The Neuroscience Of Attachment (Part 1)

The Neuroscience of Attachment


Here we borrow extensively from an excellent article by Linda Graham written six years ago but which gives such a comprehensive review of how the neural development of our brain is affected by attachment – as it is quite long, we will be borrowing from it over three blogs.


“To understand what attachment theory and research over the last 50 years and modern neuroscience of the last 20 years are telling us:


  1. our earliest relationships actually build the brain structures we use for relating lifelong;
  2. experiences in those early relationships encode in the neural circuitry of our brains by 12-18 months of age, entirely in implicit memory outside of awareness; these patterns of attachment become the “rules”, templates, schemas, for relating that operate lifelong, the “known but not remembered” givens of our relational lives.
  3. when those early experiences have been less than optimal, those unconscious patterns of attachment can continue to shape the perceptions and responses of the brain to new relational experiences in old ways that get stuck, that can’t take in new experience as new information, can’t learn or adapt or grow from those experiences. What we have come to call, from outside the brain looking in, as the defensive patterns of personality disorders. What one clinician calls “tragic recursive patterns that become encased in neural cement.”

Fortunately, the human brain has always had the biologically innate capacity to grow new neurons – lifelong – and more importantly, to create new synaptic connections between neurons lifelong. All of us can create new patterns of neural firing from new experiences. All of us can pair old even maladaptive patterns with new, more adaptive, patterns of neural firing. All of us can all create new neural circuitry, pathways and networks that allow us to relate, moment by moment in new, healthier, more resilient ways. All of us can store those new more adaptive patterns in both the structures of explicit memory, making them retrievable to conscious awareness and conscious healthy functioning, and in the structures of implicit memory, making them the new habits of relating.

We begin with the brain, understanding now that the brain is a social organ, developed and changed in interactions with other brains.

There is nature; we are genetically programmed to walk, talk, learn to share, recognize an “I” separate from “you”, on a developmental timetable. That development, however, is always stimulated or kindled by experiences we have in interactions with other people, other brains. It IS interacting in relationships that stimulates brain structures to activate and mature.

On the individual level, the neurons in the limbic regions – the seat of our emotional learning that is foundational to our subjective sense of personal and social self – are not fully connected at birth. They are genetically primed to form synaptic connections through the relational experiences we have with those closest to us. Caregivers activate the growth of those regions of the brain – through emotional availability and reciprocal interactions. This includes the hormones of bonding and pleasure that are released in intimate and contingent relating. That is nurture.

…information laid down in these early moments of meeting develop the actual structure of these limbic regions. This means that the very foundations of perception, particularly in regard to relationships, relies on the quality of these earliest interactions with our parents. It is essential to understand experience dependent maturation of the brain to understand the importance of early attachment experiences to shape the brain and our patterns of relating and to embrace the power of new attachment relationships in therapy to re-wire the memories learned with this part of the brain.

…it’s not just that we have empathy because we have the pre-frontal cortex in our brains but that we have highly evolved complex brain structures like the pre-frontal cortex because they are developed and matured by empathy. As Cozolino says, we are not the survival of the fittest; we are the survival of the nurtured.

How the brain works…how relational learning works

Any experience cause neurons in our brains to fire. Repeated experiences cause neurons to fire repeatedly. Neurons that “fire together wire together,” strengthening neural connections. Strong neural connections become neural pathways and neural networks. This experience-triggered neural firing is how ALL neural pathways become patterns of response, and how all structures of the brain mature. This is how all patterns of attachment are laid down in the brain; it is also how they can change.

The brain stem regulates the internal homeostasis of the body: heart rate, respiratory rate, digestion, through the autonomic nervous system (ANS) – the extension of our brain throughout our body. The ANS has two branches, the sympathetic (SNS) of arousal and the parasympathetic (PNS) of calming. These two, arousal-calming, gas and brakes, are part of the completely unconscious social engagement system that regulates the energy level or vagal tone of our bodies. Too much SNS and too little PNS, we feel restless, agitated, stressed, all the way to panic attack.

When there is a balanced vagal tone (influence on heart rate) we are happy campers. When we feel safe in relationship our prefrontal cortex remains in charge of our physiological responding.

When we perceive threat or danger, the SNS arouses the amygdala to prepare for fight or flight. We can experience this as an emotional hijacking; our rational self temporarily nowhere to be found. When we perceive a life threat, the PNS calms down everything, down to the point of shut down.

