ATTACHMENT THEORY AND NEUROSCIENCE
Annmarie Early received her Master of Science and Ph.D. in Marital and Family Therapy and Master of Arts in Christian Leadership from Fuller Graduate School/Seminary. She is licensed as a Marriage and Family therapist in California and Virginia and is in private practice in Harrisonburg offering individual and couple counseling. Her academic scholarship and clinical practice are informed by affective neuroscience and attachment theory, as well as the importance of embodied, experiential practices in creating change. Annmarie has specialized training in depth psychologies and works with dreams, myth and story in her personal and professional life as a way of listening deeply to the song of the soul. Annmarie is a certified Emotion Focused Couples Therapy (EFT) Trainer and Supervisor and continues to offer training, enrichment and supervision from this perspective. Prior to accepting a faculty position at EMU, Annmarie served as Assistant Adjunct professor in the Department of Marriage and Family Therapy at Fuller Graduate School.
Part 2: Attachment Theory and Neuroscience
Yago: Annmarie, let us move now more to the field of neuroscience. When we enter into the realm of neurobiology we are exposed to a very complex world. Nevertheless, neuroscience grants us amazing insights towards understanding in a deeper and holistic way the complexity of slavery and conflict as a whole. Neuroscience is helping us to understand how we are wired as mammals; also we are being exposed in unbelievable ways to our deep interconnectedness. Through neuroscience “Attachment theory” is becoming the meta-theory that we are looking through. Why?
Annmarie: Attachment theory has great explanatory value. In a recent conversation I had with Dan Hughes, an internationally recognized expert on Attachment Based Family Therapy, he reported that there are now over 18,000 studies on attachment theory. The more we find out about attachment, the greater the support. In many ways it is not longer a theory. We now need to apply these basic principles to our work in various contexts which is why the field of conflict studies is ripe to apply the research
Yago: How does a healthy brain function? Could you share with us briefly how the brain behaves in traumatic situations? How does this affect a person in their normal life? What are the risks involved in a person’s behaviour if his/her brain does not come to regular and healthy state?
Annmarie: I’m not sure I am qualified to speak directly to these questions as neuroscience is not my expertise. But, researchers such as Stephen Porges and Jaak Panksepp discuss the power of trauma to disrupt normal brain functioning. Porges describes the “window of tolerance” which utilizes social engagement for regulatory purposes being significant in the overall regulation process. Overarousal leads to flooding and numbing and dissociation shuts down the circuit. For those who are interested in reading more, they can look to Dan Siegel (The Developing Mind), Antonio Damasio (The Feeling of What Happens), Stephen Porges (Polyvagal Theory), Jaak Panksepp (Affective Neuroscience), Iian Mc Gilcrist (The Master and his Emissary).
Yago: Perpetrators, shut down of empathy, after a crime there is no remorse because that system has shut down. You say that the fear response in the brain has to go down and your sense of safety has to go up. If we are in a state of “fight-flight and freeze” you are not open and receptive to making secure connections. How does it function in the brain of a perpetrator?
Annmarie: Oh, I couldn’t begin to outline what is actually happening in the brain of someone who perpetrates violence. I might look to the work of Allan Schore or Dan Siegel for information about what might actually be going on.
Yago: The big challenge is how do we create change so that we break the cycle of violence. Relationships are crucial to brain development and neural functioning throughout the life cycle. Siegel would say that “the brain becomes literally constructed by interactions with others. Our neural machinery is, by evolution, designed to be altered by relationship experiences.” You say that you don’t believe that there is a point of no return. Change is always is possible. What is the role of neuroplasticity?
Annmarie: Well, change is often not likely, but now knowing that the brain can change itself is wonderful news (see Norman Doidge). We are just at the beginning of understanding the implications- both good and bad- for neuroplasticity. And Siegel states that neurons that fire together wire together. Therefore that which is connected due to circumstance become intertwined. Our experiences shape us and the more that we understand that process of change, the more effective our interventions. Previously, it was as if we were casting our best ideas and intentions toward change. Now, hopefully, we can use our understandings from neuroscience to create greater precision and evoke more effective and longer lasting change.
Yago: You argue that it is not always about getting things right that makes the difference. It is about going back and repairing your mistakes when really healing happens. The flow of rupture and repair is the key. Could you elaborate on this?
Annmarie: I mentioned earlier the work of Ed Tronick and the still face experiment. He works with caregivers and infants enacting the instantaneous distress felt by a young child when the mother is not responsive and attuned to the signals of the child. Tronick states that it isn’t the on target attunements but rather the rupture and repair attempts that build attachment security. This is hopeful news. If I am willing to go back and repair misattunements the relational bond can be strengthened far beyond what was possible in my getting it right in the first place. The challenge is to own the “getting it wrong” part- staying open and non-defensive- and engaging in the process of repair. It is much easier to repair with those with whom we have a strong bond. It is much more difficult to extend the hand of repair to those we call enemies. We have to find a way to overcome the danger sense of the other and extend a hand of peace. We also have to more mindfully create spaces- contexts- that facilitate encounter and repair. The surroundings are important in providing a holding space for healing.
