Attachment is a process of communication through which the environment communicates the kinds of resources that are available within it to sustain and promote life. In narrowing the focus to human attachment we can see it begins as a sperm attaches to an egg and as the resulting new life attaches to the uterine wall. The emotional responses of a mother are communicated to her unborn through biochemical signals that begin to adjust the developing embryo to the conditions of its future life in the world before it is born.
It also remains primarily the signals a new human being receives from its mother throughout the first year of its life that determine the trajectory of its development either within and for a safe and secure world of adequate resources OR within and for an unsafe and insecure world in which resources are scarce and inadequate.
Because what makes us most uniquely human is the potential within our highly complex brain, it is the body-to-body, face-to-face interactions a mother has with her newborn throughout its most important rapid brain-growing stages that literally download a mother’s brain into her infant’s. Because we are a social species it is the right social-emotional limbic region of our brain that develops first and quickly within an infant during its first year of life.
Every newborn is equipped to both seek attachment with its mother and to communicate in ever increasingly more complex ways both what it needs AND who it is as an individual, unique person who must develop a clear sense of its own self in a body to grow up a whole, healthy person.
It is nature’s intent that it be at first primarily the infant’s mother who both receives the attachment signals from her infant and who responds back to it in adequate, appropriate ways. The attachment relationship between an infant and its mother requires that the mother not traumatize her infant by ignoring its signals of need and intent to get all of its needs met in the best possible way.
Besides the obvious physical needs for protection and sustenance, an infant’s growing brain needs responses from its mother (along with everyone else in its caregiving environment) that regulate the quality and the intensity of its ongoing experience.
If a mother herself experienced unsafe and insecure early attachment during the essential first 33 months (conception to age two) of her own life she will most likely communicate to her infant the same or very similar patterns of her unsafe and insecure beginnings to her infant. Her abilities to attune with the communication signals her infant sends to her and her abilities to mirror the infant back to itself appropriately and accurately will be interfered with so that her own ’emotional backlog and backwash of trauma’ will result in ineffectual response to her newborn. The resulting emotional dysregulation rather than healthy emotional regulation will not only build her infant’s right brain, it will build itself into her infant’s right brain.
While of course the earliest attachment relationships an infant has with its father and other caregivers are important, it is the relationship an infant has with its mother that carries the burden of weight to primarily form an infant’s social-emotional regulatory right brain and the correspondingly critical development of its nervous and immune systems. It is primarily the mother who determines her infant’s trajectory of physiological development during the most critical stages of its body-brain formation.
It is during these earliest critical stages that degrees of safety and security will communicate to the infant what kind of a world it will live in for the rest of its life. The infant’s development adapts and adjusts itself accordingly. Either an infant will grow with trust that it is safe and secure as a self among members of its species in the world or it won’t.
All patterns of interactions an infant has with its mother affect every other interaction this new person will have with its own self in a body, with other people and with the world at large. That these first patterns of interaction happen on the neurochemical and physiological (including genetic) level does not negate their power to determine the course of a person’s life. It is in fact true that these same interactions form both the foundation and the infrastructure within an infant’s body-brain that essentially govern all patterns of interactions that require the participation of a body-brain in its life — in other words, all of them.
It is from being able to see attachment patterns in operation between a 12-month-old infant (and even a younger one) and its mother that developmental experts can name the presence of safe and secure attachment or degrees of unsafe and insecure attachment. These patterns have not only been built into the relationship between an infant and its mother, they have BUILT the body-brain of the infant.
Degrees of change from safe and secure attachment patterns are known as insecure attachment disorders. These same patterns of attachment can be observed and assessed clearly among adults by discovering whether or not an adult can tell a coherent narrative story of their life.
In essence, unsafe and insecure attachment patterns disturb an individual’s ability at any age to experience a life without trauma built into it. This trauma stays present as ‘unresolved trauma’ that interrupts the experience of well-being in a person’s body-brain and correspondingly in their life.
Current approximations tell us that about half of our adult population has a body-brain built by safe and secure early attachment and half of us have some degree of an insecure attachment disorder because we did not experience safe and secure attachment during the early 33 months of our life. These patterns most obviously transmit themselves down the generations through mothers.
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