The Spectral Fingerprint of Attunement

by Karen Hopenwasser

In her entertainingly brilliant 2007 TED talk, How to Truly Listen, profoundly deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie explains that to truly listen, we must use our bodies as resonating chambers.* Regardless of any learned skill or innate talent in listening, our bodies actually are resonating chambers, whether we knowingly use them that way or not.   In essence, we are always listening and always knowing in a felt sense sort of way.

A psychotherapist in training learns a great deal about schools of thought, models of the mind, and therapeutic technique. We might even learn a bit about techniques for management of somatic symptoms like anxiety.   Mindful breathing is very popular these days. But we don’t often learn, through teaching and training, how to use the therapeutic tuning forks of our embodied minds.

There is a simple physics experiment using tuning forks of the same frequency (e.g. two tuning forks that vibrate the note middle A – a frequency of 440 Hz).   Strike one tuning fork, and any other tuning fork of the same frequency in close enough proximity will vibrate as well. This happens as a result of the transfer of energy through the air.   Within our brains we have multiple frequencies of brain wave activity, what is now called a spectral fingerprint of neuronal activity, and throughout our bodies, within all our cells, both in and out of the nervous system, we have vibrational energy. As a matter of fact, all life and all matter contains vibrational energy. Some of this is high energy we can see pulsing, like the heart beating, or the ocean tides. And some is low energy we cannot see at all, like that contained in a grain of sand. A number of years ago, biophysicists recognized that sand cascading down certain sand dunes vibrates and sings. Dunes comprised of uniform sized granules of sand sing in one frequency. And dunes comprised of many different sizes of granules sing in multiple frequencies.

We can see the flow of information through vibrational and electromagnetic transfer of energy throughout the biosphere.   Just notice birds in migration. Here is a photo of a murmuration of starlings in synchronized flight:


 A murmuration of starlings at Gretna. Walter Baxter.  Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license 2.0

As therapists, we are also a part of the biosphere, and in fact function like microtonal tuning forks. We resonate with our patients/clients in both quiet and wildly weird ways.   Sometimes when we feel an encounter is ‘misattuned’ we are actually failing to recognize a momentary attunement with a dissociated self-state, and we miss an opportunity to know something meaningful that could not be known in any other way. Each one of us has a unique spectral fingerprint of neuronal activity, but when individuals sit together in a familiar and repetitive way, such as ongoing psychotherapy sessions, our neuronal activity has the potential to synchronize –what is called entrainment. Entrainment can be experienced as intuition, or explained away as coincidence. Or we can appreciate the science of intuition, what is perhaps the most creative aspect of psychotherapeutic practice. With the integration of the science of information flow into psychotherapeutic theory and practice we can truly listen to the polyrhythmic song of attunement.


Karen Hopenwasser MD is an integrative psychiatrist in private practice in New York City and Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the Weill Cornell College of Medicine. She has been evaluating and treating adults with dissociative disorders for over three decades, with a special focus on understanding the neurobiology of body memory in clinical work. She is currently exploring the relationship between rhythm entrainment and attunement in therapeutic healing. She is the author of a number of papers which help clinicians recognize the impact of early childhood relational trauma in adult life, including “Dissociative Disorders in Women: Long-term Consequences of Violence Against Children,” “Being in Rhythm: Dissociative Attunement in Therapeutic Practice,” “Bearing the Unbearable: Meditations on Being in Rhythm, and two book chapters, “Dissociative Attunement in a Resonant World” and “Listening to the Body: Somatic Representations of Dissociated Memory.” Dr. Hopenwasser is a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, a former member of the APA New York District Branch Ethics Committee and was the Chair of the District Branch Task Force on the Problem of Sexual Contact in Treatment. She has many years of experience giving expert testimony in forensic cases related to the long-term consequences of sexual abuse by clergy, physicians, and therapists and has long been engaged in educating the public about trauma and dissociation.





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