smoking, etc., the results showed that those with impaired social support had a 340 percent higher rate of premature death than those who felt that their social support was good.

When developing CalmConnect we enlisted more than a hundred people to appear onscreen who were not actors or models. They were young, old, Black, White, Asian, Hispanic… We told them about the person who would be using the program – that things might be hard for them, they might be struggling or having a bad day. We asked them to picture that person and send them their love.

We began to test the program. An older woman started to rock back and forth in time to the music as she watched the people onscreen. She began to cry and hug herself when she saw a young boy point to her and smile. A middle school boy with severe autism, limited speech and significant anxiety imitated an adolescent boy on the screen. He watched as the boy smiled and gave a big, “thumbs up.” The middle school boy stopped suddenly.  Taking a deep breath, he stood up tall, laughed, and said, “I think he likes me!”

For those who struggled throughout the pandemic, the dozens of people in CalmConnect are always welcoming, compassionate and safe. CalmConnect provides significant emotional support via the people onscreen who are helping users to reconnect once again, or for the very first time, with the real world.

The Polyvagal Theory

Stephen Porges is a behavioral neuroscientist whose 40 years of work has led to the development of the polyvagal theory, which is a new way to understand how the nervous system works, specifically relating to anxiety, danger, and trauma.

Our bodies constantly, unconsciously scan the world around us, looking for signs of danger that keep us safe.  The polyvagal theory explains the way that our nervous system moves from positive social engagement (activating the ventral vagal complex) to fight or flight (engaging the sympathetic nervous system), to freeze (triggering the dorsal vagal complex). 

Porges’ work emphasizes the biology of safety and danger through the interaction between our body’s internal states and the faces and voices of the people around us.  We feel less stress when we’re around people we trust because they make us feel safe.

The polyvagal system activates the most sophisticated adaptive response to stress (positive social engagement) when your nervous system perceives that you are safe.  The three main components of positive social engagement are eye contact, vocal prosody, and gestures; the expressive features of emotion which are found in every sequence of CalmConnect.

The Dopamine Reward System                                                                                                                  

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that’s part of an emotional reward system linked to healthy relationships. We are constantly motivated to seek out more of this neurotransmitter that’s been described as a rush of warmth, a wave of euphoria, or a tingling burst of energy.

Ideally, an infant is born into a loving, nurturing family and learns to pair human contact with dopamine, leading to more social support and greater interconnection. When early relationships are rewarding, the dopamine system learns to connect relationships with feeling good.

When a child is born into a dysfunctional, traumatic family environment the dopamine system takes a very different route. If the brain determines that relationships serve a threatening or unhealthy function, children grow to become adults who don’t find pleasure in relationships. Any interactions, connections, or even friendships that they might have can be emotionally taxing and draining.

With compelling music and loving faces, CalmConnect stimulates production of dopamine, resetting the nervous system to find safety and joy in human connection, promoting healthy relationships.

Rhythm and Shared Synchronicity                                                                                                         

Rhythm is essential and fundamental to all learning and socialization, which is why you will always hear that rhythmic steady beat throughout every sequence of CalmConnectSteady beat is an important precursor to language and socialization.

All learning is based on pattern acquisition, which is difficult without basic rhythmic skills. Rhythm underlies patterns of breathing and movement and helps to organize incoming sensory information into coherent new patterns of learning.

Rhythm builds social cohesion.  When two people perceive that they move in synchrony, they’re more likely to feel connected, and as a result, more likely to help each other and work together.  When synchrony is produced in experimental situations it breeds feelings of ‘liking’ another person and oneself, cooperation and compassion, and successful collaboration.

Studies show that more synchronized movement is associated with better relationship quality and better interactional outcomes. Synchronized gestures also trigger the release of oxytocin, an important hormone (referred to as the ‘love’ hormone) essential for bonding and secure, safe attachments.

Audiovisual Synchrony                                                                                                                         

When Ami Klin was the director of Yale’s Child Study Center Autism Program, he and Warren Jones, a CSC neuroscientist, discovered that children and adults with autism see the world differently than typically developing subjects, often ignoring important cues that could help them connect to the social world. They demonstrated that infants and toddlers with autism are drawn to patterns, to motion that is synchronized with sound.

Their research also showed that rhythm was of critical importance not only to children with autism, but to neurotypical children as well.

Every sequence in CalmConnect uses visual patterns and movements paired with rhythmic sounds and music in a synchronous beat. These combine to draw each person in as they become engaged in the patterns themselves, becoming part of a larger social group, by attending to socially relevant stimuli.

Ami Klin called this preference for paired sound and motion audiovisual synchrony (AVS), which has the ability to redirect children’s attention to socially relevant stimuli.

Positive, safe social connections develop through the shared synchronicity that comes from facial expressions, eye contact, attunement, activating mirror neurons, and moving rhythmically with others; elements of CalmConnect.

CalmConnect helps people of all ages and abilities to calm their nervous system, change their behavior, and connect with others.

It’s how we move from me to we.

Author

  • Roberta Scherf is a producer, writer, and speaker. Her own experience with Post-traumatic stress disorder and as the mother of a child with autism fueled her drive to understand the nervous system. Roberta’s curiosity, passion and commitment led to the design of an innovative non-pharmaceutical system that helps people to manage their own nervous system and behavior. She is the inventor of CalmConnect, the first patented behavioral health program to integrate music, patterns, the expressive features of emotion, and movement as part of a self-regulation program currently being used in thousands of school districts in the US and Canada, as well as therapy centers, hospitals, clinics, and homes around the world. She attended Carleton College and the University of Minnesota, studied Speech and Hearing Science, Psychology, and Russian, and spent years working with non-profit organizations. Roberta is the Co-Founder of PrioHealth LLC, and contributor to the book, “Optimizing Learning Outcomes: Proven Brain-Centric, Trauma-Sensitive Practices,” edited by Dr. William Steele, (Routledge, 2017).