Attachment Brain Imaging Epigenetics fMRI fNIRS Neuroscience Parent-Child Interaction Psychology

SoNeAt Workshop 2020 – A Virtual Conference on Attachment and Social Neuroscience

On August 12th and 13th 2020, 150 attachment researchers, psychologists, therapists, nurses, and members of non-profit organisations from around the globe (all the way from the west coast of Canada to central Australia) met during a virtual workshop with the title “70 Years of Attachment Research: A Multidisciplinary Social Neuroscience Perspective“. Workshop participants discussed the state-of-the-art of attachment research employing social neuroscience tools and explored possible future avenues to keep advancing attachment theory within the 21st century. The workshop was organised by the Special Interest Research Group Social Neuroscience of Human Attachment (SIRG SoNeAt) located within the Society for Emotion and Attachment Studies (SEAS).

Almost 70 years have passed since Bowlby’s first observations leading to the formulation of attachment theory. In the meantime, attachment theory has become one of the leading and most comprehensive psychology frameworks concerned with interpersonal relationships across the life span. Such leading role of attachment theory was recently highlighted by the findings of a meta-analysis across 43 dyadic longitudinal datasets from 29 laboratories using machine learning, which revealed attachment avoidance and anxiety to be among the top individual-difference predictors of adult relationship quality.

With the emergence of social (cognitive affective) neuroscience during the 1990-ies, interest to better understand the biological and particularly brain basis of human social behaviour has been steadily growing. And from the very beginning, parent-child interactions and other kinds of careseeker-caregiver relations have been at the centre of attention. Such strong interest for the neurobiological underpinnings of attachment-related social emotional processes is not a result of chance. As already stated by the founding fathers of social neuroscience, John Cacioppo and Garry Berntson: “The brain does not exist in isolation but rather is a fundamental but interacting component of a developing or aging individual who is a mere actor in the larger theater of life. This theater is undeniably social, beginning with prenatal care, mother-infant attachment, and early childhood experiences and ending with loneliness or social support and with familial or societal decisions about care for the elderly.”

With the field of social neuroscience constantly evolving, an important transition has been initiated from 1st towards 2nd person social neuroscience during the last five years. This transition emphasises the behavioural and neurobiological assessment of two (or more) individuals during direct social interaction in their natural environment – rather than studying single individuals in isolation within artificial laboratory settings as done mostly up to now. Because attachment constitutes a prototypical interpersonal process from the very beginning, attachment research is going to be strongly affected and will hopefully profit largely from a shift towards 2nd person social neuroscience.

During the two days of the SoNeAt Workshop 2020, the most recent developments in attachment theory and research were discussed, particularly pertaining to the use of social neuroscience methods.

The workshop was opened by a very engaging and comprehensive keynote given by Mario Mikulincer (Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, Israel), a leading scholar in the field of attachment. Mario Mikulincer introduced the audience to attachment theory, its main considerations and predictions, but also its perils during the current difficult global political climate. The second keynote by Pascal Vrticka (University of Essex, UK) then summarised the state-of-the-art of the social neuroscience of human attachment. Pascal Vrticka described the recently derived functional neuro-anatomical models of organised as well as disrupted and disorganised attachment (NAMA and NAMDA). He furthermore illustrated how the transition from 1st towards 2nd person social neuroscience has reached attachment research that nowadays also assesses bio-behavioural synchrony and inter-brain coherence in interacting dyads. The following two keynotes by Ashley Groh (University of Missouri, USA) and Kristin Bernard (Stony Brook University, USA) showed how contemporary physiological (heart rate, respiratory sinus arrhythmia – RSA, acute and diurnal cortisol), neurobiological (telomere length), and neuroimaging (EEG) tools are being employed within attachment-theory-based research paradigms (e.g. strange situation procedure, still face procedure, exposure to baby cry sounds) and longitudinal studies. Insight was also provided to research within contexts of early adversity / maltreatment and attachment-based interventions, such as the attachment and bio-behavioural catch-up (ABC).

The second SoNeAt Workshop 2020 day started with a keynote by Anne Rifkin-Graboi (National Institute of Education, Singapore) focusing on the neuroimaging of parenting and attachment. Anne Rifkin-Graboi emphasised the concept of “conditional adaptation“, i.e. how environmental factors influence development in terms of skills and timing, and showed how this concept is employed in the context of attachment research. The following two keynotes by Tsachi Ein-Dor (Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, Israel) and Nicole Letourneau (University of Calgary, Canada) & Sarah Merrill (University of British Columbia, Canada) were concerned with epigenetics. Measuring changes in DNA methylation, epigenetics can be employed to study the interplay between genetic and environmental mechanisms in terms of differential gene expression patterns (candidate gene approach or epigenome-wide associations), also in relation to the emergence, stability, and change of attachment orientations. The last keynote of the SoNeAt Workshop 2020 then investigated attachment in the context of psychotherapy. Cheri Marmarosh (George Washington University, USA) spoke about different types of psychotherapy, how they associate with attachment-based measures in therapists as well as patients, and asked how social neuroscience methods could be used within therapist-patient settings.

The 8 keynotes were complemented by 10 plenary talks well as 19 poster presentations by early career researchers. Submissions were received from 12 countries (including North and South America, Europe, and Asia). Presentations covered a wide variety of topics and revealed that state-of-the-art attachment research performed by the next generation of attachment scholars is happening right now all across the globe.

It is the hope of SIRG SoNeAt that the SoNeAt Workshop 2020 stimulated interest in using state-of-the-art social neuroscience tools in attachment research and helped forming new connections and alliances for future collaborations. More activities to continue this effort will be announced by SIRG SoNeAt soon. To stay up to date, you can follow SIRG SoNeAt on Twitter or subscribe to become a member. SIRG SoNeAt is embedded within the Society for Emotion and Attachment Studies (SEAS) that is organising the biannual International Attachment Conference (IAC) – to be held the next time in Salzburg in July 2021 – and having an official voice in print with the journal Attachment & Human Development.

Dr Pascal Vrticka is a social neuroscientist with strong ties to developmental & social psychology. His research focuses on the psychological, behavioural, biological, and brain basis of human social interaction, attachment and caregiving. Besides measuring neurobiological responses to different kinds of social versus non-social information in single participants using (functional) magnetic resonance imaging ([f]MRI) and electroencephalography (EEG), Dr Vrticka most recently started to assess bio-behavioural synchrony in interacting pairs using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) hyperscanning. The main question thereby is how romantic partners and parents with their children get “in sync” when they solve problems together or talk to each other. Dr Vrticka furthermore relates the obtained individual and dyadic behavioural, biological, and brain measures to interindividual differences in relationship quality – particularly attachment and caregiving. In doing so, he refers to attachment theory that provides a suitable theoretical framework on how we initiate and maintain interpersonal relationships across the life span. With his research, Dr Vrticka is promoting a new area of investigation: the social neuroscience of human attachment.

3 comments on “SoNeAt Workshop 2020 – A Virtual Conference on Attachment and Social Neuroscience

  1. The conferences were recorded? Is there anyway to see them? That event seems amazing!

  2. Hi Rachel. Thank you. Yes, the conference talks were recorded, but for now, recordings are only available to conference attendants. We are evaluating other options, though, and will post an update on the conference website ( when available.

  3. Hello Pascal, thank you so much for answering my question. I hope you can open for other researchers and I shall look at the conference website. All the best!

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