Yago: Daniel Siegel in his book Mindsight insists on the importance of “making sense of the past to free the present.” I believe that this is crucial in overcoming the inherited collective trauma our societies still carry from the time of slavery. We have to know and to process the pain done in history. Here we are talking of the “affect narratives” at the collective level. This digging into the emotional collective unconscious will help in the process of reconciliation and healing; indeed healing the historical harms. In the context of the States this applies specially to the time of slavery to Afro-Americans and also to the unbelievable injustices committed to the Indigenous peoples (First Nations). What can you comment on this?
Annmarie: Our memories are far more than about events and circumstances. Whole peoples hold bodied, story memories that are passed down for generations. These wounds work at the implicit level and are often out of our conscious awareness. We read our context for cues and it is from the place of relational knowing that we learn our surroundings. This is the message of slavery or any kind of racism or discrimination I’d imagine. It calls each one of us to examine- not just in thought, but in bodied knowing- what biases and judgments we make against those that we call “others”.
Yago: Recently you published an article with Dr. David Glanzer on the American Journal of Psychotherapy. It is about the role of edge-sensing in experiential psychotherapy. You argue that “encounter at the edge, what we call edge sensing, is dwelling in the meeting point between what is known explicitly and what is know in a bodied way.” This is already of extreme difficulty at the interpersonal level in a psychotherapist-client set-up. As we are called to shift from the micro to the macro, how can we extrapolate this in mediation processes in conflict situations?
Annmarie: Maybe one place to begin is to believe that the power of transformation lies in encounter- those magic ‘moments of meeting’ (Dan Stern-The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life) that hold the power of change within them. Edge-sensing is a paying attention to the implicit processes that bubble up and are filled with rich meaning both within and without. They are the alive place where an implicit felt sense meets an explicit more language place of knowing. Edge sensing is the meeting place of contact that is alive with potentials for change and transformation. Edge sensing values the power of encounter to create transformation- both within- where implicit and explicit meet- and without as we make contact with the world.
As I imagine into relational contexts, I see greater attention being given to the implicit dynamics in the context and surroundings. I see contexts that provide a holding space that moves beyond scripts and programs to transformative moments of meeting. I see practitioners trained well in understanding the power of the implicit and working to identify these potentials in opportunities ripe for encounter. And, I see a valuing of the power of emotion as the vehicle- the driving motivation for change- harnessed. It’s a risky business though. It demands authentic encounter on our part and a tolerance for ambiguity and messiness. Rupture and repair- that’s the landscape of transformation.
Yago: To be in touch with the “felt sense” in our bodies is a process of bottom-up that presumes a real process of incarnation top-down from our intellect to our hearts and guts. How this can be applied to groups in conflict?
Annmarie: Too often we attempt to talk our way into change- we apply our best thinking strategies to complex situations. It isn’t that thinking isn’t useful- it organizes and helps us make sense. But, according to Panksepp, our ancestral tools for survival were the automatic appraisals of the felt sensing space. It is only after this accurate appraisal system does its work that we then make sense of what has happened. It comes after not before.
Many of us have been raised to trust our heads over our guts. I encourage that the more familiar we become with the inner landscape of the felt sense weaving it together with our often well developed thinking mind, the more effective our interventions will be. So, my hope would be that we start using this wise system more as we analyse what has worked and where systems are stuck. I believe we will be surprised by what is really enacting the experiences of change. It might be something different than what we thought was happening!
Yago: How do we create contexts and safe spaces that hold complexity to deal meaningfully with situations of conflict?
Annmarie: I think this is where we have to do our own inner work. We have to have the ability to hold great complexity within ourselves and have that space accessible and available for others. We have to know our own patterns and history and at least be aware of our own patterns. We have to have enough regulatory capacity within and ability to co-regulate with others to make safe spaces possible. We have to know and use the felt sensing space in decision making and trust the sometimes messy space of unknowing. And, we have to value the role of rupture and repair. Conflict is a messy business and pitfalls are inevitable. Opening ourselves up to these alive potentials is where change is birthed.
Yago: You say that how do we bridge to others is the biggest challenge we have ahead as practitioners. The biggest challenge is how do we apply our new awareness? Could you give us few insights on this regard?
