Attachment theory evolved over 50 years ago. This theory proposes all humans have an innate biological mechanism that supports social engagement. This engagement is necessary during infancy to encourage nurturance and provision of a safe environment.
Bowlby is credited with describing attachment theory and he proposed three developmental styles of attachment. These three attachment styles included:
- Secure attachment: an ability to easily seek and obtain support from others. This style promotes strong bonds with parents, siblings, friends and later in life allows for bonding with a mate.
- Anxious attachment: a insecure attachment style where emotional support has often been inconsistent during childhood. Individuals with anxious attachment develop hypersensitivity to interpersonal rejection and have anxiety in social environments. They may develop a needy approach to relationships constantly seeking reassurance of the strength of social supports.
- Avoidant attachment: an insecure attachment style that may have been characterized by early social adverse environments. Individuals with insecure attachment style built a wall around their life denying a need or interest in human interactions.
Emerging research in social neuroscience is providing a better understanding of brain mechanisms related to human attachment. Vrticka and Vuilleumier of the University of Geneva in Switzerland recently published an excellent review of the neuroscience of human attachment in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
The authors of this review begin by noting research showing attachment has profound effects in the domains of emotion processing, selective attention and memory. Insecure attachment individuals are hypersensitive to changes in the expression of emotions in others. Anxious attachments individuals have enhanced attention to threatening cues. Avoidant attachment individuals inhibit the memory processing of distressful information.
The authors note social approach behavior appears regulated in specific brain regions including the ventral tegmental area, pituitary, striatum and ventral medial orbitofrontal cortex. Social aversion appears to be regulated through the amygdala, hypothalamus, insula, anterior cingulate and anterior temporal poles.
Social behavior appears to regulated through both affective evaluation (emotional mentalization) and cognitive control systems (cognitive mentalizations). These systems interact with hormonal and neurotransmitter domains in influencing social interactions.
The neuroscience of human attachment includes emerging research showing the importance of mental state representation of others (theory of mind). Mothers with high sensitivity to the cries of their own infants during the post partum period show increased gray matter and fMRI BOLD responses in the prefrontal cortex, superior temporal sulcus and fusiform gyrus. These regions have been identified as key components engaged in being aware of the emotional states of others.
The authors conclude that the neuroscience of human attachment is beginning to outline key common and distinct elements in avoidant and anxious attachment styles. Attachment styles appear to be influenced by both environmental history as well as neurobiological factors, some of which may have strong genetic contributions.
Future neuroscience of research will need to move experiments into the "real world" and not be limited to task in brain scanners. Additionally, future research needs to target early intervention studies in children with attachment problems to find the most effective methods to improve social outcomes.
Readers with more interest in this review are directed to the DOI link below where the free full text manuscript can be found.
Photo of great white egret from the author's files.
Vrtička, P., & Vuilleumier, P. (2012). Neuroscience of human social interactions and adult attachment style Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6 DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00212