It is far, far too late for me to personally have warm fuzzy thoughts about what human attachment is, what it means, or about what it is SUPPOSED to accomplish for human beings.
I do not attach – in essence – any remote vague thinking to this term. I can see quite objectively what it is – and what it does.
Certainly humans are born one year too early. The massive size of our brains of course does not allow us to remain in the womb as long as we SHOULD be there. But even though we are born into this big wide world being powerless to make sure our survival needs are met, we are not helpless. From the moment we are born we apply a wide range of attachment-seeking behaviors designed to elicit help from those into whose care we have been born.
How our attempts to take care of ourselves from birth are received by our mother — first of all and most importantly — signals to our most-rapidly growing body and brain what kind of world we have been born into.
Attentive, appropriate, warm, loving, safe, secure — if we are met with those kinds of benevolent responses we will grow one kind of body-brain.
Inattentive, inappropriate, nasty, hateful, neglectful, hurtful — unsafe, insecure — those responses will signal to our rapidly growing body-brain that we have been born into a world that is malevolent.
Attachment must happen on some level to meet our basic physiological needs – obviously – or our body will die.
Past those basic needs being met, lack of full safe and secure attachment interactions with our mother and other earliest caregivers will interfere with our physiological development in all kinds of ways. We will be forced to live the rest of our life in a body, with a brain, that has – in effect – been tampered with by trauma given to us by people who do not have our best interests in mind. These people – no matter what the reasons are that they did not care for us as we needed to BEST be cared for — were our enemies.
Anything less than near-perfect, near-ideal caregiving to a newborn (not to ignore that the patterns within the womb determine with great power the condition of the newborn) signals from birth that this new tiny human has essentially been born into a world at war. The unsafely and insecurely attached infant’s physiology will respond to this world at war as if it has to fight for its very life.
We need to think of attachment in terms of communication about the conditions of the world that take place through patterns of interactions between the infant and its caregivers.
Through primarily the signals a mother first gives to an infant every system in the tiny one’s body is alerted to the conditions of the world it has been born into. Either this world is safe or it is not.
If a mother herself received signals from her early environment that told her body-brain that the world was not safe she very likely has a body-brain of her own that has no choice but to signal to her infant that this world that she has brought her infant into is at war. Yes, there are mothers that can overcome a great many of these patterns to give her infant signals that the world is ‘good enough’ to survive in, but there is no way that an unsafely and insecurely-built mother can transfer the clear message that this world is entirely safe to her infant.
We thus have generations within families in which insecure attachment within an unsafe world is the norm.
Within these families trauma from the past is simply communicated through signals based on attachment interactions between mother and other caregivers of babies. Most often there are many other patterns of danger enmeshed with all interactions within these families so that trauma continues to escalate through the generations. These families have lost the information that the world CAN ever be safe.
This is the simplest description of how signals from a mother communicate the condition of the world to her offspring who then have no choice but to adapt and adjust their physiological development in accordance with the signals they have been given.
Research with rats translates across the board to conditions within the human body, whether we like this fact or not.
Take two rat mothers. One is calm calm calm. The other is anxious anxious anxious.
When the calm mother has babies and is allowed to raise them herself her entire litter has been found by researchers to end up calm calm calm.
When the anxious mother has babies and is allowed to raise them herself her entire litter turns out anxious anxious anxious.
Now, if at birth the offspring of the calm mother rat are immediately given to the anxious mother rat, and if the anxious mother’s offspring are given to the calm mother rat — we KNOW what happens.
All the born-to-calm-mother babies that were given to the anxious mother grow up anxious.
All the born-to-anxious mother babies that were given to the calm mother grow up calm.
I think the reference for this research is in this book:
The Mind’s Own Physician: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama on the Healing Power of Meditation by Jon Kabat-Zinn PhD and Richard Davidson PhD (Jan 2, 2012)
All the interactions between primarily mothers and offspring communicate — in absolute essence — exactly what the conditions of the world are so that the physiological development of the offspring can adjust itself on all possible levels to match the kind of world the mother is ‘telling’ her babies exists.
