Neurobiology and Attachment – New research highlights the link between the biology and psychology of human interaction
It’s an exciting time to be getting into the world of therapy. In the last 10 years, brain research aided by technology which allows scientists and psychologists to map actual areas of the brain and have a good look at what happens there, has shed a fascinating biological light on the theory behind psychology and therapy.
One such example is attachment theory. In 1969 John Bowlby noticed that development in infants, both human and animals, is very much associated with how secure the initial attachment to their primary caregiver was. This is especially vital in the first year of life. If the primary caregiver is distant, disorganized, inconsistent or unavailable for whatever reason, the child will develop an insecure attachment style. Bowlby was basically testing out Freud’s theories and seeing if he could find a biological basis for Freud’s theory of psychodynamic development. As quoted by his colleague Mary Ainsworth in 1969, who further developed Bowlby’s theory by differentiating between insecure attachment styles, “In effect what Bowlby has attempted is to update psychoanalytic theory in the light of recent advances in biology’’ (p. 998). Current research in neurology is now doing the same for Bowlby’s Attachment Theory.
The most recent research suggests that how a baby interacts with their primary caregiver, usually the mother, has an actual effect on how their brain physically develops. This impacts things like emotion regulation, the ability to self-soothe, resilience, the ability to handle change and tolerate uncertainty. These earliest memories impact the brain and sets the mold for how a person relates to other human beings, and the self, going forward. Our early interactions with other humans and our environment effects how our brain regulates emotion and behaviour. In fact, learning to self-regulate our internal emotional states is one of the main tasks of childhood development. If this task is not completed successfully, or interrupted in some way, perhaps hijacked by trauma or some other circumstance, then the child emerges as an adult with an insecure attachment style, or an attachment disorder. It’s a matter of degree. Everyone has an attachment style, and falls somewhere on a spectrum of secure and insecure attachment. (To find out what your attachment style is try this survey: http://www.web-research-design.net/cgi-bin/crq/crq.pl
The fascinating thing is how this actually plays out in biology. Our early attachment experiences shape the way our brain, and specifically our right brain (our unconscious brain) organizes itself, (Schore & Schore, 2007). Subsequent experiences in a child’s environment contribute to the process of overall development. Our unconscious brain takes care of most of our body’s automatic functions, such as heart beat, breathing, motor skills etc. It’s also where our most primitive, basic urges emerge; our sexual drive, our need for nourishment and the need for security and safety. The instinctual impulse to reach for pleasure and avoid pain also lives here. (Freud called this the Pleasure Principal.)
This is also where the brain generates anxiety. Anxiety is a natural human response to perceived danger or threat. When we feel afraid or anxious, this part of the brain takes over and gets ready to either run to safety, or fight if running is not an option. Or if neither is an option then the ‘freeze’ response takes over. (Animals do this by literally ‘playing dead’. Humans are slightly more subtle in their approach.) These are all instinctual processes that occur in our brain which are essential for survival, both immediate survival of the individual and the over-all survival of the species. As an infant, attachment to our primary caregiver is essential for physical survival. A human baby cannot survive on its own. A secure attachment allows the baby to feel safe and this allows for healthy brain development.
If the attachment process is incomplete, or inadequate for whatever reason, a child’s brain begins to rewire itself as a protection or defensive measure based on what it encounters in its environment. The brain’s automatic nervous system, (the ANS) may become unable to re-balance itself. The ANS is what regulates the anxiety response in humans. When there is a ‘danger’ situation, it immediately sends word out to the rest of the body to prepare for danger. When the danger subsides, or is revealed to be not that serious, another part of your brain kicks in and tells the body to relax. If there is no opportunity to relax, or if a child experiences a constant state of hyper-vigilance, for example, an imbalance may occur.
As adults, these defences manifest themselves in numerous ways. Sometimes as an anxiety disorder, personality disorders, sometimes as an addiction disorder, sometimes as depression, or simply an inability to engage in or maintain stable relationships or other internal or external issues. (Internalizing refers to things that happen to you within your mind, externalizing refers to behaviours or actions that you undertake in the environment).
The bottom line is that everything we do as humans is in relation to other human beings. We exist interdependently. The role that attachment plays in human development is showing itself to be, in light of recent neurological research, increasingly fundamental. Freud under-estimated the need for attachment. He saw it as secondary to other basic human needs such as food, shelter and sex however as the work of Bowlby, Ainsworth and more recently from a neurological perspective, Schore have shown, the basic need for attachment actually resides more on the level of these fundamental human needs.
Attachment is closely related to our survival instinct as humans. Any threat to the attachment mechanism is seen by the unconscious mind as a point blank threat to survival. That’s why attachment disorders tend to lie at the root of many psychological imbalances.Understanding the way attachment works and why it is so fundamental to emotional development can be the first step towards healing that broken heart that many of us have been dragging around for so much of our adult life.
Further reading and references:
Ainsworth, M. D. S. (1969). Object relations, dependency and attachment: A theoretical review of the infant–mother relationship. Child Development, 40, 969–1025.
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss. Vol. 1: Attachment. New York: Basic Books.
Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base (2nd ed.). New York: Basic Books.
Judith R. Schore J, R. Schore A, N. (2007) Modern Attachment Theory: The Central Role of Affect Regulation in Development and Treatment. DOI 10.1007/s10615-007-0111-7
From the net:
A brief overview of adult attachment theory and research. Retrieved 30/12/14 from http://internal.psychology.illinois.edu/~rcfraley/attachment.htm
It’s Not All in Your Head: Affect Regulation in Psychotherapy. Retrieved 30/12/14 from http://www.centerforhealingandimagery.com/articles/its-not-all-in-your-head-affect-regulation-in-psychotherapy/