Insecure attachment is becoming increasingly well understood. The research of neuroscience continues to give ever increasing detail and validation to attachment theory, first purported by John Bowlby more than half a century ago. Over the past decade, it has become abundantly clear that the in utero and immediate postnatal environments, and the one on one relations between the child and primary caregivers within the first years of life have direct and enduring effects on the child’s brain development and therefore behavior.
From the last trimester in pregnancy through the 2nd year of life the brain grows rapidly more than doubling in size, and then it’s growth levels off. Due to this massively-accelerated development of the brain of infants and toddlers, it is a period more important than any later stages of life, having unique, essential, emotional mental health needs.
This brain development, we now know, is more than just genetically encoded. It requires epigenetic (changes in gene function that do not involve changes in DNA sequence) relational experiences provided in the mother-infant attachment bond to develop to greater complexity. This is the interface in which mother nurture is integrating with mother nature. In other words the maturation of the brain needs experiences, it needs social, relational experiences.
It is increasingly recognized that the enduring impact of early maternal care and the role of epigenetic modifications of the genome during critical periods and early brain development in health and disease is likely to be one of the most important discoveries in all of science that has major implications in the field of psychotherapy.
The Importance of the Right Brain
There is now agreement that the essential developmental task in the first year of human life is the co-creation of a secure attachment bond of emotional communication between the infant and his or her primary caregiver. The baby communicates its burgeoning, positive emotional states: joy and excitement, and negative emotional states: fear, anger, discomfort etc., to the caregiver so that she can then receive these communications and then regulate them. Attachment forms in this way through relational right brain to right brain communications between the mother and the infant. These emotional communications, as co-regulation, shape the capacity in the infant for self-regulation.
The attachment relationship shapes the ability of the baby to effectively communicate, not with just the mother, but ultimately through this learning, with all human beings. In episodes of visual facial, tactile gestural, and the emotional tone of the voice, the sensitive primary caregiver is receptive to the infant’s bodily-based attachment communications. These communications are not occurring through language, they are occurring through these nonverbal emotional communications. This is the first relationship, the primary relationship in which the baby is learning how to interact with another human being in order to process these relational communications.
The mother must be subjectively perceived by the infant as predictable, as consistent, and especially as emotionally available, around 70% of the time for secure attachment. Secure primary attachment figures then are able to not only down-regulates negative states but up-regulates positive emotion in play states. And this has been also a shift in understanding, because Bowlby originally thought that the reason for the attachment was that the mother was down-regulating fear states for the baby, as the baby came back to her as a secure base. We now know that these positive states which really involve the dopamine reward system, are critical to brain development as well. So, for a mother to become a secure attachment figure she must not only soothe and calm the baby but can up-regulate the baby in these positive states as well.
Insecure Attachment & Emotional Regulation
The infant seeks proximity to the mother, who must be subjectively perceived by the infant as predictable, as consistent, and especially as emotionally available across a spectrum of all emotions. This is critical because at certain points in life we need to be able to tolerate the difficult emotions of guilt and shame that are part of all moral systems as well as the emotions of anger and fear which carry societal judgments.
So again here, the baby is learning now how to be able to communicate; to Internally understand and to have these emotions across the human spectrum. The baby thus becomes securely attached to a mother who is attuned, because the baby is reading the internal states of the mother. Thus it’s the emotional availability of the caregiver in infancy which seems to be the most central growth-promoting feature of the early rearing experience.
And the development over the first year, therefore, is what’s called an expansion of the affect array (range of feelings and emotions); that the child now has increased tolerance for both positive and negative affects. The researcher Joe Ledoux, coming out of neuroscience, who has studied fear states says, “The broader the range of emotions that a child experiences, the broader will be the emotional range of the self that develops.” This also allows the child then to have empathy for others who are also in similar states.
Right Brain Attachment Communication
These attachment communications are occurring between the infant’s right brain and the mother’s right brain. The right hemisphere can be considered dominant in infancy for the type of visual facial and acoustic intonation of communications, which is relevant for the pre-linguistic child. Neuroimaging research in infants has proven this to be the case.
