Attachment and Neuroscience: Sculptors of Development


The exquisite social responsiveness of the brain demands that we realize that not just our own emotions but our very biology is being driven and molded, for better or for worse, by others – and in turn, that we take responsibility for how we affect the people in our lives.

                                                                                                            ~ Daniel Goleman


Humans have specific developmental needs and require particular conditions and experiences in order to mature optimally. New research findings in neuroscience have identified what kinds of social experiences and environmental conditions children require in order to develop secure attachments to their parents. Children who form secure attachments develop into adults who have a positive sense of self, are socially conscious, empathic towards others, and will likely contribute to the social sustainability of our culture.

Daniel J. Siegel, a psychiatrist on the faculty of the Center for Culture, Brain, and Development at UCLA, writes about a scientific theory called interpersonal neurobiology:

Research into attachment has provided new understanding of how the ways parents interact with their children influence the children’s later developmental pathways. Interpersonal relationships and the patterns of communications that children experience with their caregivers have been shown to directly influence the development of mental processes. We can thus juxtapose knowledge of how the brain gives rise to mental processes (neuroscience) with knowledge of how relationships shape mental processes (attachment research).

In other words, the relational experiences that children have with their parents actually shape their psychological development, in addition to shaping their brains by activating genes. We now know that the old debate regarding nature or nurture is irrelevant, because nature requires nurture, or our genes require positive experiences in order to develop optimally. Humans are interdependent, social creatures. Our brains are dependent upon our interactions with others for their development. We are part of a larger neurobiological system that is far more complex and interrelated than we have previously thought.

Daniel Goleman acknowledges how our brains are interrelated in Social Intelligence when he writes, “Our social interactions play a role in reshaping our brain, through neuroplasticity, which means that repeated experiences sculpt the shape, size and number of neurons and their synaptic connections.” So if a child is consistently ignored or neglected by his parents, his brain will wire and structure itself in response to this negative dynamic. Unless this child’s parents change their interactions with him, he will likely grow up to repeat their very behavior, as well as suffer from depression and low self-esteem. Likewise, if a child is consistently nurtured in a loving environment by his parents, his brain will wire and structure itself as mirrored by his parents positive interactions. He will then grow up to posses these positive behaviors, and to relate to others, including his own children, in a nurturing and loving manner. He will have developed secure attachments.

Secure attachments develop in children who experience consistent emotional attunement, mirroring and connection with their parents or primary caregiver. These children have lived in safe, predictable environments with appropriate structure and limits. The parents of children with secure attachments are able to be emotionally present with their children, as opposed to being continually preoccupied. They are empathic toward their children and their needs, and build a foundation of trust and security from which their children can explore and grow. This foundation is what the founder of attachment theory, psychoanalyst John Bowlby, described as a “secure base”.

Observe a mother and baby communicating, says Daniel Goleman, “and you will see a finely orchestrated emotional dance. As the baby smiles or cries, the mother reacts accordingly” and the dance continues back and forth. Goleman goes on to say, “This parent-child loop offers the central passageway for parents to help their children learn the ground rules for relationships – how to attend to another person, how to pace and interaction, how to engage in conversation, how to tune into the other person’s feelings, and how to manage your own feelings while you are engaged with someone else. These essential lessons lay the foundation for a competent social life.”

This parent-child loop is internalized and then continues into the child’s adulthood, when he begins to have intimate relationships with others. That old loop is now hardwired into the adult’s brain, and unless he becomes aware of any negative patterns and changes them, either through psychotherapy or some similar practice, he will likely continue to reenact the dynamics his parent’s instilled in him. Now he interacts with his wife in the same ways he was sculpted to relate to his parents, and he relates to his children in a similar way as well. There is always an opportunity to change, but the longer the old patterns are hardwired into the brain, the more difficult they will be to change. A more effective approach would be to anticipate the long-term effects of parenting in regards to neurobiology and attachment, and to foster secure attachments with our children, thereby preventing insecure attachments and brain structures, to the best of our ability.

These new studies in neuroscience have given us important information about parenting. Not only are children’s brains sculpted by the attachment style they experience with their parents, but research has shown that children, especially females, also inherit their mother’s maternal behavior. Louann Brizendine, a neuropsychiatrist at the University of California in San Francisco writes, “Although behavior itself can’t be passed on genetically, research shows that nurturing capacity in mammals is passed on, in what scientists now call a nongenomic or “epigenetic” – meaning physically on top of the genes – type of inheritance.” When a mother is inattentive and has a distant, inconsistent or avoidant nurturing style that does not create a secure attachment, her behavior can be passed down for three generations through this epigenetic process. Psychologists have known that family dynamics and cycles can be passed down for generations, but we now know that our maternal behaviors are also passed on neurologically as well.

Louann Brizendine makes another point when she writes, “High levels of stress created between the demands of the workplace and the household can decrease the quality – not to mention the quantity – of nurturing care mothers are able to give their kids.” This may seem obvious, yet we now live in a society where most families can only subsist on two incomes, leaving them little time to spend with their children building a secure attachment. We also live in a society with a 50% divorce rate, where single parents struggle even more to make a living, thereby giving their children even less of their time. Again, we are well aware of these statistics and their correlating problems. But most of us feel helpless in the face of social and economic tides that we have no control over, and try to just accept the fragmentation of our families and do our best. But given the new research in neuroscience regarding parenting and attachment, should we not take these issues more seriously?

High levels of stress not only decrease the level of care parents can give their children, but research has found that children absorb the nervous system environment of their mother, and that babies begin to absorb this environment neurologically during pregnancy. What is absorbed sculpts the baby’s own system, especially during the first two years of life, and can influence that baby’s worldview forever. “This isn’t about what’s learned cognitively- it’s about what is absorbed by the cellular microcircuitry at the neurological level,” says Louann Brizendine. Here is scientific evidence that in order to optimally raise healthy children, mothers need to be supported by their partners, families, and workplace – so they can be calm and without high levels of stress, which we now understand, are absorbed by the baby and can be passed down for generations.

In order for children to receive the proper nurturing and to form a secure attachment with their parents, thereby sculpting their brain to relate optimally to others, including their own children and grandchildren one day, they must be raised in a supportive environment. The environment must include parents who are attentive, nurturing, attuned, empathic and consistent. These parents will also provide a safe, structured home with appropriate limits. The children’s brains and psychological sense of self will be created as mirrored by their parents. The parent’s will need to be emotionally and physically present with their children as much as possible, which means they will not be preoccupied by extreme stress, work, or other matters. Parenting is a full-time job, and should be given as much investment and energy as work in the workplace. Some may debate that throughout history parents have had to work hard, and have been preoccupied by the stresses of life. While this is true in many respects, never before have families been so fragmented, have children been away from their parents for such long periods, and have we had so many competing and complex tasks to attend to, causing us to be anxious, preoccupied and stressed. Humans were not designed to live this way.

If we know that neurological and psychological behaviors and dynamics are passed down to our children via our parenting and attachment styles, as neuroscience tells us, and if these children and their children become our future society, then it would seem we have a responsibility to explore these studies further, and inquire as to how they might inform our own parenting.


© 2012 Lisa Nave

About the Author

Lisa Nave

Lisa Nave is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Mill Valley, California.

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