Every time you start your day, you draw on the emotional attachment processes your brain built as a baby.
Perhaps you wish your partner a good day at work, give the dog one last fond pat, confidently place your youngest child in the arms of her childminder, worry whether your older child is going to patch things up with his mates at school, and turn your mind nervously to the meeting you will shortly be having with your manager. All of these experiences travel personalized neural circuits that were not in place when you were born but which you had laid down largely by the time you were one year of age. It is astounding to realise how much of our adult lives are influenced by experiences we had before we could walk, talk or consciously remember.
Attachment is receiving renewed interest from a wide range of people: parents, medical staff, education, governmental agencies, scientists and economists. We are facing up to the fact that emotions have a much greater influence on our behaviour than our logical take on the world has traditionally acknowledged. We are realizing that we are better placed to address seemingly intractable societal problems, such as rates of imprisonment, outcomes for children in care, stress-related illnesses, and even poverty, by paying closer attention to our children’s emotional needs.
What is attachment?
Attachment is the biological need for relationships that all human beings are born with. It is especially important in the early years of life because it shapes the ways our brains and bodies handle emotions.
Babies arrive with brains programmed to seek emotional and physical contact with other people. Over the first year, we discover who, in our world, is good at noticing our need for emotional contact and who isn’t so in tune with our needs. A baby’s rapidly developing brain keeps track of these patterns. He or she builds them into the expectations they are forming about relationships more generally.
Human babies need to be able to keep track of emotional patterns. They are extraordinarily dependent. They will not be able to walk for a year or more. So if danger approaches (like a scary predator who would like to eat the baby for lunch!), a baby cannot run away. He or she will need to depend on a parent or other adult to save them.
We adults know that most predators have been killed off, so most babies in the world aren’t in such danger any more. But babies don’t know that! They are born with brains set up for an earlier evolutionary era. Their brains still think they might die if there is no adult to look out for them. That’s a consequence of being born with brains that are not yet mature.
How does the attachment system wire early emotional experiences into the brain?
The attachment system helps a baby’s developing brain to work out whether a parent is likely to take notice of a baby’s emotional needs. If a parent is often in tune with the baby, he or she can relax. But if the parent doesn’t take much notice, then the baby needs to become more vigilant. He or she has to spend more time monitoring the parent’s attention, and this results in anxiety. If a baby spends enough time feeling anxious, that emotion gets wired into the brain.
This is the attachment system in operation. It explains why early relationships leave such a lasting impact on our brains. The way other people treated us as babies literally leaves a biological imprint on our own bodies.
How does attachment theory fit with today’s neuroscience?
Between the 1950s and 1970s, scientists such as John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth and James Robertson began to track behavioural patterns in the ways that babies respond emotionally to their caretakers. Their insights resulted in our knowledge of ‘attachment styles’, which has become a central component of ‘attachment theory’. Many professionals working the field of childcare or child development today will receive training in ‘attachment theory’.
However, attachment is now recognized as more than a ‘theory’. Neuroscientific discoveries over the past two decades have revealed the enormous impact that early relationships have on babies’ brain development. That interaction is a basic biological process.
So when we say ‘the way that other people respond to our emotional needs as a baby leaves a lifelong impact on our biology’ — that statement is no longer regarded as ‘theory’. The operation of the attachment system is now regarded as ‘fact’.
The goal now is to help spread this scientific knowledge about the attachment system as widely as possible, and to allow people to recognise it in operation. Whenever we are dealing with emotions, we are dealing with the attachment system. That is as true for adults as it is for children.
If you’d like to hear more about the attachment system, here’s a clip from the documentary film Babyhood: