Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Tone: The Royal Road

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on October 30, 2013


Multiple levels,. causing complexity in communication, is the theme of my teaching tonight. We will discuss Louis Sander’s work,,


” Louis Sander’s bold and ambitious theoretical synthesis deserves careful attention from psychoanalysts of all persuasions. Sander’s cutting-edge approach draws on infant observation research, nonlinear dynamic systems theories, and current biology, physics, and other “hard” sciences. He is rethinking the psychoanalytic approach to psychic structure, motivation, and therapeutic action. In so doing, he updates Freud’s project of linkingpsychoanalysis with scientific paradigms, but without reductionism, epistemological naivete, or an implicit antipsychological attitude.”


In that, we will learn how non-verbal communication, communication through tone, creates a warmth and love, vital to human development, as in the caretaker/infant relationship, and vital to therapeutic action. We will then discuss the work of Takeo Doi,,

Amae (甘え) is the nominal form of the verb amaeru, which Doi uses to describe the behavior of a person attempting to induce an authority figure, such as a parent, spouse, teacher, or supervisor, to take care of him. The word is rarely used of oneself, but rather is applied descriptively to the behavior of other people. The person who is carrying out amae may beg or plead, or alternatively act selfishly while secure in the knowledge that the caregiver will indulge him. The behavior of children towards their parents is perhaps the most common example of amae, but Doi argued that child-rearing practices in the Western world seek to stop this kind of dependence, whereas in Japan it persists into adulthood in all kinds of social relationships.[1]

Amae refers to the tone of “please help me, shelter me,” such that the person feels the relationship is asymmetrical. I liken this communication to the dog who comes up to you, and clearly, wants to be petted. In humans, this communication is often conveyed by patients reporting their activities, with the apparent unconscious wish, for deep listening and affirmation. The tug to say “that’s great” is a hint for the possible amae. If, by chance, or on purpose, the therapist does not say “that’s great,” then the shift to sullenness, might be a clue that, in that moment, the patient experienced deprivation. The addition or subtraction of liveliness is the clue to a change in the internal state, and hence another (in addition to dreams) royal road to the unconscious.

Nao, sixty-seven, female, comes in, explaining to me her various experiences on, giving me the feeling that she wants me to root her on. I have the sense that she wants me to comment on her courage, at her “advanced age” (her words), to seek a life partner. Nao, in these moments, remind me of my three year old patient, Frances, who builds Legos, and then says “look at what I made.” If I do not respond to Frances, he will keep saying, “look, look,” suggesting that it is not that he wants me to look, it is that he needs me to look in order for him to be proud of his work. Similarly, Nao seems to need my encouragement for her to proceed, suggesting that she is in a phase in her life in which she feels the need for a maternal caretaker. Nao, unlike Frances, can come to see that her tone suggests her parental neediness, and as such, this awareness can inform Nao of how her friends and loved ones, might be hearing her tales. This understanding speaks to the therapeutic action of psychotherapy. My helping Nao understand how she comes across to others, at least in this phase of her life, will deepen her self-understanding, and thereby, deepen her connections to others.



6 Responses to “Tone: The Royal Road”

  1. Jon said

    Tone can affect logic as well. It is well known that two negatives make a positive. However with the right tone, two positives can make a negative, as in (spoken with the proper degree of cynicism) “Yeah, right.”

    On to a more serious note (or should we non-seriously say, “On to a more serious tone”). Albeit an important part of non-verbal communication, tone is not the only part of non-verbal communication. Body language also has a lot to communicate. Hopefully, this will provide more grist for the blog mill….

  2. Ashana M said

    In a hierarchical society, there is a greater need to use expressions of dependency and an appeal to caretaking to get needs met. You can’t, for one, make requests very directly. But expressions of dependency aren’t just about the dependency of the person communicating that; communication is a two-way street, and it also is intended to meet the need of the audience for power. So Frances may need you to look, but he also assumes you need to look, that the way he can interact with you is to appeal to your own view of yourself as being both benevolent and powerful. Because children quickly become the social equals of adults in a culture with a lower-power distance (and the US has a national culture with one of the lowest), there is less need for this, but amae also doesn’t reinforce existing social roles. Nao is not just expressing her feelings of dependency, but she’s also responding to her assumption that you feel powerful in relation to her, and that appealing to an authority figure’s feeling of power over others is the way to forge a bond with them.

  3. Shelly said

    It’s interesting that you think Nao is telling you her adventures on simply so that you will comment on it and encourage her, sort of like a parental figure. Perhaps she really wants your input and insight into it, as if the entire process is a good idea for her or not? Although I’ve never done it before, I can imagine that it is a very trying experience. I wouldn’t say that it is comfortable and I’m sure she is expressing her discomfort to you. That is not the same thing as a child wanting to be taken care of by a parent or a child wanting to show you his toy. For if you minimize or trivialize all human experiences that are related to you in such a manner, then what is any patient left to speak to you about?

    • Shirah said

      Ah, Shelly, you remind me, once again, how tone, eye contact, pauses, word choice, all inform my intuition that the telling of a tale has certain expectations, sometimes for affirmation, sometimes for deeper thinking, and sometimes, as you say to share the experience. It is not that my intuition is always right, but it is that I use my intuition to make hypothesis and work from there. I think we can all relate to the feeling where someone tells a story, and one cannot help but imagine the dog who needs petting. No words are exchanged, but you know that is what the dog wants, and so too, that sensation happens with human interaction as well. Thanks.

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