In the case of rats, calm mothers signal through their every interaction with babies that the world is safe and the little ones are secure in it. These babies get a body-brain that matches the conditions of the world the mother has communicated to the baby.
An anxious mother signals the opposite and development of her babies goes in the other direction.
Anxious, in human terms, translates as the presence of trauma and the absence of adequate resources for continued survival = malevolent world.
Calm translates as the absence of trauma and the presence of adequate resources = benevolent world.
The kinds and quality of earliest ATTACHMENT interactions between a mother and her offspring is the tool that nature uses to signal to the offspring about the degrees of safety and security in the world so that the physiological development of the offspring can adjust its development to best ensure continued survival.
It is during the earliest most-rapid and critical stages of body-brain development that this signalling happens. In this way the conditions of the world build the body-brain at the same time they build themselves into the body-brain. On all the most important levels of development these early attachment signals create permanent adjustments that will last for the lifetime of the offspring.
I call this Trauma Altered Development (TAD), and I believe it is the underlying root of most patterns of difficulties in life that most people face.
Any time an individual displays unusually difficult patterns of existence over the course of their lifetime, it is exactly to these earliest attachment interactions that we MUST look to understand the changes that were made in the very body-brain this individual lives with in response to signals it received during the first 33 months of life (conception to age 2) about the conditions of the world.
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4 thoughts on “+SOME OF MY THOUGHTS ABOUT ‘ATTACHMENT’”
I realize that I didn’t address the topic of Mercadeo’s comment! I was thinking backward in time rather than forward. I hope my daughter replies here as she is a breastfeeding mother of a 3 1/2 month old nursing son right now.
Parents “learn” to enjoy beneficial activities such as breastfeeding and holding, and infants “learn” to enjoy contact such as being held, carried, and rocked, all as a response to opioid release. Babies need milk, and opioids are nature’s reward to them for obtaining it, especially during the initial attempts. The first few episodes of sucking organize nerve pathways in the newborn’s brain, conditioning her to continue this activity. This is the reason that breastfed babies sometimes have trouble if they are given bottles in the newborn nursery-early exposure to bottles creates a confusing association of pleasure with both bottle nipples and the mother’s breast. In fact, any incidental sensations experienced during rocking, touching, and eating that aren’t noxious can become part of a child’s attachment and will provide comfort. It could be the warmth of mother’s body, father’s furry chest, grandma’s gentle lullaby, a blanket, or the wood-slatted side of a crib.
It sounds as though you have had reasons to think about these things – are you in the medical profession?
Personally I am so cautious about using the term ‘learning’ that I don’t use it at all! In fact, I associate current (and past) use of this term by researchers to be misleading in important ways.
Over the millions of years of our evolution as a species what works made it through the gate into our current physiology and what didn’t work didn’t.
It is the interference by so-called ‘learning’ to the contrary of what nature has provided us with that causes problems now as ‘civilized’ members of our species.
I am far more apt to use the word ‘memory’ than I am ‘learning’. When we interrupt the natural memory exchange process between mother and infant such deviations put us at risk for dissolution of the attachment process that begins as a sperm attaches to an egg, and as the fertilized egg attaches to the uterine wall. The system of chemical exchanges within the molecular environment of a body govern how these first attachments take place – our internal cannabinoid system critically modulates these first attachments by which we enter this world in the first place.
Because humans come into this world one year too early due to the size of our large brain-holding skull, all of the interactions between an infant and its mother (primarily as designed by nature) build critical information about the conditions in the world into the developing post-birth infant. Yes, we could say all infants are ‘learning’ from the world they are being built in, by and for.
But if we use ‘learning’ at that level we need to include the ‘learning’ that already lies within our DNA.
Thus what I see as an interaction between remembering what has been given us through eons of experience as our body conveys that information to a mother and infant versus forgetting it takes a turn away from ordinary conceptions about ‘learning’ between mothers and infants.
We naturally know all we need to know to ‘do this work’ of bringing new people into the world correctly.
It is the forgetting of what we already know – that humans can so easily do – that alters for the worse the attachment relationship between infants and mothers.