Relationships matter; they really really matter. Boil down everything that you do, and it reduces to the function of relationships in your life. Relationships matter at the very beginning; this sets the stage for later relating. They matter in the middle, because this reinforces or contradicts what happens at the beginning. They matter right now. We are social animals, and how we relate to each other, and how we relate to ourselves internally is something that can be studied and ultimately changed for more optimal relating. We have evolved with incredibly large brains because it takes effort and energy to support such a complex system that can handle abstract symbols, like math, music and language. These abilities are there because being social with each other was a survival strategy: being social helped us survive. Our brains are big because relationships matter. The differentiation that came with such complex structure also led to social ills such as colorism, classism and other ways of division along constituencies, but more about that later.
Studying how the brain works can change our perceptions. It can—and does—change our minds about things, which also changes what happens in the brain. The way we communicate, our interpersonal and intrapersonal dynamics, how and who we attach to crucially matter. Among other things, this book attempts to convert academic steeped knowledge related to attachment theory, and how the brain develops through these attachments into plain language.
We humans tell stories; that is part of our gift, and our heritage. The stories we tell show how well we have integrated any trauma or other difficult experiences. It is possible to overcome adverse experiences, and this book argues that the most adroit path to wellness comes through investigation of and the best nurturing possible for our relationships.
Welcome to your brain. Welcome to your relationship with yourself, and your relationship to others. Application of this work in your personal life can strengthen your relationships, both intra and interpersonally. This includes the macro level.
Attachment Theory and Interpersonal Neurobiology
Why study attachment? Your attachment style can be assessed and render valuable information about how you interact with the people you are intimate with especially with partners or children. Knowing your attachment style (and the attachment style of your partner) can help in overcoming difficulties in the relationship. It can also help you overcome schemas–or outlooks–that you have in life that were essential as a child, but are no longer serving you.
Attachment Theory is a psychological model that illustrates how our brains develop from infancy and through childhood. Moreover, the attachment style that we develop has implications for our personal relationships, especially in regards to intimate relationships and in parenting. Through the work of Mary Ainsworth and Mary Main, scientific research was conducted that revealed four distinct attachment styles; secure attachment, and three different styles of insecure attachment: dismissive/avoidant, preoccupied/ambivalent, and disorganized. These styles of attachment start to develop before infancy, blossom during infancy, and continue to evolve throughout childhood. A person can have different attachment styles with different caregivers. Furthering the work of John Bowlby, Ainsworth studied children’s responses to their parents in a research study called the Strange Situation. This body of research was joined by Mary Main, who developed the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI). The research conducted with the Strange Situation and the AAI resulted in very high rates of reliability.
Secure attachment has the most favorable outcome for a child’s cognitive, emotional, and social well-being. No parent is perfectly responsive to their infant’s needs, but a child that is securely attached has contingent communication with their caregiver(s). That is, when the infant (or child) communicates a need to their parent(s), the parents do what they can to address the child’s needs. The child, over time, feels that they are being paid attention to, they “feel felt” by their caregivers, and their brain develops along the lines of “the world is by and large a benign and safe place to be.”
When a parent is intermittently available, the child consistently wonders if their needs will be met; they tend to wonder if their caregivers truly understand them. They do not generally “feel felt” by their caregivers. This gives rise to a preoccupation regarding the relationship and can cause the child to exhibit clingy behavior; they don’t trust the world is generally safe and benign. This is known as a preoccupied/ambivalent attachment style.
When a parent is generally non-interactive or outright neglectful–for instance, when the child is left alone for long periods of time (keep in mind that just a few minutes can seem long to a child)–the child learns that they cannot count on their caregivers to hold sufficient space for them; they don’t just wonder if the world isn’t safe, they know it’s not safe. This attachment style fosters children to act like they don’t care if their caregivers are present with them or not, although in studies where the children’s heart rates were measured, their physiological responses remain high, indicating that even if they acted like it didn’t matter, it really did matter. This environment creates an avoidant/dismissive attachment style.
When a parent is generally frightening, or abusive, the child cannot predict how their parents will act toward them. Far from being seen, felt or safe, these children are in a biological paradox: the people that they depend on for survival are the same people that activate the child’s flight, fight, or freeze response (sympathetic nervous system). The child is both drawn to their caregiver because they need someone to meet their basic needs, and also want to get away from them. These children are at greatest risk for mental health issues, and other social and emotional difficulties; this creates a disorganized attachment style.
Interpersonal neurobiology (IPNB) is a system of studying how the brain develops and continues to respond in relationship to others. Dan Siegel is the pioneer of IPNB; his work purports that understanding what attachment means to you, and what your brain–and mind–are doing while you are relating to others can give you a better chance of healing what troubles you and can help deepen interpersonal (and intrapersonal) relationships.