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Is your brain securely attached? A social neuroscience perspective on attachment

Attachment theory was developed by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth here in the UK about seventy years ago. Since then, it has become one of the most comprehensive psychology frameworks describing how we initiate and maintain social relationships across the life span.

Attachment theory nowadays is omnipresent – in popular books, social media posts, magazines and newspapers, school and nursery programmes, university bachelor and master courses, as well as in scientific papers. What so far has remained rather unclear, however, are the biological and particularly brain bases of attachment. Luckily, recent insights from social neuroscience have started shedding light on this open question. But how do these insights inform you whether your brain is securely attached?

Attachment in the Brain

Before we can ask the question whether your brain is securely attached, we need to define which components typical attachment interactions comprise, and where and how these components are usually processed within our brains. We have recently developed a first neuro-anatomical model of human attachment (NAMA) that can help us do exactly that.

In the Figure below you can see the core components of prototypical attachment interactions and their sequence, according to NAMA. The following text explains each of the steps more in detail.

(1) We usually initiate attachment behaviours if we feel distressed, frightened, tired, or ill. We are thus most likely to initiate attachment behaviours when we face a significant challenge that upsets our bodily and mental balance. NAMA proposes that this initial trigger of attachment behaviours is encoded within a network of brain areas that detect negative bodily and subjective emotional states, the aversion network. Aversion network activation signals the rest of the brain (and the body) that there is a significant challenge that urgently needs our attention.

(2) Once the aversion network is activated, the most important function of attachment behaviours kicks in: support seeking. We not only let others know that we need their help but start actively looking for their presence and responsiveness – “Please come and help me, I cannot deal with this situation by myself”. NAMA situates the neural computations necessary for initiating support seeking within the approach network. The approach network intrinsically links social interactions with pleasant feelings and reward, and thereby prompts us to reach out to others when we need their help.

(3) If support seeking is successful – i.e., others are available and responsive –, the next step of typical attachment interactions can unfold: social co-regulation. In childhood, caregivers help infants co-regulate their physiological needs like temperature, food intake and sleep, as well as their emotions through close physical proximity. Later in life, co-regulatory support becomes more indirect – for example, by talking to each other or even just imagining others’ presence. Furthermore, as we grow older, social co-regulation slowly builds our capacity for self-regulation, although we keep relying on the presence of others from the cradle to the grave. NAMA locates such (self-)regulation ability in the emotion (self-)regulation network.

(4) Through co- and later self-regulation, we can face the initial challenge that triggered attachment behaviours and eventually return to our bodily and mental balance. The return to our balance feels calming and positive as such; we are no longer distressed, frightened, tired, or ill. Most importantly, however, because we usually experience this return to our balance by interacting with – available and responsive – others, we associate social interactions with positive and rewarding feelings of comfort and care. These positive and rewarding feelings are once more encoded by the approach network.

(5) Finally, if the above (1)-(4) sequence keeps repeating itself consistently over many times, we start building predictions and expectations about our social interactions and about the functioning of the world around us more generally. Our brains not only start creating mental representations about the availability and responsiveness of others, but also about our own capacity to elicit help when needed. This also involves our brains calculating how much time and effort it takes to get others’ help. In attachment terms, these processes are integral parts of internal working models (IWMs) of attachment. NAMA suggests that they are maintained within the mental state representation network.

Below you see an illustration of NAMA taken from the original publication it appeared in. It shows the four networks (aversion, approach, regulation, mental state) and their relationship with one another.

Insights from NAMA regarding Attachment

Having read all the above information about NAMA, how does this help you understand whether your brain is securely attached? I think that NAMA does so on many different levels.

First, NAMA nicely illustrates that there is no single brain region, not even a single brain network specifically dedicated to attachment behaviours. Instead, attachment behaviours emerge from the interplay of several networks with different properties – NAMA suggests that there are at least four. Consequently, individual differences in attachment are likely to not only influence how we experience negative emotions like pain or fear, but also how we experience positive emotions like pleasure or reward. Individual differences in attachment are furthermore likely to influence whether we approach others when in need, our ability to regulate our emotions on our own, and how we think about ourselves and others. Attachment truly is omnipresent, even within our brains!

Second, NAMA shows that individual differences in attachment emerge as an adaptation to specific environmental demands. They represent expectations and predictions based on our repeated interactions with others over time. If others are consistently unavailable and unresponsive, we likely start engaging less in social support seeking and more in self-regulation. In attachment terms, we become insecure-avoidant. Conversely, if others’ availability is unpredictable or their response to our support seeking inconsistent – albeit sometimes strong and rewarding –, we start intensifying our support seeking behaviour and become more dependent on others’ presence. In attachment terms, we become insecure-anxious. Crucially, the above shows that any attachment style, be it secure or insecure, is (initially – see below) meaningful and adaptive. It helps us deal most efficiently with our immediate environment. There is no good or bad attachment style as such!

And third, insights generated by NAMA can be compared to insights based on other social neuroscience theories. This is key, because there is recent social neuroscience convergence about what makes us human and why we so strongly depend on others to thrive and survive. This convergence is most neatly described by Social Baseline Theory.

Our brains assume the presence of others as our natural state, as our baseline. This is because our brains see the resources provided by others as if they were our brains’ own resources. The more we can rely on others to help and support us, the less we need to regulate by ourselves. Furthermore, if our social resources are removed, we start engaging compensatory mechanisms to deal with environmental demands. We either become more self-sufficient (i.e., insecure-avoidant) or intensify our calls for help (i.e., insecure-anxious). In the short term, these compensatory mechanisms are meaningful and adaptive and will help us cope better. Unfortunately, however, if we must compensate for a long time and/or to a great extent, we are likely to develop physical and mental health issues. This is where insecure attachment styles become risk factors for our wellbeing and health.

I like looking at attachment from a social neuroscience perspective a lot. I like it because this perspective not only helps explaining why we need others to thrive and survive, but also why we act in certain social ways. What makes us human. Without an immediate judgment of good versus bad. I hope that such view can inspire more of us to start thinking the same.   

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.

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