Attachment Style

One principal line of investigation in my research is devoted to examining the neural substrates of human attachment behavior and particularly attachment style. To obtain an idea why I think such research is important, please refer to my blog on the Evolution of the “social brain” in humans: what are the benefits and costs of belonging to a social species?

The following sections are organized as follows:
1) Attachment Theory
2) General Overview of my Attachment Research
3) The Neural Substrates of Attachment Style in Adults
4) The Neural Substrates of Attachment Style in Adolescents
5) The Neural Substrates of Attachment Style in Children

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1) Attachment Theory

According to attachment theory (developed by Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby), every child is born with an innate attachment system. The biological role of this attachment system is to enhance survival by means of proximity seeking mechanisms, particularly in times of stress and/or need. All children will become attached to a caregiver, but this attachment can be disturbed in some cases. This comes from the fact that there is a psychological correlate of attachment behavior, namely a felt sense of security. If proximity seeking attempts are successful, a child learns that attachment figures are available in times of need, and develops a secure attachment style.

However, if proximity seeking attempts under stress do not succeed, the child will develop an insecure attachment style. The latter can either be avoidant in case of unavailable / unresponsive attachment figures, or anxious in case of unpredictable / unreliable attachment figures. Attachment theory suggests that such attachment patterns in early childhood become more and more cognitively encoded during child development,  remain rather stable across the life span, and can influence a variety of social emotional behaviors in childhood, adolescence and adulthood. The plot thickens that attachment traits can even be transmitted from one generation to the next, and that they not only influence directly attachment-related processes, but (almost) all social interactions between people.

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2) General Overview of my Attachment Research

Initially focusing on healthy adult participants, my research on the neural substrates of attachment in humans has more recently been extended to also include healthy adolescents (ages 12 to 19) and children (ages 8 to 12). Besides using fMRI in a single person, I have also started looking at the influence of individual differences in attachment style on brain-to-brain synchrony measures in two participants by means of fNIRS. Such two-person approach appears important, because attachment patterns within parent-child dyads and parent-child-parent triads (families) are nowadays thought to be crucially dependent on behavioral and physiological synchrony (see here for an example).

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3) The Neural Substrates of Attachment Style in Adults

A general short summary of my attachment research in adults can be found in two of my blogs – The neural signature of attachment insecurity and The insecurely attached brain. Moreover, in 2012, Patrik Vuilleumier and I have published a first review paper in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience including a functional neuro-anatomical framework of adult attachment style. An updated version of the latter is shown in the figure below:

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In the above neuro-anatomical framework, Patrik Vuilleumier and I differentiate between an affective evaluation and a cognitive control module. Whereas the affective evaluation module is thought to process incoming information rather fast and automatically, the cognitive control module represents more voluntary processes that can modulate affective evaluation mechanisms.

The so far available data in adults suggests that attachment avoidance and anxiety differentially influence affective evaluation and cognitive control mechanisms. While both insecure attachment styles appear to (at least partially) interfere with emotion regulation mechanisms as part of the cognitive control module, attachment avoidance and anxiety seem to have opposite effects on affective evaluation processes. Attachment avoidance may be mainly associated with a general decrease of affective evaluation processes, particularly in the case of incoming positive social information. In turn, attachment anxiety may be mainly linked to a general increase of affective evaluation processes, especially in the case of incoming negative social information.

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4) The Neural Substrates of Attachment Style in Adolescents

Adolescence is a crucial developmental period not only marked by important changes in brain anatomy and physiology, but also in a person’s attachment settings. Whereas in early life, attachment figures are mostly parents and/or other close family members, adolescence is characterized by the emergence of additional attachment relationships outside the family context including friends, peers, and romantic partners. It therefore appears important to investigate the neural basis of attachment and attachment style during adolescence to better understand the underlying brain mechanisms.

FIGURE_1In a first fMRI study of this kind, we looked at brain activations to congruent versus incongruent social feedback processing in 33 healthy adolescents ages 12 to 19 as a function of their age, sex and attachment style. The corresponding paper has just been published and is freely available here.

Our results showed that attachment avoidance appears to influence brain activity during social feedback processing in the opposite direction of observed “normal” developmental effects. In other words, whereas increasing age seemed to be associated with a tendency to more strongly process incongruent social feedback, attachment avoidance appeared to show an inverse activation pattern – that is, a stronger focus on congruent social feedback. Our findings suggest that attachment avoidance may incur less mature processing of social feedback during adolescence. High attachment avoidance may thus preclude the usually observed “opening up” to social information in terms of social sensitivity in the course of adolescent development. What is concerning attachment anxiety, observed effects were comparable with activation patterns related to age – that is, increased brain activity during incongruent social feedback processing. Because such attachment anxiety effects remained significant when controlling for age, our findings suggest that attachment anxiety may be associated with a stronger focus on incongruent social feedback processing representing social conflict. Some implications of the above described findings are discussed in my blog on Attachment Style and Brain Activity in Adolescents.

slide1In a second fMRI study, we investigated the neural basis of self- versus other-perception in 44 healthy adolescents ages 12 to 19 as a function of their attachment-derived internal self- and other-working models (IWMs). Attachment theory suggests that, through IWMs, attachment security and insecurity is associated with distinct representations of the self and others. Attachment security is usually characterized by positive self- and other-models. In turn, attachment insecurity is normally linked to disturbed self- and other-representations. More specifically, attachment avoidance is associated with an overly positive self- but a negative other-view, whereas attachment anxiety is linked to a more ambivalent self- and other representation. However, how such disturbed self- and other-views associated with attachment insecurity relate to brain activity during social emotional processing remains largely unknown. The corresponding paper has just been accepted and will shortly become freely available.

Our data revealed that participants with a more negative attachment-derived self-
model showed increased brain activity during positive and negative adjective evaluation regarding the self, but decreased brain activity during negative adjective evaluation regarding a close other, in bilateral amygdala/parahippocampus, bilateral anterior temporal pole/anterior superior temporal gyrus, and left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. These findings suggest that a low positivity of the self-concept characteristic for the attachment anxiety dimension may influence neural information processing, but in opposite directions when it comes to self- versus (close) other-representations. We discuss our results in the framework of attachment theory and regarding their implication especially for adolescent social-emotional development and social integration.

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5) The Neural Substrates of Attachment Style in Children

Whereas the literature on the neural basis of attachment and attachment style in adults is steadily growing and first findings on the same mechanisms in adolescents are starting to emerge, it remains largely unknown how individual differences in attachment style influence brain activation in children. For example, nice research by Lane Strathearn et al. (see here and here) has shown that mother’s brain responses to images of own (versus unknown) children can be importantly altered by attachment insecurities. However, there is no literature available yet on how an avoidant and/or anxious attachment style may influence brain responses in children themselves.

In order to close this gap, I have started a new line of research in collaboration with the CIBSR at Stanford University in children ages 8 to 12 to directly examine the neural basis of attachment and attachment style at this early developmental stage. Experiments include both fMRI and fNIRS scans in girls and boys.

To obtain a comprehensive picture of attachment patterns in families, we also included measures provided from children’s parents, and performed fNRIS scans in child-mother dyads (i.e., hyperscanning). Ideally, we will eventually also be able to obtain brain measures from fathers.

We hope that our research in children and families will ultimately allow for the development of new early prevention and intervention strategies (see also here).

More details will be provided here as soon as the results of our research in children, child-mother dyads and families become available.

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For additional information on my attachment research, please refer to the Publications page where the above described review paper is available for download. You can also contact me with any questions.