Attached at the…Neurons?


Attachment” often gets a bad rap in Western individualistic cultures. We tend to think that being attached or dependent upon others is a weakness that will lead us to be needy or annoying. Thanks to decades of research, we now know this to be false. Having a secure attachment to others allows us to grow and develop, take risks, and increase confidence.

In the 1930’s physicians noted that children in orphanages who weren’t given emotional support and touch were dying at an early age. Also during this time, physician and psychoanalyst, Dr. John Bowlby, examined the mother-child relationship and determined that disrupted relationships with caregivers could stunt healthy emotional and social development. Research on attachment started to expand and psychologist Dr. Harry Harlow famously found that a baby rhesus monkey would prefer a soft rag for comfort over a wire “mother” that would dispense food, suggesting that warm physical touch may be equally as important to survival as food.

Bowlby’s findings were further supported by psychologist Dr. Mary Ainsworth who conducted research called the “Strange Situation.” In this experiment, mothers left their babies in a room with a stranger, and the children’s reactions were recorded. Based on this study, attachment styles were defined by three categories: secure, anxious, and avoidant.

Through neuroimaging we can see that this is occurring at the cellular level. During the first four years of life, our brain is growing at a rapid pace and the emotional interactions with others elicit biochemical events that create nerve growth and connections. Have you heard the old adage, “What fires together, wires together?” Associations made between our internal experience and the environment make connections and patterns in our brain. Love and positive interactions with others stimulate neuronal growth. Being loved and cared for also helps turn off genes that make the brain sensitive to stress hormones and turn on genes that trigger calming responses.

Additionally, interactions with others also help to develop and organize the area of our brain that processes both our understanding of and our expression of emotions. Early positive interactions teach children how to communicate needs to others and understand the wishes of their caregiver(s). Moreover, it is through these early interactions that we begin to develop our sense of self and identity.

We need others to understand ourselves.

However, if we do not encounter positive experiences early in life, our world begins to shape in that regard. We may feel unworthy or unloved because negative interactions create paths or neural pathways that further reinforce these not-so-positive associations. A positive relationship model from childhood might allow one to go on and develop healthy positive romantic relationships. Conversely, those with more negative relationship models may have difficulty forming trusting or healthy relationships.

Up until recently, much of the research on attachment has focused on early child interactions, and one might conclude that attachment theory doesn’t matter in adult development. However, Dr. Sue Johnson would strongly disagree with this. She argues that our attachment style is incredibly important in adult romantic relationships.

Dr. Johnson argues that emotional dependency is our greatest strength.

Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, has spent her career researching love and attachment in adult relationships and found that how we attach as adults is often how we did as children. Her studies have shown that a more secure attachment to a mother as a child leads to more secure attachment to romantic partners later in life.

Those with a secure attachment style tend to find it easier to be close with others and to depend upon them without fear of abandonment. Those with an anxious attachment style tend to worry whether or not their partner really loves them or they find that others are reluctant to get close to them. Finally, those with an avoidant attachment style tend to feel uncomfortable trusting or getting close to others and struggle to depend upon someone else. These styles tend to be stable in relationships with others.

This isn’t to say that one’s attachment style is fixed, quite the contrary. While attachment styles tend to be stable, they are not immutable. Love and other healthy relationships can revise a childhood model, providing a corrective experience.

A secure attachment style is clearly the goal. When we feel securely attached, we are more satisfied in our relationships, better able to handle daily life’s stressors, and better able to have trusting and honest relationships with others. A secure attachment style also makes dealing with the end of relationship and loss of love easier. This seems counterintuitive but the theory holds up in research. When we have a secure attachment style, we feel a sense of safety and comfort knowing that that kind of love and support does occur and most likely will occur again.

Loss isn’t as devastating if we are confident that it will come to us again.

While our early experiences with others impact our brain development as well as our future relationships, our brain is a lot more “plastic” than we once thought it was. We don’t have to stay stuck in these unhelpful neural pathways. We can create new neural circuits and change the way we perceive and express emotions to loved ones. Therapy can be helpful to understand attachment styles and patterns and work on creating new models and experiences, thus opening us up for more open, trusting, and rewarding relationships.

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