Annmarie: When we engage the implicit and use felt sensing to guide us, we are in landscape that is foreign for many of us. So, we have to begin to train our practitioners differently. We need to forgo some of the head learning of the classroom for the experiential learning of the body. We need to create spaces for alive practice not just analysis. Here at EMU we talk often about being ‘reflective practitioners’. I believe that reflection is not a head practice but a bodied learning. Our training models need to become more current and weave in the findings from neuroscience. We need to value a different kind of knowing- one that creates learning experiences from the bottom up. We need to understand the underlying music of an engagement, not just the explicit parts and pieces that are quantifiable. We need to train for a new way of seeing using both eyes and our gut- mind. And, we must create encounter experiments where we explore this new terrain in alive ways.
Yago: Daniel Siegel talks about that the best intervention is prevention. How do our educational systems need to change so that we can be more holistic in the understanding of the wonder to be human?
Yago: Wolfgang Schonecke says that “the great challenge remains to identify our own subtle mechanisms to achieve domination over others.” Emotion can be used outside of our awareness in a coercive way, in a subconscious level. Our current unjust socio-economical system perpetuates itself through subtle mechanisms. We are called to unveil the music, the lyric underneath a system of oppression. Could you give your view on this?
Annmarie: The change really does begin with us. We all have our “others” and we bring our own history into every encounter. It is a music that often plays deeply within our beings though often unrecognized and owned. We can’t ask anyone to go where we ourselves have not yet gone and that is a challenging commitment we are faced with.
Annmarie: I find Dan Siegel inspiring when he talks about this because it is about more than living a more fulfilling life. He is talking about our very survival as a species on this planet. We’ve bought the enlightenment project and it has almost sunk us. The time has come to inspire our way back to more basic human roots and I believe science may be leading us there. We are learning that we are interconnected in the most intricate patterns- both our heritage of where we come from and the energy systems that surround us. Dan Siegel calls for moving from ‘me to we’ and I believe that our new understandings about who we are and how we are wired is a step closer to change of the inspiring kind.
Yago: Related to our identity you comment on D. Siegel vision that we live as we are autonomous unified “I” without the recognition of the multiplicity of who we are. That we have the capacity to be different people in different situations. What Siegel is pointing out is flexibility. The capacity to be flexible within the self. Could you expand on this?
Annmarie: Siegel has this grand vision and this wonderful way of speaking complex concepts in vernacular speech. He is calling us to a new way of being human- one that honors the building blocks of attachment and recognizes the power of the mind-body to create our world- personal and collective. I believe we have much to learn from nature and our living surroundings. They can become a teacher for us as we attempt to correct our individualistic, consumptive frame to incorporate a more natural rhythm to our living.
|In other people, we see ourselves with mirror neurons|
Yago: You say that we are impacted by people in ways that we are just beginning to understand, and the effect and role of the mirror neurons is one of this clear liminal areas of new awareness of how we are connected. The mirror neuron system is now considered the root of empathy. Jeremy Rifkin comments about mirror neurons that “we are soft-wired to experience another’s plight as if we are experiencing it ourselves. We are actually soft-wired not for: aggression, violence, self-interest, utilitarianism; but for sociability, attachment, affection, companionship. And the first drive is the drive to belong. It’s an emphatic drive.” What can you elucidate about this? How does that shows a new horizon of hope in our fight for a just and emphatic Society?
Annmarie: Isn’t that wonderful news! I so enjoyed reading Rifkin’s book and his sweeping account of our development as a species. My husband Dr. Christian Early is working on a book where he talks about Darwin’s transformation from survival of the species through competition to our basic caring nature. We are born to bond and that drive—the one that keeps us alive—is the transformative power source we can hook into.
Yago: Another amazing area of what science is telling us about who we are and literally create ourselves is through the discovery of the role of neuropeptides. Candace Pert elaborates this in depth in her ground-breaking book “The Molecules of Emotion.” She argues that our thinking process determines who we are, even at the physical level. Deepak Chopra endorsing her book makes the following compelling statement; “the discovery of neuropeptides was so significant because it showed that the body is fluid enough to match the mind.
Thanks to messenger molecules (neuropeptides), events that seem totally unconnected- such as a thought and a bodily reaction- are now seen to be consistent. The neuro-peptide isn’t a thought but it moves with thought, serving as a point of transformation (…) a transformation of non-matter into matter.” In this line of thought you comment that whether your relationships are healthy or not, they impact your physical body. And what we are beginning to understand is that localizes in particular places for particular reasons,… our interconnectedness has everything to do with our wellbeing, not only psychologically but in our actual body. Could you comment on that?
Annmarie: The research now demonstrates that our relationship quality impacts our health. Jim Coan’s research “Why We Hold Hands” shows that our baseline functioning is dependent on relationship- our connections to others. Our very physiology- what we think, how we feel, and our relational matrices impact the very cells of our body. We are vibrational beings and the energy of the vibration in which we live is who we are.