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/

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Is internet porn the beginning of the end for the human race?

After a particularly robust discussion on the topic of internet porn addiction involving a frank and open exchange of views I took it upon myself to do some ‘research’ into the subject out of interest.

To be honest, pornography has never really phased me. Nor have I ever really worried about whether or not my partner looked at porn. I just thought it was something that ‘all guys do’ whether they admit to it or not so why bother getting upset about it. Each to their own was my attitude. But more than that, I also considered myself a pretty ‘open minded’ individual when it came to sex and sexuality. To be honest, I guess I had a pretty naive idea about what porn actually meant and what it actually entailed. It did occur to me that an industry which trades on the subjectification of one human being over another was in essence problematic. However, two adults engaging in mutually satisfying sexual communication is one thing, but pornography has nothing to do with that. Pornography, and internet pornography at that is an entirely other animal.

However, putting all morality and feminist discourse aside what I discovered about the very recent phenomenon that is high-speed internet pornography and the effect it is having on men and in particular very young men, is actually pretty terrifying to say the least.

In my research, which existed of Googling the words “brain porn” I came across this site: www.yourbrainonporn.com which I highly recommend for anyone who is worried about excessive porn use and if it could be affecting other areas of their life. Well, chances are it is, according to the most recent research on the neurology of the brain and how it responds in particular to excessive porn use. Some of the findings may be of surprising interest to some of you. I won’t go into all of them here but the one issue which I think is of alarming importance is the link between increasing instances of erectile dysfunction in men (some as young as 21) which is linked to over use of internet porn.

For some of these young men internet porn has become a way of life, so by the time they hit their early 20s some of them have been accessing and masturbating to internet porn since they were in early adolescence. The problem with that being thus, because the adolescent brain is still forming, a dysfunctional relationship between internet porn and sexuality has become hard wired into their brains, so much so, that they can no longer be aroused by a real life person. Their brains have come to associate sexual satisfaction with internet porn. After a while, some of them report that they have no interest  in actually having sex with another person, they would rather watch porn and get off. How absolutely whack is that?!

According to one recent (2014) Canadian study, 54% of young men aged 16 -21 reported some kind of sexual dysfunction including erectile dysfunction and inability to orgasm. Frequency and length of use can also contribute to problems with RL (real life) sex. That is, years of use and frequency of use can wear out the brain’s natural reward system, hijacking it so that it no longer associates sex with real life women as a reward. It associates sexual reward with sitting alone in your room, in front of a computer with one hand on your penis and the other on the mouse.

There has been some recent debate as to whether sexual addiction is a ‘real’ addiction or not. Well, according to the most recent (2013) DSM-V (Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) it is, as the brain responds in much the same way and the psycho-social behaviours that sex or porn addicts engage in are much the same.  Avoidance of real life situations, inability to connect intimately with another human being, isolation, shame, increasing instances of depression and anxiety have all been attributed to excessive porn use.

My question is this, if left unchecked and our young men of today are forgoing sex with real girls for the thrill of masturbating to porn alone then what does that mean for the future of humanity and relationships in general? The internet has made it easier to connect at a distance, social media makes it easier to ‘connect’ with others by simply ‘liking’ their post or photos. But, as a species, are we in danger of losing our ability to meaningfully connect in other ways? And if young men in particular are choosing to connect with the image of a porn actress (who will never reject them) on a computer screen rather than risk engagement with a girl (who may reject them) then what about the future of the human race? What about real sex, you know that ol’ chestnut, yeah reproduction of the species? Well that takes real engagement with another human being. And yes, human interaction can get messy. (The sort of messy that you can’t always wipe up with a tissue!) And if half the species are losing their motivation to engage in sexual behaviour with potential mates, then is it only a matter of time until the machines take over all together….?

For more information and links to actual studies check out http://www.yourbrainonporn.com