Bodywisdom: The Neurobiology of Attachment

The Couple’s Conference sponsored by the Milton Erickson Foundation was held in Manhattan Beach, Calif., earlier this month. I was interested in attending after learning so much at the Erickson-sponsored Brief Therapy conference last year.

After quarrelling with my significant other, however, suddenly the Couple’s Conference was a priority and an online search revealed it was happening that weekend! After googling the website to peruse the presenters and their handouts, I mined the relevant riches available online.

While listening to psychologist Sue Johnson present her “Emotionally Focused Therapy,” I learned about the “neurobiology of attachment.” Developed by UCLA psychologist Allan Schore, this field promotes what Schore calls “Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self.”

Editing a series of books in the field of “Interpersonal Neurobiology,” Schore joins other eminent psychotherapists who are steering a paradigm shift in psychology. Identifying the intuitive “feeling-based” right brain as the earliest hemisphere to develop, Schore believes that the ability to regulate our emotions is more important to quality of life than rational intelligence. Lovingly succoring the infant wires the developing brain and impacts all future relationships.

Schore identifies the first two years of life as essential in learning how to regulate our emotions, like calming ourselves down when anxious or angry. While developing self-soothing skills to “down regulate” negative emotions, Schore reminds us that encouraging or “up-regulating” happy states of play and joy are equally vital to fully thrive.

Human brains contain both left and right hemispheres which balance our analytical, language-based, explicit left hemisphere with our intuitive, implicit, feeling-based right hemisphere. Babies are living from their emotional right hemisphere which develops before the language-based left hemisphere. Bodily feelings and pure emotions drive their attachment needs.

Schore notes that the mother is able to assuage the infant’s negative “affect” or emotion. She does this by responding to her crying baby with cuddling, rocking, feeding, singing or otherwise interacting with a friendly face, lilting voice and affectionate gestures.

The baby feels better and trusts that this dependable mother will heal their distress. The distress has “ruptured” the infant’s physiological state. The mother “restores” the sense of well-being with her loving touch and attentive presence which regulates the infant.

If a caregiver doesn’t respond to their infant reaching out to them, the inarticulate child wails in despair. Babies don’t need “tough love.” An attuned caregiver responding dependably helps wire the emotional brain with “secure” attachment yielding a healthy sense of self across the lifespan.

While an attuned caregiver in our earliest years imprints our interpersonal interactions later in life, an equally attuned psychotherapist supports our inherent neuroplasticity, as adults, by providing the “therapeutic alliance” and offering unconditional positive regard for their client. This resource rewires the right-brain neural centers and encodes emotional balance in present and future relationships.

The attachment styles formed at the beginning of life apply to all other relationships including the romantic. Safe connections with a dependable other make the world feel safer.

Nancy Ivey teaches yoga at CSUB and locally. Email