We share these functions of the brain with all life forms down to reptiles; there’s no consciousness awareness yet; there’s no attachment going on here yet. Though, with conscious awareness later, when we say someone makes us sick to our stomach or someone is breaking our heart, it is information from the internal regulation of bodily states that unconsciously informs that subjective experience.

The most well-known structure of the limbic system is the amygdala, almond shaped structures of perception-appraisal-response. Our 24/7 alarm center, constantly scanning the environment for threat or danger, even in our sleep. The amygdala generates the fight – flight response, very important to attachment.

The amydgala is also the core of our interactive social processing and the center of our emotional learning. The amygdala assesses every experience, including relational experience, for safety or danger, for pleasure or pain, and pairs each experience with an emotional valence, an emotional charge, positive or negative, that makes us approach or avoid similar experiences in the future. The more intense the emotional charge, the more neurons will fire in our brain and the more likely we will register the experience in implicit memory.

Any such experience that is also processed with the conscious awareness of the cortex can be stored in explicit memory. We consciously learn to approach or avoid this or that person or emotion again. But the amygdala itself operates below the level of the cortex, below the radar of conscious awareness, and it stores all of its responses to experience in implicit memory, outside of awareness.

The amygdala operates much faster than the more complex cortex – 200 milliseconds to trigger fight or flight rather than the 3-5 seconds of the cortex that notices we just got in somebody’s face or bolted out of the room just precious seconds before. So the processing of the amygdala does not have to come to our awareness for an experience to register and be stored in our implicit memory.

Any emotional-relational-social experiences that are processed before the brain structures that can process experience consciously are fully mature, before 2 ½ -3 years of age, those experiences are stored only in implicit memory, only outside of awareness. This includes ALL early patterns of attachment. The research has proven “beyond irrefutability” that attachment patterns stabilize in our neural circuitry by 12-18 months of age. They are stable and unconscious before we have any conscious choice in the matter and unless new experiences change them, will remain stable “rules” of relating well into adulthood.

Cozolino suggests that because the amygdala is the structure of both our social emotional processing and is our fear center, the negotiation of relationships and the modulation of fear so overlap, our earliest relating, our earliest implicit experience of self can have a bias toward the negative. Because, evolutionarily, members of our species who were nervous, anxious, on alert, tended to survive. Those who are nice and mellow got eaten.

The hippocampus, one on each side of the temporal lobe near the ears, are part of the limbic system but as they mature, at about 2 ½ years of age, they begin translating experience into explicit memory, a vital link to cortical functioning. With explicit processing, conscious processing, we begin to remember our experiences, including relational experiences from 2 1/2 – 3 years of age on. So, the temporal lobe of the cortex is where memories of attachment experiences are stored, consciously and unconsciously; it’s where they get stuck, and when brought to consciousness, where they can change.

The hypothalamus located deeper in the limbic system releases many different hormones to regulate the amygdala. A very important one, that researchers have begun to understand more fully in the last 5-10 years, is oxytocin – the bonding hormone that is released through touch, warmth and movement, such as breastfeeding and orgasm. Oxytocin calms the amygdala, it can spur the pre-frontal cortex to grow GABA bearing fibers down to the anydgala and quell the fear response. Why hugs make us feel safe and bonded to the person who is helping to release oxytocin in our brains.


We are learning that even a visual image of someone we love or feel safe with can release oxytocin in our brains. Since imagining something is as real to our brains as seeing something for real – remembering people who have given us unconditional love, or our clients remembering us giving them unconditional positive regard, can release oxytocin and calm down the fear center.

The pre-frontal cortex can grow neuronal axons down to the amygdale; it’s only a few cell layers away. And these neuronal fibers can carry GABA (gamma butyric acid) down to the amygdala; the GABA will extinguish the fear response. (SO thinking of those we love can activate this process).

To be continued


Is My Neediness linked to My Insecure Attachment?

I don’t know about you but I have previously been described on occasion, and still can be, as being a bit needy, a bit grasping of affection, a bit manipulative in attempting to coerce others into given me attention, affection and so on.

It is not a trait that I particularly like in my self. I believe it is directly linked to my insecure attachment based on an uncertain, unpredictable and sometimes conditional relationship I had with my mother, in particular.

My mother was affectionate at times, distant at others. You could never really count on her being there for you.

Her affection  seemed dependent (conditional) on how she felt. Given that she was probably experiencing some form of mental breakdown and had already started taking the Valium that would in later years become full blown dependence would explain her ambivalence to me and my emotional needs.

