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Wellness Corner November 2014 - Emotional Attachments


Wellness Corner November 2014
Emotional Attachments

by Dr. Gary Pace

Looking at Attachment

“The benefits of deep attachment are powerful - regulated people feel whole, centered, alive. ” Thomas Lewis, A General Theory of Love

A basic characteristic of higher mammals is they form deep attachments to their family, which we now recognize has a physiologic basis. This deep connection is not something that is “neurotic” or absent in independent people; it is a fundamental part of our biology.  

Infant Underpinnings

Much of the foundational work in attachment theory was done with infants during the 1970s by John Bowlby.  He found what every parent knows-- that infants under stress will desperately search for physical contact, preferably from mom.  Once contact is made, the physiologic agitation of the baby can begin to subside. Bowlby felt that this type of response was hard-wired into our brains, but the science of his times didn’t have the tools to prove this.

“Good” parents are able to respond to their infants consistently, and in the process, a template gets encoded into the baby’s brain so they can feel a “secure base” in the world.  These neural pathways end up being the formats that influence later relationships and future child-rearing patterns.

Research has found that about 65% of adults have a secure base.  Fortunately, in creating a secure child, a parent only needs to be about 30% attuned, but they must be able to repair misattunements 

Adult Attachment

Numerous studies show that once we become attached to someone, the two of us form one physiological unit.  Our partner regulates our blood pressure, our heart rate, and the levels of hormones in our blood.  We are no longer separate entities.  It is revealing to see women friends whose menstrual cycles synch up or of illnesses that occur consistently after separations of couples or families.

One study which looked at the underlying brain processes involved in attachment was done by James Coan at the University of Virginia.  He stressed a group of married women, telling them that they were about to receive a mild electric shock, then observed their responses in brain scanners.  Usually, when someone is under stress, the hypothalamus becomes activated.  Holding the hand of a stranger when warned of the shock lessened the response.  More powerful was holding their husband’s hand-- the response went almost undetectable, especially for women who reported the greatest marital satisfaction.  Dr. Coan demonstrated here that two people in an intimate relationship actually help to regulate each other’s emotional and physiological states.  

Brief Overview of the Neuroscience

 Neuroscience is now illustrating three levels of human brain function that operate as fairly separate systems.  The reptilian brain makes your heart beat and your blood flow, keeping the basic survival functions going. The neocortex, the evolutionary most recent portion of the brain, allows us to write, speak, and make plans.

The third segment is of most interest to us, the limbic brain, which lizards lack but all mammals share.  It sits between the reptilian brain and the neocortex and serves as the “repository of emotions, instincts and hormones, and of implicit memories of nurturance, grievance and deep preference.  It is the limbic brain, with its attendant chemicals -- serotonin, opiates and oxytocin -- that make mothers rear their young and croon to them rather than deposit them in a sandbank and slither off. It is the limbic brain that makes children want puppies, and puppies want children, and allows mammals to form attachment bonds with one another.” from A General Theory of Love


Research into the physiology of attachment is allowing us to recognize some basic parameters of our evolutionary heritage.  Rather than blaming people for their feelings, or telling them to “get over it,” we can recognize the underlying biologic structures that are at play in relationship issues.   Since love and relationship patterns are set down at an early age, they are very resistant to change from simple will-power.  Part of the underlying basis of psychotherapy is a deeper reworking of these patterns.

Attachment clearly provided a huge survival value for our species by protecting the vulnerable young.   Possibly a better understanding of human attachment will allow us to make some progress in our chronically stressed and alienated modern society.