Neuroscience of Attachment

Thelma of the Mental Health event available for a few people: 

Linda Graham, MFT

Resources for Recovering Resilience

The Neuroscience of Attachment

September 5, 2008

[first presented as a Clinical Conversation at the Community Institute for Psychotherapy, Fall 2008]

© Linda Graham, MFT 

It’s fascinating to learn what’s happening in our brains as we feel accepted or rejected by people closest to us or important to us. What’s happening in our brains as we experience a sense of connection and belonging or dis-connection and isolation. 

(You may have experienced reactions in your own brain as you even read words like acceptance or rejection or experienced either one so far today.)

While we hope it’s Love that makes the world go round, it IS human beings relating to one another that makes the world go round, either keeping it healthy and viable one generation to the next or threatening to destroy it.

Relating to one another, one on one, couples, families, or in larger social groups, is the most complex thing human beings do, more complex than writing a symphony or running a government or solving global warming, and the need to relate, to be emotionally and socially intelligent, has driven the evolution of the human brain to be the most complex anything in all of existence.

( Related story :       7 Modern Life Habits vs Your Brain Health )

It becomes important, as clinicians, to understand what’s happening in our brains, ours and our clients, in the therapeutic relationship, to understand what attachment theory and research over the last 50 years and modern neuroscience of the last 20 years are telling us:

    our earliest relationships actually build the brain structures we use for relating lifelong;  

( Comment from BlueRoseSailing Therapy : do parents know the child reads the anger, yelling, of do this or you get that- and then will play that parent's model at other children?  Emotional neglect: failure to provide a child with attention, affection, engagement, attunement, and other forms of emotional nurturing)

    experiences in those early relationships encode in the neural circuitry of our brains by 12-28 months of age, entirely in implicit memory outside of awareness; these patterns of attachment become the “rules”, templates, schemas, for relating- that operate lifelong, the “known but not remembered” givens of our relational lives.

    when those early experiences have been less than optimal, those unconscious patterns of attachment can continue to shape the perceptions and responses of the brain to new relational experiences in old ways that get stuck, that can’t take in new experience as new information, can’t learn or adapt or grow from those experiences. What we have come to call, from outside the brain looking in, as the defensive patterns of personality disorders. What one clinician calls “tragic recursive patterns that become encased in neural cement.”

Fortunately, the human brain has always had the biologically innate capacity to grow new neurons – lifelong – and more importantly, to create new synaptic connections between neurons lifelong. All of us can create new patterns of neural firing from new experiences. All of us can pair old even maladaptive patterns with new, more adaptive, patterns of neural firing. All of us can all create new neural circuitry, pathways and networks that allow us to relate, moment by moment in new, healthier, more resilient ways. All of us can store those new more adaptive patterns in both the structures of explicit memory, making them retrievable to conscious awareness and conscious healthy functioning, and in the structures of implicit memory, making them the new habits of relating.

This neural plasticity of the brain was confirmed by neuroscientists in the year 2000. That’s just 8 years ago. Modern neuroscience IS new. All the new technologies that allow us to see what’s happening in the brain, as we think of a loved one or plan what to have for lunch, are new.

90% of what we know about how the brain works has been learned in the last 20 years. Dan Goleman wrote in his introduction to Social Intelligence, which came out last year, that most of the understanding we have about the neurological substrate of things like empathy, emotional regulation, the effect of trauma on explicit memory, interoception – how we know what’s going on in our bodies …..hadn’t even been discovered yet when he wrote Emotional Intelligence 10 years before.

In that time there’s been an explosion of discoveries relevant to addressing the wounds of less-than-optimal attachment: the social engagement system of the brainstem, the fight-flight response of the amygdala, mirror neurons, bonding hormones, the social-emotional bias of the right hemisphere, the positive bias of the left hemisphere, the role of the pre-frontal cortex in attunement and learning the “rules” of attachment, the resonance circuits we can use in empathic therapeutic relationships to catalyze brain change in our clients.

The more we can become comfortable applying these discoveries to our interventions with clients, and the more we can learn specifically which interventions will most effectively accelerate change in our clients’ brains for the better, the more immediate and enduring our therapeutic interventions will be.

