From Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, this article seeks to identify some of the neural mechanisms underlying attachment theory.
[The authors] propose a functional neuroanatomical framework to integrate the key brain mechanisms involved in the perception and regulation of social emotional information, and their modulation by individual differences in terms of secure versus insecure (more specifically avoidant, anxious, or resolved versus unresolved) attachment traits. This framework describes how each individual's attachment style (built through interactions between personal relationship history and predispositions) may influence the encoding of approach versus aversion tendencies (safety versus threat) in social encounters, implicating the activation of a network of subcortical (amygdala, hippocampus, striatum) and cortical (insula, cingulate) limbic areas.For those interested in attachment theory and how it may be encoded in the brain, this is cool stuff.
Pascal Vrtička1,2* and Patrik Vuilleumier1,3Full Citation:
Since its first description four decades ago, attachment theory (AT) has become one of the principal developmental psychological frameworks for describing the role of individual differences in the establishment and maintenance of social bonds between people. Yet, still little is known about the neurobiological underpinnings of attachment orientations and their well-established impact on a range of social and affective behaviors. In the present review, we summarize data from recent studies using cognitive and imaging approaches to characterize attachment styles and their effect on emotion and social cognition. We propose a functional neuroanatomical framework to integrate the key brain mechanisms involved in the perception and regulation of social emotional information, and their modulation by individual differences in terms of secure versus insecure (more specifically avoidant, anxious, or resolved versus unresolved) attachment traits. This framework describes how each individual's attachment style (built through interactions between personal relationship history and predispositions) may influence the encoding of approach versus aversion tendencies (safety versus threat) in social encounters, implicating the activation of a network of subcortical (amygdala, hippocampus, striatum) and cortical (insula, cingulate) limbic areas. These basic and automatic affective evaluation mechanisms are in turn modulated by more elaborate and voluntary cognitive control processes, subserving mental state attribution and emotion regulation capacities, implicating a distinct network in medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), superior temporal sulcus (STS), and temporo-parietal junction (TPJ), among others. Recent neuroimaging data suggest that affective evaluation is decreased in avoidantly but increased in anxiously attached individuals. In turn, although data on cognitive control is still scarce, it points toward a possible enhancement of mental state representations associated with attachment insecurity and particularly anxiety. Emotion regulation strategies such as reappraisal or suppression of social emotions are also differentially modulated by attachment style. This research does not only help better understand the neural underpinnings of human social behavior, but also provides important insights on psychopathological conditions where attachment dysregulation is likely to play an important (causal) role.
- Swiss Center for Affective Sciences, University of Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland
- Laboratory for the study of Emotion Elicitation and Expression (E3 Lab), Department of Psychology, FPSE, University of Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland
- Laboratory for Neurology and Imaging of Cognition, Department of Neuroscience, University Medical Center, University of Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland
Vrtička P and Vuilleumier P (2012) Neuroscience of human social interactions and adult attachment style. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 6:212. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00212
To give a deeper sense of this article, here is the introduction:
Read the whole article.
In mammals, including humans, attachment is a major dimension of behavior that can come into play in several domains (Fisher et al., 2006). This includes bond formation and maintenance between children and parents (parental care), love and sexual fidelity between long-term partners (partner attachment), but also various social links between individuals in a group. How much people value and react to interactions with others is undoubtedly a major ingredient of human life and emotions. In recent years, important progresses have been achieved by neuroscience research concerning the brain circuits involved in basic sexual and parental bonding (Insel and Young, 2001), as well as the close functional interactions between social and emotional/motivational systems in the brain (Lieberman, 2007), but the neural processes subserving affective attachment of humans to others in various conditions still remain to be elucidated.
The notion of attachment is a central feature of a prominent theoretical framework of social-emotional behavior in developmental psychology, known as attachment theory (AT) (Bowlby, 1969, 1982). This framework relies on the assumption that every human being is born with an innate attachment system, whose biological function is to obtain or maintain proximity to significant others in times of need or presence of threats, and thus to regulate support seeking behavior. Such a function is crucial for survival in early life, as a child cannot live on its own without the care of his/her primary attachment figure—mainly the mother. This is especially vital in mammals, as the mother is the main resource for food, and even more so in humans, because the time span during which an offspring is dependent on external care is particularly long. Importantly, however, AT suggests that repeated interactions with attachment figures (e.g., parents), and the responses of the latter to the proximity seeking attempts of the child, will induce the formation of differential cognitive schemes for representing the self and others, and for behaving in interpersonal relationships later on in life. These processes are thought to lead to the establishment of so-called internal working models of attachment (IWMs), encoding expectations of care and allowing a “mental simulation and prediction of likely outcomes of various attachment behaviors” (Mikulincer and Shaver, 2007) when interacting with significant social partners. This will then constitute the foundation of a person's individual attachment style, which remains fairly stable into adulthood and may provide a template for determining how people perceive and react during various types of social encounters. Thus, although adult attachment style (AAS) may influence response patterns during close relationships with other individuals (e.g., romantic partners), it is considered to also operate during interactions or social appraisals with unknown people, as well as during a range of different emotional situations throughout life (Niedenthal et al., 2002; Fraley et al., 2006; Mikulincer and Shaver, 2007). The impact of individual differences in AAS on social and affective functioning is therefore thought to go far beyond the specific behaviors associated with parental and partner attachment (Fisher et al., 2006).
Although very prominent in developmental psychology (Mikulincer and Shaver, 2007) and some psychopathological theories (Fonagy and Luyten, 2009), the social-affective phenomena associated with attachment style as well as their impact on human behaviors and their neural mechanisms have only rarely been investigated in a human neuroscience perspective. The current review therefore aims at providing an overview of recent investigations that combined an AT perspective with cognitive and neurobiological approaches. Doing so may offer novel and promising avenues for future research, not only to better understand normal social behaviors in humans, including individual differences in AAS; but also to illuminate some conditions or pathologies associated with disturbances in social emotional functioning, such as autism (Andari et al., 2010), schizophrenia (Abdi and Sharma, 2004; Marwick and Hall, 2008), borderline personality (Fonagy and Luyten, 2009; Fonagy et al., 2011), or violence and sociopathy (Decety et al., 2009; Blair et al., 2011a,b). In this review, we will first introduce the general theoretical aspects of AT and discuss how it may offer a fruitful framework in social cognitive and affective neuroscience. We will then mainly focus on the functional neurobiological mechanisms of social and affective processing that may underlie individual differences in attachment style.