neuroscience of attachment

The Neuroscience Of Attachment Part 2

Part 2

Here we again borrow extensively from an excellent article byLinda Graham

“How relational learning works

John Bowlby, British psychoanalyst, founder of attachment theory, hypothesized that attachment is all about safety and protection and emotional regulation in times of perceived threat or danger. Attachment is part of a 3-part motivational system of fear–attachment-exploration. Fear triggers attachment behaviors. The safe haven of secure attachment soothes the fear of the amygdala, and opens exploration.

Exploration eventually bumps us into something that triggers fear again which shuts down exploration and triggers attachment behaviors again which soothe the fear again and open exploration cycle of safety-exploration again.

It has been amply demonstrated by Allan Schore that the need for emotional regulation is what drives attachment behaviors. Affect regulation is the engine of attachment and attachment is what drives the development of the pre-frontal cortex, the brain structures that do that. Dan Stern and Peter Fonagy have amply demonstrated that it is the need for empathy, the need to be seen, understood and reflected that drives the intersubjectivity that develops theory of mind. I know that you know what I know and I know that you can also know something different than what I know.

So how parents use empathy and bonding and reflection to regulate fear, anxiety and shame, and soothe the firing of the amygdala, and help the other discover who they are by seeing and accepting them first, this attunement and feedback are so very determinative of attachment patterns.

So, even before consciousness develops, the parent is regulating the emotions of the baby through their own pre-frontal cortex, brain to brain regulation. The baby is “borrowing” the PFC functioning of the parent to regulate their emotions. And the baby is introjecting the reflections of who they are from the parent to develop the internal working models of who they are in relation to the other. As the baby’s PFC develops from these experiences, they can begin to regulate their emotion on their own. They can begin to have self-awareness and self-reflection on their own.

The 9 functions of the pre-frontal cortex are:

regulation of body – SNS-PNS balance

attuned communication, felt sense of other’s experience

regulation of emotions

response flexibility – pause, options, evaluate options, appropriate decision


insight – self awareness

fear extinction – GABA fibers to amygdala

intuition – deep knowing without logic

morality – behaviors based on empathy.

Research has shown that 7 of the 9 functions of the PFC are outcomes of secure attachment.

The laterality of the two hemispheres of the cortex is important here. The right and left hemispheres of the brain develop at different rates and specialize in different functions, allowing a much greater complexity of functioning than if they were duplicating each other. The right hemisphere of the brain grows larger in volume and more rapidly than the left, from before birth through 18 months of age, which completely coincides with the developmental timetable of when attachment patterns are being stabilized in the brain. These patterns of attachment are stored in our memory in the mode of RH processing.

The right hemisphere processes experience differently from the left – non-verbally through body sensations, visual images, emotions, and holistically – it processes the gestalt of someone’s face or energy globally, all at once, rather than in a linear data bit by data bit mode. The right hemisphere is where we get our “gut” intuitive sense of things and the gestalt of things as a whole. The right hemisphere is the seat of the social and personal self. The right hemisphere regulates the sub-cortical limbic system and is dominant for social-emotional processing. Our attachment patterns are stored in this mode.

The left hemisphere is developing all along but goes through a growth spurt from 18 months to three years of age and becomes dominant after that, except for a period of re-organization during adolescence.

This adolescent period coincides with the need for attachment patterns to change, moving the focus from leaving parents to focusing on peers and forming one’s own family. The left hemisphere of the brain processes logically, linearly, linguistically, through symbols and words; it is dominant for cognitive processing.

Remember, both hemispheres do process experience consciously, it’s just that what comes to consciousness in the right hemisphere is images, sensations, emotions and what comes to consciousness in the left is words and symbols. The right hemisphere decodes our relationship experience; the left hemisphere describes it.

Because the right hemisphere develops early and the left hemisphere develops later, and because the right hemisphere is more neuronally connected to the limbic system than the left, it has a negative bias toward anxiety, shame, depression and withdrawal, which can impact our experience of attachment and make it harder to change those patterns. There is a corresponding bias in the left hemisphere toward positive emotions, humor and mania, and approach.

“An unfortunate artifact of the evolution of laterality may be that the right hemisphere, biased toward negative emotions and pessimism, develops first and serves as the core of self-awareness and self-identity. To be human may be to have vulnerability toward shame, guilt and depression. So although both sides of the brain are involved in emotion, the dominant role of the right hemisphere in defensive and negative emotions gives it executive “veto power” over the left. Just as the left can block emotional and visceral input from the right, the right can override conscious processing and emotional well-being in reaction to threat.” [Cozolino p. 78]

The corpus collosum, running right down the middle of the brain front to back, is what begins to integrate the information between the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere at about 12 months of age. What’s important about any of this brain functioning is integration. The brain is about teamwork; various parts of the brain firing together in synchrony.

