Dr. Daniel Siegel, in his book The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are (2001), describes how “dis-associated hemispheric processing” between our left and right human brain regions each contribute to differently as he describes in what he calls a “laterality-attachment hypothesis.”  This hypothesis seems to be particularly related to what attachment experts refer to as ‘dismissive-avoidant’ insecure attachment disorders (one I suspect my father had and ‘got’ from his depressed mother).

In this post I am presenting some of Siegel’s creative and thought provoking ideas on the subject:

“Patterns of representations differ markedly between the left and right halves of the brain.  An important distinction, often underrecognized within the fields of clinical psychiatry and psychology, is the distinction between the modes of representation within the two hemispheres of the brain.  The left hemisphere has been described as having a logical “interpreter” function that uses syllogistic reasoning to deduce cause-effect relationships from the representational data it has available to it.  The right hemisphere specializes in the representation of context and of mentalizing capacities.  It is therefore uniquely capable of registering and expressing affective facial expressions, developing a “theory of mind,” registering and regulating the state of the body, and having autobiographical representations.

“How are these bilateral processes relevant to relationships?  Communication is crucial in establishing neural connections early in life and involves the sharing of energy and information.  Levels of arousal (energy) and mental representations (information) are very different on each side of the brain.  The sharing of arousal and representations from one brain to another — the essence of connecting minds — will thus differ between the hemispheres.  One can propose, in fact, that the right brain perceives the output of the right brain of another person, whereas the left brain perceives the left brain’s output.

“In intimate, emotional relationships, such as friendship, romance, parent-child pairs, psychotherapy, and teacher-student dyads, what does this look like?  The left brain sends out language-based, logical, sequential interpreting statements that attempt to make sense of things [in a particular way].  The left brain receives these messages, decodes the linguistic representations, and tries to make sense out of these newly arrived digital symbols.  At the same time, the right brain is sending nonverbal messages via facial expressions, gestures, prosody [the music of speech], and tone of voice, which are perceived by the other’s [sic] right brain.  OK.  So what?

“The “what” of it is that the right brain takes this information and uses its social perceptions of nonverbal communication to engage directly in a few very important processes.

— It creates an image of the other’s [sic] mind (“mindsight”).

— It regulates bodily response while at the same time registering the somatic [body-based] markers of shifts in bodily state.

— It creates autobiographical representations within memory.

— It appraises the meaning of these events and directly affects the degree of arousal, thus creating primary emotional responses.  Intense and primary emotional states are therefore likely to be mediated via the right hemisphere.”

“When we examine these findings alongside the independent set of data from attachment research, certain patterns are suggested.  The early affect attunement and alignment of mental states can be seen as a mutually regulated hemisphere-to-hemisphere coordination between child and parent.  In this view, we can propose that avoidant attachment involves a serious lack of this form of communication between the right hemispheres of child and parent.  The extension of this finding to laterality research raises the possibility that the left hemisphere serves as the dominant mediator of communication between an avoidant child and a dismissing parent.

“In support of this perspective, it turns out that in 1989, [attachment experts] Main and Hesse examined exactly this hypothesis in two large-scale samples of Berkeley undergraduates, each of whom were asked about their degree of right (or left) handedness, as a rough approximation of brain dominance….  At the same time, Main and Hesse had devised a set of self-report items that they considered indicative of a “dismissing” state of mind.  Although this type of scale was not ultimately able to predict AAI [Adult Attachment Interview] classifications [of attachment styles] statistically, and therefore these findings were never published, in keeping with the hypothesis both studies found that the degree of right handedness was significantly correlated with elevated scores of the scale for “dismissing” state of mind.

“Further extensions of these ideas to relationships allow us to look more deeply into why certain couples may be “unable to communicate” with any emotional satisfaction.  When we know about the different languages of the right and left hemispheres, it is possible to make hypotheses  about why interactions may be frustrating:  Individuals may not know how to understand the particular language being expressed by their significant others.  If we then integrate past attachment history in understanding the pattern of these difficulties, it is possible to create a framework of understanding that can help the partners in such relationships escape their well-worn ruts.   [My note:  I would think parents, as well, would benefit so that the intergenerational transmission of dismissive-avoidant insecure attachment patterns could be eliminated.]

“If this laterality-attachment hypothesis is correct, then a logical implication would be that any experiences that help to develop the processing abilities of each hemisphere and/or the integrated activities of the two hemispheres may improve certain individuals’ internal and interpersonal lives.  Such movement toward more coordinated interhemispheric functioning would be quite welcomed by many people (especially the lonely and frustrated spouses [and I would say infant-children0 of dismissing individuals).

“The developmental and experiential histories that have led to a lack of integration of the functioning of the two hemispheres may leave individuals vulnerable to emotional and social problems.  Unresolved trauma and grief, histories of emotional neglect, and restrictive adaptations may each represent some form of constriction in the flow of information processing between the hemispheres.  This proposal of the central role of the dis-associated hemispheric processing in emotional disturbances is supported by the finding that insecure attachments in childhood may establish a vulnerability to psychological dysfunction.

“Emotional relationships that enhance the development of each hemisphere and its unrestricted integration with the activity of the other can thus be proposed to be likely to foster the development of psychological well-being.  In this way, a secure attachment can be seen as a developmental relationship that provides for an integration of functioning of the two hemispheres, both between child and caregiver and within the child’s own brain.

“At the most basic level, right-hemisphere-to-right-hemisphere communication can be seen within the affectively attuned communications that allow for primary emotional states to be shared via nonverbal signals. Left-hemisphere-to-left-hemisphere alignment can be seen in shared attention to objects in the world.  Reflective dialogues, in which language is used to focus attention on the mental states of others (including the two members of the dyad), may foster bilateral integration between the two hemispheres of both child and parent.  The resilience of secure attachments can thus be proposed as founded in part in the bilateral integration that these relationships foster.”  (pages 205-207 – all bold type is mine)


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