Interpersonal neurobiology, pioneered by Dan Siegel at UCLA, is a new field attempting to bridge the discoveries of neuroscience to the clinical world. Much of what I am presenting here has been informed by the trainings and writings available in this field, especially from Louis Cozolino’s book: The Neurobiology of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain and Bonnie Badenoch’s new book, just out this summer, Being a Brain Wise Therapist.

This article offers recent research findings, new hypotheses and theories, but also practical skillful means to incorporate into your ongoing work with clients. I’m hoping all of this rings true to experienced and dedicated clinicians at the level of common sense. I’m aware of three things as we begin.

            PLEASE READ directly from Linda’s webpage: 

But here is a starter of how adults form up in a few months of life: QUOTE:

"How does the social engagement system that regulates us into physiological balance fit in?  When we feel safe in relationship, our sympathetic nervous system is not aroused. Our natural tendency as human beings to move toward remains operative. We engage, we interact, we bond. The functioning of our higher social brain, our middle pre-frontal cortex, stays on line. If we feel safe in engaging, interacting, bonding in relationship, even when there is a perceived threat or danger, we will still move toward. We will engage with a safe other to regulate our emotional distress. That is the essence of secure attachment. This connection-bonding releases the oxytocin that calms down the amygdala; the fear center stops firing its signals of alarm and we relax.

I saw most powerful example of this in a documentary on Mother Teresa and her nuns working around the world with the displaced and the outcast. This scene was in Beirut, a nun holding a young child about 14 months old while Beirut was being bombed. The child was terrified, screaming, crying and thrashing around. His eyes were darting everywhere, no focus at all. The nun held the child in one arm and placed her other hand on his heart. She spoke to him in a soft soothing voice with a steady eye gaze. In less than two minutes child’ eyes locked on hers, his crying stopped. His breathing slowed down; his body relaxed. He was connected and safe. The cortex came back on line. That is the magic in less than 2 minutes; one brain engaging with and regulating another brain.

When we can’t or won’t use the social engagement system – eye contact, emotional connection and empathy, soothing voice, hand on heart – then we regulate through the limbic system. No more “high road” regulation of distress. The cortex goes off line and fight-flight, moving against or moving away, takes over. (The anxious or avoidant attachment styles). At least there is still vagal tone, there is still movement. This is where earlier embedded patterns of coping show up. Under stress we contract and react in old habitual ways rather than the new healthier ways we have learned since.

If the amydala is signaling us that this relationship is not only threatening or dangerous but life threatening, fight or flight won’t work; we freeze. This is the response of the brain stem. Freeze, numb out, shut down, play dead so the lion won’t eat you. Even action tendencies of the amygdala go off line. We become paralyzed. There is profound dissociation, no contact; this is disorganized attachment. When clients go into this state, the priority is to get them back into contact, back into connection, even if its into conscious fear or conscious anger. The limbic regulation of insecure attachment is at least an organized state of attachment. Then, of course, we continue to work to bring the of unconscious embedded patterns into conscious self awareness and self reflection so the cortex is engaged again and the client can make conscious skillful choices.

Eye gaze is such a key part of the social engagement system to regulate emotions and maintain a sense of connection. We orient to eye contact within hours of birth. Steve Porges found, when there is eye contact and connection and then a sudden break in the eye contact, the rupture immediately triggers a “separation distress response” in our brain stem, unconscious and hard-wired in.

So, in secure attachment, when we are self regulating through the higher cortical part of our brain, we seek eye contact with a safe other. We seek engagement, connection, acceptance, refuge looking by into the eyes of another.

When the higher cortical regulation goes off line or never happened, when we are regulating from the amygdala, the fight flight system we tend to look at the other person’s mouth – am I going to be eaten?

If we are responding from our brainstem, which gets down to a shame based survival strategy, we look down or away, hiding from the other. When we experience re-connection, acceptance again, where there is relief or hope, our eyes tend to look up, heavenward.”

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Healing from Multi-Generational Trauma - 4 Generations ago can affect your Body Posture, vocal tones, ruminating, panic and stress places:  One of the courses we take:

Dr, Peter Levine Yes. 


7 Modern Life Habits vs Your Brain Health

Lifestyle habits that influence your cognitive health and what to do about them.

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