I have forgiven my mother for her many omissions but that does not mean that this forgiveness has resolved my attachment issues or heal the emotional pain I have been scarred with.

I still live with the consequence of these emotional scars and they still impact on my life, behaviour and recovery today. In fact, the longer I am in recovery the more I become aware of internal battles that I re-enact in my daily life with people in general life often playing the role of my primary care giver. I fight the same fights over and over again but with different people and in different scenarios.

The long term s consequences are also a lack of trust in others, an a time emotional ambivalence to others, a low self esteem, a feeling of “I’m not good enough” and whatever I do, “enough is never enough” This is why I think insecure attachment may be a good reason for the knawing feeling many of us have that we are not good enough, that we are lacking, that we are less than, that are missing something very important. That we have no secure internal base. Instead we have this “hole in the soul”.



I fight injustice constantly. I fight bullies. I have real difficulties with feelings of rejection, even seeming rejection from people I do not particularly like, respect or admire. Thus it is not a cortical, conscious process, it is a pre-progammed emotional response to rejection per se.

I am constantly trying to be good enough, better than good enough, the best if possible. To measure up. Be the Number One guy, just like Bill Wilson who had similar problems with his mother to me. Internally I am constantly trying to show the world I am good enough, deserving enough of their love, respect and affection, often when I consciously have no real desire for these things, from these people.

It is a continual re-enactment of the efforts I made, often unsuccessfully with my mother. My early childhood has habitualised my behaviours and emotional reactions to the world. I must have found my mother’s behaviours unjust also hence my constant fighting of perceived injustice, although I am well aware of the 12 step plea not to fight anyone or anything.

Easier said than done, for me.

What I am trying to say, I guess, is that I have become aware that I am fighting the same psychic battles over and over again. The adult child is still in turmoil, reaching out for unconditional affection.

I have found that unconditional love in a Higher Power but in my illness I relapse back to this emotional insobriety.

I have recovered though. I am sane enough to know that I have other issues that  have partly driven my addictive behaviours. They have created emotional disturbance and dysfunction which “sharing” my experience with others has increasingly helped self soothe.

Anyway back to my sometimes evident emotional immaturity.

I have studied neuroscience for a number of years and see that it offers a great facility for challenging existing views about addiction and contributing to the greater arguments and debates about causes and consequences of addiction but I am also aware that it does not have all the answers and that it can veer towards reductionist views and reductionist solutions such as giving drugs to addicts to help with behavioural manifestations of addiction which can be bizarre at times.

Bizarre because the manifestations of addiction are more complex that observable neuro-biological processes in the brain. Attachment theory highlights this issue for me. It may impact on neuro-biology and neural plasticity of the brain but it is not necessarily the product of these. It can not be “cured” bu purely chemical means.

It seems that it can only be resolved by re-applying behaviours that were missing in the first place. In this case, earned attachment via various group therapeutic groups can help with the consequences of insecure attachment experienced in early childhood.   In other words these more adaptive behaviours can help you “manage” the maladaptive behavioural patterns ingrained in one’s brain.

We need other people not drugs or medications in other words. We tried that, it did not work. Love is what we need, we are designed, to give and receive it.

It is a fundamental force in helping develop a healthy brain.

Via neuroscience, I have never been able to get an angle on two vital aspects of my addictive personality. The “hole in the soul” what is it, where does it come from, how can it be explained? The other is why I collapse to needy behaviours?

Attachment disorders explain this for me. It also also explains the constantly fighting. Trauma also has a part to play. I grew up in a very violent, traumatising place. This can also lead to constant fighting. Constant emotional reactivty.

While in SELF, I hasten to add.


Equally I have found a solution to all these problems. I am generally contented, happy in my own skin. I did not used to be. Now I am. I have much love that I share with those around me. I can also receive it, mostly. I have found what I have been looking for. Love.

I have faith that all my scars will heal in time as so many already.

The results of the study we cite and take excerpts form (1) showed that there is significant difference in attachment styles and emotional maturity between opiate addicts and non-addicts. The results revealed that addicts usually have insecure attachment styles while non-addicts have secure styles. Besides, addicts enjoyed a lower level of emotional maturity compared with non-addicts.

