Daniel N. Stern, M.D.
One of the most mysterious aspects of the parent-infant (or any human) relationship is how one knows what another is experiencing subjectively. Yet this very ability underlies what we mean by empathy. It also underlies the phenomena in which the parent's fantasies about the infant come to influence the infant's behavior and ultimately shape his fantasies. (It is largely the result of the conference leading to this book that I have become aware of the wealth of work in Europe, particularly in France, on this issue of reciprocal fantasy interaction [Cramer, 1982; Kreisler, 1981; Kreisler et al., 1974; Lebovici, 1982, 1983; Pinol-Douriez, 1983].) The ability I have in mind also underlies aspects of what we mean by the quality of a relationship—in particular, what Hinde (1976) has described as the penetration or degree of mutual disclosure, openness, or intimacy.
Whether one is considering empathy, reciprocal fantasy interactions, mutual intimacy, or any other manner in which the inner mental life of one person ends up penetrating and influencing another, there must be some general ways that mental states within one person are knowable to another. (And the ways must be nonverbal, because one partner is an infant.) The mental state must first become manifest as overt behavior—and that overt behavior must be translatable—so that a partner can sense the inner state lying behind another's overt behavior.
The phenomenon of affect attunement is one such general way. Accordingly, we believe it occupies a place of importance in understanding the mechanisms behind crucial clinical issues such as empathy, "interactions fatasmatique," and intimacy, as well as "mirroring" and its related processes. In this essay I explore the nature, mechanism, and role of affect attunement in the sharing of affective mental states.
Some of the kernel ideas presented here are treated elsewhere in greater depth and related to other aspects of the growth of the infant's interpersonal world (Stern, in press).
Affect attunement can so permeate other behaviors that they are difficult to find in pure form (the following examples are taken from Stern, 1984). Occasionally, a very unemcumbered example appears, such as:
A nine-month-old girl becomes very excited about a toy and reaches for it. As she grabs it, she lets out an exuberant "aaaah!" and looks at her mother. Her mother looks back, squinches up her shoulders, and performs a terrific shimmy of her upper body—like a go-go dancer. The shimmy lasts only about as long as