There is bottom-up information from the limbic system about the emotional charge of any experience and top-down regulation of our reflexes and emotions; there is right left integration of feelings and thoughts, integration of positive and negative responses. The more integrated neural pathways, networks, structure are, the better the brain functions

How attachment shapes the brain and what patterns of attachment are embedded in the neural circuitry of the brain that shape our 3 R’s , relating, regulation of affect, and resilience, for the rest of our lives.

Dan Siegel has proposed a resonance circuit in the brain.

* Various structures cooperating with each other

* to support the processes of interpersonal resonance, attunement, and empathy * that activate neurons in the limbic regions and the middle pre-frontal cortex

* and stimulate neurons there to fire together, wire together

* and strengthen the synaptic connections for the circuits and pathways

* that become our internal working models, templates, schemas, mental representation of self and other in relationship.

his resonance circuit begins with sensory input – what we see, hear, smell, touch of another. Then mirror neurons, which were discovered in the cortex at the crossroads of visual, motor, emotional processing, communication, language, cohesion and empathy not even a decade ago, fire when I observe and comprehend an intentional behavior in you. The exact same neurons fire in my brain as are firing in your brain when I observe the intention of the behavior you are doing, or when I imagine myself doing it. If you make a random gesture of moving your hand toward your mouth, nothing much happens. If you pick up a glass of water and move it toward your mouth, the same neurons are firing in my brain as I perceive and comprehend your intention as are firing in your brain as you do that intentional behavior.

When we are attuning to another’s behavior and expressions of intention – facial expressions, body gestures, tone of voice, mirror neurons fire in our brain. Information from these mirror neurons travels from the cortex of our brain through the insula – a structure buried deeply in our brain that is located at the interface of the cortex and the limbic regions. The insula carries information down from the cortex through the limbic regions to the neurons of interoception – how we sense what is happening internally in our bodies.

The information gathered through interoception, tension, tightness, tiredness, travels back up through the insula through the limbic regions where the sensations are given emotional meaning, back up to the structures of the middle pre-frontal cortex. The insula integrates somatic experience with conscious awareness. We feel pain when another feels pain. Cozolino notes that this insula, though a very small part of the brain, is an evolutionary masterpiece.

Remember one of the 9 functions of the pre-frontal cortex is attunement – we interpret our felt sense of the other’s experience. Another function of the PFC is empathy – to communicate that felt sense, nonverbally being even more important than verbally. This resonance circuit is essential to stimulating growth of all 9 functions of the PFC, including regulation of body, regulation of emotion, extinguishing fear, response flexibility, self awareness etc.

This resonance circuit operates in the brain of the parent attuning to his or her child; it’s what stimulates the developing brain of the infant to process and know its own experience; its experience metabolized and reflected back by the parent becomes encoded in the infant’s neural circuitry. Because you know what’s in my mind and heart, I can know it, too. These patterns do stabilize in the brain by 18months of age, rendering them as Cozolino says, of permanent psychological significance.”

This resonance circuit operates in us by attuning to others – this I believe is what occurs in group therapy and 12 step/recovery groups – as others and ourselves experience others  attuning to them as they share their experience are also receiving our unconditional acceptance of that experience which re-wires their sense of it and their sense of self.

I also believe that these therapeutic groups act as the external PFC mentioned above, especially to those in early recovery who are effectively limbic regions on legs, one constant emotional over reaction.

They help regulate emotional responding in those essential days of early recovery. It is this  exterior self soothing that is essential in keeping newcomers coming back. It tells them we can love you back to health, it proclaims through loving action that the thing you are really looking for is here, love, tolerance and acceptance.

The thing you have been looking for all your life!

It tells then clearly that you belong here!

We will refer back to this blog because the regions of the brain implicated in the so-called “resonance circuit” are seen by affective neuroscience as those regions which govern emotional processing and regulation. Hence why I consider addictive behaviours to be the result of an emotional disorder. 

Thus insecure attachment may cause the impairment that has been demonstrated in all areas of this emotional circuity such as the amgydala, orbitofrontal cortex, ventromedial cortex, insula, anterior cingulate cortex, hippocampus and so on.

These regions have all been demonstrated to be have altered neural connectivity in all addictive behaviours and also to have altered anatomical volumes.

In other words, these regions do not work properly, in regulating emotions .

This is why it is very useful combining affective neuroscience with more psycho analytic theories such as attachment theory.

It clearly shows how environment can shape regions  of the brain and how these anatomical impairments are perpetuated via emotional processing and regulation deficits which result in addictive behaviours.

Addictive behaviours are thus the manifestation of underlying emotional dysfunction often caused by insecure attachment and child maltreatment. Hence in treatment we have to mirror what was missing and replace what was abusive with what is healing such as being around people who accept us for who we are without conditions.

It is then that environment can alter the brain and behaviour. Helping others can reshape emotional regions of the brain  via neuroplasticity and help us recover. “What fires together, wires together” as this article states.

Love and tolerance is the code of many and it helps us as well as others which is the basic philosophy of treatment and 12 step groups. We are social animals after all.

Love rewires the brain literally.  Helping others is good for us too.



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