“Addicts suffer from negative and inflexible emotions so that they are often fraught with anger, resentment and hatred. They
also suffer from loss of love, joy and intimacy. They may have not experienced hope and love for a long time. This exposes them to a serious emotional vacuum which must be dealt with in a
treatment process. A typical problem with addicts is their lack of emotional maturity and propensity to self-alienation and dependency disorder which causes a universal sense of fear and
mental insecurity.

A thirty-year old addict may perform like a ten-year old adolescent in terms of emotional functioning because most of the addicts have been forced into adulthood before they could have experienced childhood. That is because both society and family have not given them the opportunity to grow emotionally so that they have been confined within the walls of emotional crudity and feel insecure towards the outside world. Evidently, they need support to be
able to escape the confinement and interact with their environment, which requires them to be dependent on others [11].

Addicts suffer from severe feelings of disillusionment with their mothers. Mother’s disregard for the child’s emotional needs causes disruption in children’s self-regulatory processes and consequently
damages their mental structure of internal behavioral control. As a result, they will become dependent on external mediums like drugs to compensate for their emotional deficiencies.
Therefore, their harmful experiences of childhood in regard to disillusionment with their mothers may be drawn upon to account for the mechanisms which influence attachment styles.
Accordingly, mothers’ disregard for children’s emotional needs may justify the prevalence of insecure attachment styles in these children [1].

Research has shown that insecure attachment style contributes to the development of mental disorders. Developed at early childhood, insecure attachment is a risk factor for drug abuse and may also influence the treatment of drug abuse disorder. Using Hazan and Shaver adult attachment interview (AAI), Taracena et al (2006) reported that there is positive correlation between drug abuse and avoidant attachment styles. Hankin et al. (2007) conducted a study at the University of Illinois and reported that there is positive correlation between insecure attachment styles and smoking, alcohol use and marijuana use. In a follow-up research in the same
university, the results showed that there is a significant positive correlation between anxious attachment style and the prevalence of stimulant drug use, smoking and alcohol use. Haward and
Medway investigated the relationship between attachment styles, coping styles, life stresses and due responses in 75 couples. They reported that with secure styles, adults’ attachments are positively correlated with family relations but negatively correlated with negative social behavior including alcohol use, smoking and/or drug use [3].

Therefore, attachment styles can influence drug abuse disorders through the processes of familial interaction, social control, emotional regulation and self-efficacy. Marlatt et al. (2002)
investigated the factors contributing to the frequent relapse of addition and reported that encounters with negative emotions and events are most effective in addiction relapse. It seems
that insecure individuals more frequently resort to drug use as a self-treatment mechanism to relieve their negative emotions and experiences comparing with secure individuals. Shakibaie
(2000) studied 137 people and reported that 91.3% of the participants suffered from at least one mental disorder. Accordingly, 68.7% of the participants experienced decreased libido, 59.3% had
hypersomnia, 58.7% suffered from major depression and 24.7% suffered from apprehension.
Therefore, in line with previous studies, the present research aims to investigate the relationship between attachment styles and emotional maturity in both addicts and non-addicts.

Hogan and Roberts (1998) contended that immature emotional
behavior includes: impulsive behavior, fuzzy temper, impatience in facing failures, incongruence between specific visual stimuli and responses, inability to forgive others, and too much dependence on others. The present findings showed that there is significant difference in attachment styles between opiate addicts and non-addicts,  that addicts suffer from lack of emotional maturity more than do non-addicts. In
addition, the difference between addicts and non-addicts was significant in all the subscales of emotional immaturity.

Torberg and Lyvers (2005) investigated the relationship between attachment, fear of intimacy and differentiation of self in 158 volunteers including 99 individuals registered in an addiction treatment program. As expected, the patients under treatment who suffered from alcoholism, heroin dependency, amphetamines dependency, cocaine or hashish abuse reported high levels of insecure attachment, fear of intimacy and low levels of secure attachment and differentiation of self comparing with the control group.

Insecure attachment, fear of intimacy and differentiation of self may indicate vulnerability of drug abuse.

Besharat (2007) reported that there is significant difference in attachment styles between Iranian drug addicts and non-addicts. There were also significant negative and significant positive
correlations between the severity of drug dependency with secure and insecure attachment styles, respectively. Consequently, attachment styles can influence dependency on drugs through the
processes of familial interactions, social control, emotional regulation and self-efficacy.




1.  Mortazavi, Zeinab, Faramarz Sohrabi, and Hamid Reza Hatami. “Comparison of attachment styles and emotional maturity between opiate addicts and non-addicts.”