The Orienting Reflex: The Foundation of Relational Health

The moments of tuning into each other’s cues and responding to each other’s emotions are the bedrock of connection and deep relationships.

We blink, we cough, we gag, we recoil—our bodies have a long list of reflexes that help us function and stay alive without having to think about it. But our bodies also have social reflexes, which play a vital role in our survival, learning, relationships, resilience, and overall health.

The foundation of social reflexes is called the orienting reflex, which Pavlov called the “what is that?” reflex (not to be confused with the startle reflex, which happens when we jump at a loud noise). We orient when any of our five senses detect something unexpected or significant (or both) in our environment. 

A sudden change, a shift up or down in intensity, or even a simple variation in a pattern we’ve become used to can trigger the orienting reflex and the physiological and behavioral changes that come with it: dilated pupils or blood vessels, turning toward the source of the change, and changes in heart rate and the electrical conductance of our skin. We’re wired to pay attention to novelty and significance; the stronger the stimulation, the longer we orient to it.

Though it is largely thought of as a survival reflex, we can also think of orienting as a pre-social reflex, because it primes us to react, not just to the environment, but to each other. You can’t build a relationship without paying attention to each other first. 

For humans, building relationships is survival. Being attuned to our environment helps us adapt, learn, and stay alive from the moment we take our first breath (there’s even evidence to suggest we orient while still in the womb). To a newborn baby, the mother is the environment, and mother and baby must orient to and build a relationship with each other if the infant is to survive and learn.

After birth, if a mother and baby are given uninterrupted, protected time together, we can see the orienting reflex at work immediately. Every single one of the baby’s senses orients to mom, and mom’s senses are dialed up to take in all the information coming from her new baby. In the ensuing weeks and months, mom continues to orient to baby’s needs and the baby watches and mimics mom’s facial expressions, which sets the stage for lifelong learning.  

One variable that becomes very important for the baby’s continued orienting is the mother’s emotional expression. Once we know what a stimulus is (we pinpoint that the sound we’re hearing is a coin in the laundry machine), we can stop orienting to it pretty quickly. But studies have shown that it takes a really long time for babies to stop being interested in a face if it’s expressive. In other words, mom’s emotional expression helps orient the baby to her, and keep their attention for longer. And increased attention to faces in infancy has been linked to later empathy and responsiveness to others’ needs

In implementation of Family Nurture Intervention (FNI) in hospitals, trained nurture specialists guide mothers to engage their babies’ orienting reflex through sensory stimulation combined with emotional expression. This includes being held (skin-to-skin when possible), comfort touch, warm vocal tone, and exchanging scent cloths, so that even when they can’t physically be together, mom and baby are maintaining this vital body-level connection. But it is the strong emotion—both positive and negative—that is highly engaging to the baby and causes them to sustain a longer orienting response. 

Throughout our lives, strong emotion continues to catch our attention; we’re social mammals and we rely greatly on social cues. Those moments of tuning into each other’s cues and responding to each other’s emotions are the bedrock of connection and deep relationships. 

Orienting sets the stage for our vital social-emotional reflex: approach/avoid. Next week, we’ll look at how this fundamental reflex builds on orienting to create and sustain healthy relationships.