“Attachment is basically everywhere in the brain”
The concept of attachment is all over social media and popular psychology websites. luhze-author Eliah took a deep dive into the science behind this phenomenon.
If you’re on social media, you’ve probably heard of attachment styles. Attachment is one of the internet’s current favourite mental health concepts. Across social media there are many popular accounts dedicated to attachment theory.
The basic idea: everybody has a certain attachment style caused by childhood experiences and this attachment style can pose certain challenges in adult relationships. Sometimes they invoke names of neurotransmitters such as the “love hormone” oxytocin. But how much of that is actually based on scientific evidence?
While attachment is often talked about in the context of romantic relationships, attachment isn’t the same thing as romantic love. Attachment theory was originally developed to describe parent-child bonding but has been applied to other types of relationships as well. A research group at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig studies the social neuroscience of human attachment – meaning they look at how brain structures and functions relate to attachment.
Bonnie O’Malley, a PhD student from the research group, says that in romantic relationships, attachment is one of three distinct systems or stages. In a typical romantic relationship, these stages are: sexual attraction, romantic love, and finally attachment. These three systems are interconnected but engage different brain areas and neurotransmitters. Attachment, the last stage, usually takes a while to develop.
According to attachment theory, attachment can be described in different styles, characterised by certain behaviours and emotions towards the attachment figure: the person that someone is attached to, for a child it would be the parent for example). Pascal Vrtička, a social neuroscientist and attachment researcher who worked at the MPI in the past, says, that the definition depends on context, but that usually three “organised” attachment styles are distinguished: secure, insecure-avoidant and insecure-anxious. Disorganised attachment is sometimes considered a fourth style.
Secure attachment, often considered the ideal style, is characterised by feelings of protection and care as well as low anxiety. You feel safe with the attachment figure, seek out connection with them, and believe that you can trust and rely on them. Opposed to this are the two insecure styles, avoidant and anxious.
In his writing, Vrtička summarises avoidant attachment as a downregulation and anxious attachment as an upregulation of the attachment system. In practice, avoidantly attached people tend to seek less connection, prefer to depend on themselves instead of on the attachment figure, and avoid emotional involvement. Anxiously attached people, on the other hand, tend to feel anxiety towards the attachment person, take rejection and distance very hard, and seek a lot of connection, maybe to the point of “clinging” to the other.
Disorganised attachment is a continuation of attachment insecurity and involves a breakdown of the functional attachment system. Vrtička describes the neurobiology as “a rigid pattern of hypo- or hyperarousal regardless of context”. Psychologically, it’s characterised by attachment behaviours that are contradictory and/or inappropriate for the situation. It is often a consequence of traumatic childhood experiences such as abuse or neglect.
While “insecure” has a negative connotation, it’s important to note that there are no “good” or “bad” attachment styles. “Secure, anxious and avoidant attachment are all functioning strategies that maintain proximity to the caregiver and ensure emotional co-regulation – at least to some degree,” Vrtička says. “Insecure” attachment is often a functional response to how the relationship works: if, for example, the caregiver is rarely (emotionally) available, the self-reliance that comes with avoidant attachment can be helpful and even necessary. An attachment style only becomes a problem when it doesn’t match the relationship. This can happen because learned behaviours from old relationships are kept in new ones.
What’s your attachment style?
Popular attachment websites are usually full of tips “for avoidant attachers”, “for anxious attachers”, etc. The idea seems to be that every person has one style, pre-determined by childhood experiences. Are you doomed to be an “insecure attacher” if your parents weren’t ideal caregivers?
Fortunately, that is not the case. For one thing, childhood experiences aren’t the only thing influencing what kind of attachments we develop. There is a genetic influence, too. People have different temperaments. “In childhood, it’s mostly influenced by environmental factors, but in adolescence and adulthood, when we can increasingly choose our own environments, the genetic components become stronger,” Vrtička explains.
Epigenetics, the interaction of genetics and environment, also important. One recent study from the MPI research group found epigenetic differences in people who lean towards avoidant attachment, compared to other attachment styles. The research on the epigenetics of attachment is still in its early stages but could offer important insights into how our social relationships work.
However, the idea that every person has one fixed attachment style is a popular misconception. While people might lean towards certain attachment styles, there is a lot of variability, both between different relationships and at different points in someone’s life. “Attachment styles can change, do change and change at very different time scales,” says Vrtička. O’Malley also emphasizes that attachment is not fixed and can be different in different relationships, depending on the person you’re with and on your current mental state.
That means it is completely normal to express different attachment characteristics in different relationships and at different times. We have different relationships with different people. How our life looks and how we feel about ourselves can make a lot of difference, too: if you’re currently stressed and depressed, the way you relate to other people won’t be the same as if you’re content and relaxed.
And where’s the brain in all this?
When talking about the neuroscience of attachment, oxytocin is a household name. Often called the “love hormone”, it is released during a wide range of social behaviours like physical touch, and research indicates that it plays an important role in forming close relationships between people.
There are also certain areas of the brain that are associated with social reward feelings: areas that, according to neurobiological studies, light up in response to positive social experiences like a pleasant interaction or a compliment.
In the studies investigating attachment, the involvement of these brain areas and neurotransmitters tends to be different between different attachment styles. Very generally speaking, avoidant attachment appears to be associated with lower and anxious attachment with higher activation of the social reward system. Avoidant attachment, for example, may be associated with “a blunting of the oxytocin system”, says O’Malley – meaning that a person in an avoidant attachment situation may have lower oxytocin activity than in secure or anxious attachment, since oxytocin is related to social closeness and avoidant attachment avoids closeness.
However, attachment isn’t just oxytocin or a single brain circuit. Neurobiological research can’t point to a single factor that is responsible for it: attachment is a highly complex phenomenon that involves almost all our brain and body. “Attachment recruits a large range of interconnected brain networks,” Vrtička says. “Attachment is basically everywhere in the brain.”
Vrtička also urges caution with regards to oxytocin specifically: “it’s not the ‘love hormone’, as it is often portrayed in media.” Oxytocin “doesn’t only have pro-social effects, it can also have anti-social effects”. Because it makes you more sensitive to all kinds of social cues, it can actually exacerbate negative experiences and anxiety associated with insecure attachment. Artificially supplementing oxytocin to improve your relationships is therefore probably not a good idea.
When it comes to the neurology and psychology of human relationships, there are no simple answers or rules. Everything is complex, and neuroscience is far from a full understanding of how our brains work.
So be careful when social media try to sell you catchy fun facts about neurotransmitters to tell you how to live your life – at best, they represent an extremely simplified and reductive view of the actual science, and often they are just wrong. Besides: “Neurotransmitters don’t drive all our behaviour”, O’Malley says. “We do have free will.”
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