1. INTRODUCTION AND OVERVIEW
Attachment and bonding have been shown to be innate functions with an evolutionary adaptive role, which – like in all mammals – is to ensure survival of the species. Our culture values independence and autonomy, and relationship advice is often in contradiction with our evolutionary heritage and the neurobiological substrates of our nervous system. As a species we are neurobiologically hard-wired for relationships. In the wild, bonding and attachment equals survival, while abandonment equals death. Our brain is a “social brain” and is primed to connect in relationship with others.
Are we more a product of nature or of nurture? The answer is unequivocally a combination of both – we are genetically hardwired, neurobiological structures, which are continually sculpted, shaped and reshaped by experience. We are born with the capacity and innate drive to bond and attach at birth, and our brains are continually shaped by our interaction with the world and the people in our lives. Brain plasticity, the capacity of the brain to shape and mold through experience, is both a blessing and a curse – but it is an understanding of these basic neurobiological processes that will result in a more effective treatment of attachment and relational difficulties. Underlying maladaptive learning patterns are a core imprint of a nervous system that is primed to connect. Understanding the intricacies of how the organism protects and defends itself, and how it organizes to form lasting bonds will provide a valuable tool for clinical applications.
Our neurobiological structure forms the template that determines how we explore and interact with our environment, while the environment itself also shapes those same neural structures. At the core of understanding the neurobiology of attachment is also a basic grasp of the elemental structure of the nervous system. “People don’t come preassembled, but are glued together by life… What’s interesting about this formulation is not that nature and nurturing both contribute to who we are, but that they actually speak the same language. They both ultimately achieve their mental and behavioral effects by shaping the synaptic organization of the brain.”
ref: Joseph LeDoux (2002, p.3)
Recommended Reading and references:
The Social Brain by Lou Cozolino
The Impact of Attachment by Susan Hart
Being a Brain Wise Therapist and The Brain Savvy Therapist’s Workbook both by Bonnie Badenoch
Mindsight by Dan Siegel
Special thanks to Brian Whelan for his extremely competent help with research, keynote
presentation design and development of DARE 3 materials