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Life Through Dance

The Neuroscience Behind the Power of Connection

By Elizabeth Dickinson

To create a good ballroom dance connection, there's a lot of information partners need to know—what parts of the body touch, how the lead communicates what he wants the follow to do, the stance of each person, and the etiquette of the ask. It's definitely a two-way street. Each person needs to do their part.

In life, a good connection is established by creating a space that is respectful and free of limiting perceptions. Establishing this space is easy when things are going well—when you like the person, when there are no emotional challenges, and so on.

In her wonderful TED talk, therapist Hedy Schleifer shares the neuroscience of why connection matters and how to achieve it.

According to Hedy, the brain is the only organ in the body that does not regulate from within. In other words, it regulates, in a sense, from the outside—through another brain. When we encounter or try to establish a good connection with another person, our brains start to resonate with each other and our central nervous system begins to calm down.

It turns out we need each other for self-regulation. Relational neuroscientists have discovered that when we feel compassion and empathy and resonance with another person, our mirror neurons activate and create new neural pathways that give us the capacity to be in relationship, to become more relationally intelligent.

But how do you create a respectful space when there are messy emotions in the way? You can't do it by suppressing or denying the messy emotions, but if you're committed to creating a good connection, you can make a deal with yourself to set them aside, at least temporarily.

The example Hedy gives is connecting with her mother who had been her hero, having escaped from Germany while pregnant with Hedy during World War II. Decades later, her mother was confined to a wheelchair and suffering from dementia, unable to recognize Hedy. Overcome with grief, sadness, and anger, Hedy realized she was not actually visiting her mother.

She was with her own emotions, polluting the space between them. When she realized this, she decided to cross the bridge into her mother's world, leaving her conflicted emotions behind. And then a small miracle occurred; in the sacred, clear space where Hedy could really see her mother, her mother could also see her. For the first time in months, her mother said, "You are my daughter," and wiped away Hedy's tears. It was a profound healing.

Partner dancing demands we be in a relationship with another person. Life demands we be in relationships with other people. We need each other to exist and have a life worth living.

We can create pollution in our space, or we can create clean spaces that honor the spark of divinity and humanity in all of us. It's up to us to choose wisely. And miracles can occur.