The bridge between neurobiology and attachment theory

Authored by Henry Strick van Linschoten

There is a wide field of people with a common interest in neurobiology and attachment theory. Out of much literature, it is possible to highlight Allan Schore (2011), and for its perhaps somewhat greater readability Cozolino (2010).

Allan Schore is a psychologist with a scientific interest in neurobiology, which he has researched in depth in order to build theoretical connections between our understanding of the nervous system and relatedness. In Schore (2011), his latest book, he summarises the clinical implications of his work. He has emphasised the neurobiological underpinnings of attachment, a focus that he sees as both an evolution of attachment theory and a return to some of Freud’s early work (Schore, 2011). He also sees attachment theory as fundamentally a regulation theory based on right brain to right brain communication. Schore argues that attachment transactions allow the development of right brain systems that are involved in non conscious emotion processing and self and affect regulation. This expansion of attachment theory, like Fonagy and colleagues’ work, places affective rather than cognitive development at the centre stage. Schore sees the contribution of the therapist as mirroring the nature of early relational dynamics so that patterns of non conscious affect regulation are communicated to the therapist, also in a non conscious way, which can then assist the client in restoring more adaptive patterns of emotion regulation. These have the effect of ‘rewiring the brain’.

Although Schore’s work is complex and best read as a whole, we will summarise a few key points. Schore emphasises how the right brain has a head start during infant development and particularly how the infant’s limbic circuits, responsible for emotion processing and regulation, are shaped by “implicit” interactions between the parent and infant (Schore, 2011.). The limbic circuits have fast, non conscious, automatic categorisation and decision-making tasks that are not mediated, not until later at least, by verbal processes and conscious attention (automatic mentalizing). The development of these circuits is the outcome of right brain to right brain communication between primary caregiver and infant. If there are prolonged periods of distress and separation, these result in neural pathways that create vulnerability for relational distress later in life. The “location” of the IWMs is therefore in the right brain rather than the left brain that is responsible for verbal processing and conscious attention. The task of the therapist involves more than insight, and requires the therapist’s non conscious capacity to process the client’s states of deregulation.

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