Reflections on the Two-Person Biology

By Sharon Desjarlais , CC

Reflections on the Two-Person Biology

By Sharon Desjarlais , CC

Daniel Goleman was only a toddler when a momentary encounter in a grocery store mirrored a neurological concept that's subtly advancing the nature of CranioSacral Therapy today.

As Daniel wandered down the aisle with his mom, a woman passing by gave him a warm smile. Instantly, he felt his own mouth involuntarily curving up to match it. "It felt as though somehow my face had become puppet-like, drawn by mysterious strings that widened the muscles around my mouth and puffed out my cheeks," he says in his latest book, Social Intelligence. "I distinctly felt that my smile had come unbidden – directed not from within but from outside of myself."

That inexplicable mirroring of smiles is now recognized in scientific circles as the reflection of "mirror neurons" in two brains synchronizing, a development that has promising implications in the light-touch treatment room.

According to Michael Shea, author of Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy, this synchronization between two people reflects the emerging field of interpersonal neurobiology. "When two brains come together like they do between an infant and caregiver, their neurons synchronize to create a two-person biology that enables the child to begin processing emotions effectively."

Remarkably, those same neurological dynamics take place when two adults come together in a therapeutic relationship, creating a brain-to-brain bridge in the treatment room. This phenomenon emphasizes the need for clear and healthy boundaries between practitioner and patient. And, in Michael's eyes, that's the therapist's primary responsibility. "You have to spend more time paying attention to your own body in session, because a self-regulating therapist literally creates the neuronal pathways for a self-regulating client."

The new science on the subject also stresses the need to balance focused attention – what you're doing when you're tuning into a client's body hands-on – with unfocused attention, because that's the way the autonomic nervous system of the client develops, Michael says. "There are periods of approach behavior, like the contact and attachment that occur when your hands meet a client's body, which is mediated by the sympathetic nervous system. And then there are periods of withdrawal, when attention is moved away from the client, which is mediated by the parasympathetic nervous system. So, what we're doing as therapists by balancing focused with unfocused attention is mimicking the way the nervous system develops, which increases empathy and compassion."

Three Focal Points

How can CranioSacral Therapists make good use of these scientific developments in practice? Michael recommends incorporating three focal points in every hands-on session:

Focal Point 1: The Slow Tempo

In Biodynamic CranioSacral Therapy, the therapist attunes to a very slow body tempo called the "long tide." Michael believes you should start each session by synchronizing your attention with this slow tempo. "Tuning into yourself to activate the circuits of a two-person biology cannot be done quickly," he says. "It's a function of tuning in to the rhythmic balance interchange between the slow tempo and the natural quiescence that inherently exists in and around the body. Embryologists now recognize this natural stillness for its organic ability to bring order and integration to the human body as a whole." In a cranial session, he suggests you start by looking at the whole and synchronizing your attention with this natural stillness, because "that's how the whole gets organized. Then there's a dynamic later in the session when you can focus on parts that are holding a restriction."

Focal Point 2: Your Heartbeat

Next, Michael recommends tuning into your own heart. "As you sit by your client's side, take a moment to orient to your body three-dimensionally, like sensing the total surface of the skin. Then gradually shift your attention to the center of your chest and the movement of your heart and blood, a process called 'interoceptive awareness.'"

There's no need to take your pulse manually, he adds. "It's more important to sit still and feel the motion of the heart and blood as it moves through and around the heart and fluid body three dimensionally from head to toe." If your mind begins to wander (and it will), simply bring yourself back to your heart. "That alone changes brain structure and gives you the ability to differentiate yourself and your own internal processes from that of the client, and again, it deepens empathy and compassion."

Focal Point 3: Nature

Another natural way to balance focused and unfocused attention is by intentionally connecting with nature during each session. As you're working hands on, "move your attention out the window to the sky or to a tree for a minute," Michael says, "then bring your attention slowly back to your hands and your own body." When you're able to do this rhythmically, it helps reset your autonomic nervous system, which in turn resets your client's.

If you don't have a window in your treatment room? Bring in a potted plant or hang nature pictures on the wall. Michael says images of the horizon, like a sunrise or a sunset, are especially powerful. "It triggers the neurological head-righting reflex, which supports the vestibular system." And when you support your vestibular system, you naturally support that of your client's.

As new advances in interpersonal neurobiology appear on the horizon, science likely will continue to confirm that hands-on therapists have a deep and enduring impact on clients, in and out of the treatment room.


  1. Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, Stanford University
  2. Desjarlais, S. "CranioSacral Therapies: Three Bodies, One Heart" Massage Today, Aug. 2010.
  3. Goleman, D. Social Intelligence: the Revolutionary New Science of Human Relationships. Bantam, 2006.
  4. Pollatos, O., W. Kirsch, and R. Schandry. 2005. "Brain Structures Involved in Interoceptive Awareness and Cardioafferent Signal Processing: A Dipole Source Localization Study." Human Brain Mapping 26:54–64.
  5. Shea, M. Biodynamic CranioSacral Therapy, Vol. 3. North Atlantic Books, 2010
  6. Siegel, D. The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. The Guilford Press, 2001