Our representation of the world

Attachment can be described as the way we internally represent the world. Somewhat more than two-thirds of people are categorised as securely attached, whereas the rest show different patterns of insecure attachment. The systematic observation of attachment was first made by Mary Salter Ainsworth (Patterns of attachment, 1978) who studied the behaviour of 18 month-old children when they were left with a stranger by their mother – the “Strange Situation”, that today is still the standard was of assessing attachment in this age group. When the mother or other primary attachment figure comes back, the securely attached child will seek comfort for a while and then ready itself to continue exploring the exciting toys in the room. Insecurely attached children, on the other hand, will either cling to the attachment figure and not let go and still not be comforted (preoccupied style), run back and forth, not being able to decide whether to cling to or discard the parent (ambivalent style), or entirely seem to ignore the attachment figure (avoidant style). It is as sad to see as it sounds and insecure attachment has long-term implications for mental health problems.

Recent research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (f-MRI) has identified the amygdala as the structure in the brain that “houses” attachment (Riem, Bakermans-Kranenburg, Van Ijzendoorn, Out & Rombouts, 2012). It is an ancient part of the brain, implying that attachment has evolutionary relevance. Apparently, the amygdala fires away like crazy when attachment behaviour is provoked, with rejection/abandonment being the number one enemy. Imagine an infant crying at a high pitch. Apart from the ubiquitous reaction of an increased heart rate, securely attached adults will instantly react with attempts to comfort the child, trying to attend to its needs. Insecurely attached adults are more prone to react with anger, irritation, and ascribing the infant inadequate motives for crying. When I heard professor van Ijzendoorn lecture on this I was ready to despair: is it the case that you cannot give what you yourself have not been given? Well, we seem certainly less geared to form secure attachments when we have insecure representations of the world as our working model, but there is hope. The same professor has done fascinating research on short interventions to improve attachment in children – by teaching parents sensitive behaviour (see Bakermans-Kranenburg, Van Ijzendoorn & Juffer, 2003 for a review). The truth is that at the base of all useful therapy for adults is the therapist’s ability to give the client the “unconditional positive regard” so important for attachment. When you are accepted, met in a respectful and predictable way, you will learn to trust in humanity again.

This is why I found the story told by Johanna so fascinating. Her amygdala must have gone on fire when three of her classmates ran off crying due to a group-fight so typical of 10-11-year-old prepubertal girls. The elaborated version would take several pages, but the point was that she managed to assemble all the girls and explained to each of them why she could agree with their reaction of being upset, but disagree with some of their behaviours that had hurt others. Combined with her humour, which found its way to her after skipping four generations in my family, she managed to have all the girls listen to her “agrees” and “disagrees” until all was fine again. Exhausted, but with a happier amygdala, she had made her way to the leader of the pack in a foreign country in a language she does not fully own. I don’t know if she will become a diplomat, an actress, or a psychologist and it doesn’t matter. The beauty of secure attachment is that it makes the person able to understand that the world is neither black nor white – it is all the colours of the rainbow and that’s okay, as long as no one is left crying alone.

10 thoughts on “Our representation of the world

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