There is a growing movement in psychotherapy towards reading clients’ facial microexpressions and body “tells”.  One of the leaders in this movement is Stan Tatkin, PsyD, who teaches a Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy (PACT).  I recently talked with Dr. Tatkin about how he uses microexpressions to enhance couples therapy.

Dr. Tatkin uses microexpressions to read subtle shifts in his clients’ moment-to-moment autonomic nervous system arousal.  Using visual cues in the eyes, nostrils, mouth/lips and skin tone, he can tell whether a person is open and receptive (“regulated”) or in a threat-response (“dis-regulated”).  He points out that people often aren’t aware when or why they shift into a threat-response in relation to their partner, because it happens so quickly, and involves parts of the brain that don’t give explicit thoughts as explanations. 

Dr. Tatkin notes that people will unconsciously make up (“confabulate”) reasons for their sudden anger or fear of their partner, based on old stories about themselves and their partner.  He calls this “dirty data."  His therapy down-plays the importance of sorting through narrative in favor of helping couples attend to each other's moment-to-moment physiological arousal level. 

Most therapists focus on narrative content in therapy.  Dr. Tatkin notes that therapy training focuses on narrative, and the human brain tends to get caught up in language, as a function of the left hemisphere.  In contrast, he trains his students to pay close attention to their own bodies and self-regulation; to use themselves as a “tuning fork” to help their clients learn to self-regulate.

Dr. Tatkin uses an innovative teaching approach:  he sits perpendicular to a trainee in a therapy role-play.  This lets him give moment-to-moment instructions on reading and adjusting autonomic nervous system arousal levels.  He calls this “regulating the regulator." 

How can therapists learn to read microexpressions?  Dr. Tatkin recommends the training programs by Paul Eckman.  Advanced training can be found from Erika Rosenberg.  

Dr. Tatkin also suggests that training in drama or psychodrama can be helpful to learn how to read movements from the whole body, and how voice prosody can affect emotions.  Pat Ogden and Peter Levine do body-oriented psychotherapy training.

Additionally, Dr. Tatkin also recommends reading the work of Steven Porges regarding polyvagal theory. 

Dr. Tatkin points out that it is important to remember that all microexpressions are idiosyncratic to the individual, and thus we need to know each individual’s “baseline” in order to know what a specific microexpression means to that person.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Therapy Training