On the part of the attachment figure, we now know that the neural substrates of the perception of voices, faces, gestures, smells, pheromones, as evidenced by modern neuroimaging techniques are characterized by a general right hemispheric resonance, right brain to right brain. Findings suggest that the right hemisphere is more involved in the social and biological functions regarding infant – caregiver emotional bonding. In order to regulate the infant’s right brain the mother’s autonomic nervous system is in empathic resonance mirroring the rise and falls of the infant’s internal states of bodily arousal. From this understanding, we have to recognize that the nature of attachment is mind-brain-body, to mind-brain-body.
Co Regulation in Attachment Theory
It’s now thought that the relational interaction, the dyadic interaction between the newborn and the mother, constantly controls and modulates the mother’s exposure to environmental stimuli, the newborn’s exposure to environmental stimuli, and thereby the mother is serving as a regulator of the developing individual’s internal homeostasis, and the self-organization of the developing brain occurs in the context of a relationship with another self, another brain, and nervous system. Studies suggest that the right brain is dominant through the first three years of an infant’s life.
There are now some indications to show failure by the mother to achieve this right brain resonance, that if the mother is attempting to read the baby with her analytical, sequential left brain, maybe associated more with the organization of insecure avoidant attachments, because only the right can process the precognitive communication and put these into the body.
We now also understand that the optimal ability to regulate stress is dependent upon right brain specialization, regulating stress and emotion-related processes. There is very good evidence that when it comes to low levels of stress or moderate levels of stress, we use our left brains. But when it gets down to intense stress we shift right, into the right brain and we’re tapping into our early internal working models that are based on our early experiences.
These adaptive right brain survival functions, we can assume are why nature brings online the right brain functions first and then later develops the left, and therefore holds the imprinting of these right brain to right brain attachment communications during these early critical periods of infancy. Emotionality is just the right brain’s red flag, compelling the mind to handle urgent matters immediately. And therefore, a dysregulation of the right brain will occur in various fear-based mental health problems.
Both positive formation of emotional attachment, or negative maternal separation or loss, emotional experiences may carve a permanent path into a still-developing neural network of immature synaptic connections, and thereby the early attachment relationship can either extend or limit the functional capacity of the right brain during later stages of life.
The left brain is involved in language functions and voluntary muscle movements etc, the right brain is involved in the communication, the processing of facial expressions, tones of voice and gestures. Current thinking is that familiar stimuli are processed in the left hemisphere, but novel stimuli and the capacity to learn something new are processed by the right hemisphere as well as threats and unexpected stimuli. The right brain is also in control of vital functions supporting survival and enabling us to cope actively and passively with stress. This is another reason why the right hemisphere activates from the beginning of life, through the attachment relationship.
The significance is that in the absence of the ‘good enough’ attachment bonding if there is attachment trauma, all these right hemisphere functions are impaired as well as some cortical, subcortical, and limbic, autonomic circuits. This compromises, from infancy onward, the capacities, not only for attachment, but, also the capacity to play, and, notice, the capacity for empathy, and affect regulation. This imprints a permanent physiological reactivity of the right brain and susceptibility to later difficulties with emotional regulation and capacity to cope with the kinds of stressors that arise in human relationships.
Attachment trauma may lay the foundation in the child for a lifelong tendency toward the uncontrolled spreading of anxiety or other emotions, or force the child to wall herself off from the intense and overwhelming emotions and their traumatizing experience. In this aspect the child dissociates, leading to objectification of her own experience. We can view this as an impoverished psychic organization, leaving the child later unable to be empathic with other human beings, to experience the fullness of human experiences. Healthy attachment facilitates empathic capacity which is the core of what it means to be human with other humans.
Fortunately, these early right brain attachment system blueprints can be reshaped by future relationships. There is plasticity in the nature of the brain and nervous system. If in childhood and adolescence an individual is exposed to emotional sensitivity in a caring, empathic relationship with another human being, usually someone older, the right brain can use this to build an attachment bond and this allows for further right brain development of inhibited capacities.
Secure attachment can come back expressed and developed in the therapeutic alliance. We also now know, that the major mechanism of improvement in psychotherapy is the therapeutic alliance itself. This tells us it’s the relationship between the patient and the therapist, the emotional relationship that’s critical, much more so than insight, and the therapist’s capacity for empathy is the principal agent of beneficial change in the client.