Considering Attachment Theory and Body-Mind: The “Dual” That Results

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About a year ago I attended a presentation on resiliency in children. As I sat listening to the presentation I found myself saying something like, “The information on resiliency being presented here fits well with an attachment theory perspective.” As an example, the presenter said that resiliency does not come about simply because parents, family, and teachers help a child with the demands and challenges of life; they must provide help in a way that allows the child to know that their uniqueness is being kept in mind by caregivers. In other words, so-called “cookie-cutter help” isn’t going to cut it. Well, this fits with the attachment theory idea that caregivers should strive to mentalize the mind of the child. Simply put, mentalization is the process whereby one person tries to keep the mind of another person in mind. Suffice it to say that mentalization is at the heart of empathy—minds knowing minds or minds being able to model the inner experience of others. When I mentioned to the presenter that the information being presented agreed nicely with attachment theory, I received a rather tepid response along the lines of, “Oh really, that’s interesting.”

Fast forward to about two months ago and I’m sitting in a workshop on self-esteem. Again, the information being presented fit nicely with an attachment theory perspective. As an example, the presenter said that you really cannot increase self-esteem. As a philanthropist I found this to be a fascinating insight because we receive so many proposals that have “increase self-esteem” as one of the chief goals. The presenter went on to say that low self-esteem is really an overall behavioral pattern that often results when a young child is abused or neglected. Once set up these behavioral patterns are very hard to change. According to the presenter, the last thing one should strive to do is to try to increase a behavioral pattern that is dysfunctional or self-defeating in some way. Well, this fits with the attachment theory idea that when attachment relationships between children and caregivers are characterized by abuse or neglect, insecure or even disorganized patterns of attachment behavior could (and often do) result. And Bowlby did say that once these attachment behavior patterns are set up they are very hard to change. A fellow participant beat me to the punch and made the connection that what the presenter was talking about could be easily understood within attachment theory. The presenter said something along the lines of, “I don’t look at other theories as I develop my own concerning self-esteem.”

The above pattern also played out during a workshop I went to on grief. The presenter essentially started out by “dissing” work by Bowlby and work by Kübler-Ross in the area of grief, and then went on to present information that could easily be placed within an attachment theory framework. As an aside, Kübler-Ross used Bowlby’s framework as a backdrop for much of her work.

So, what’s going on here? In my post of July 16th, 2010, I suggested that Bowlby fought for a middle ground between reductionism on one side and vitalism on the other. Using the information presented in the 2005 edited volume Critical Thinking About Psychology—Hidden Assumptions and Plausible Alternatives (hereafter simply Critical Thinking) as a backdrop, allow me to present this dichotomy in a slightly different way: Bowlby tried to take up a position between materialism on one side and spiritualism on the other. As the Critical Thinking authors point out, an organismic (as opposed to mechanical) systems theory perspective is one that tries to create a monism. A “monism”—what the heck is that? We can get a sense for what a monism is by contrasting it with a famous dualism—body and mind.

In body-mind dualism, there is a conflict between two different ways of conceptualizing the world. Suffice it to say that conceptualizing the world from a body or material perspective is dramatically different when compared to conceptualizing the world from a mind or spiritual perspective. As the philosopher Descartes pointed out, humans are both body (material) and mind (spiritual). Descartes wrestled with how it is that humans can be both body and mind. He wondered about what happens when we move from one conceptual system (say, body) to another (say, mind). Descartes’ solution was to create what the Critical Thinking authors call a one-sided dualism. In a one-side dualism, you acknowledge that both sides exists—say, both body and mind—but (and here’s the big “but”) you frame one side (say, mind) using concepts entirely drawn from the other (say, body). As an example, attachment researchers who frame attachment using a neurobiology frame acknowledge something approaching mind when they talk about how early attachment relationships “wire the brain,” but then they frame these relationships by pointing to various brain regions. In my opinion, attachment researchers who use a neurobiology frame often (and even without knowing it) create one-sided dualisms. I would argue that the vitalists mentioned above (in the areas of resilience, self-esteem, and grief) are also trying (often without knowing it) to create a one-sided dualism, but this time trying to drag the material over to the land of spiritual concepts. A monism is a conceptual system that can coherently deal with dualism issues (such as body-mind) in such a way that neither side has to sacrifice to the other. In my opinion, I do think Bowlby tried to bring about a monism in light of the fact that he did try to use an organismic version of systems theory to frame attachment.

In this post I am simply trying to point out that the dualistic nature of attachment is rarely, if ever, talked about. It really is a road not often taken. I find this a bit perplexing because if you just stop and take a long view of attachment, you’ll see that attachment has to cross back and forth between body concepts and mind concepts. As Bowlby wrote back in 1956 (way before the first volume of his trilogy came out), “Probably in all normal people [attachment] continues in one form or another throughout life, and, although in many ways transformed, underlies many of our attachments to country, sovereign, or church.” In my mind what Bowlby is pointing out here is that attachment, looked at over the course of a life, will cross body-mind conceptual thresholds. Simply put, attachment to “country, sovereign, or church” is best framed using a mind or spiritual conceptual framework.

I’d be remiss if I did not make one additional observation here: In my view, Bowlby viewed Freud’s work as a “mind” or spiritual approach to attachment and human bonding. No one has ever seen an ego but most of us know (mentally speaking) when we have encountered one (especially when dealing with a person with a rather large one). This left Bowlby with two tasks: first, bring in the “body” or material side of attachment, and, second, bring in the material in such a way that a body-mind monism is possible. As Dr. Gary Metcalf points out in an unpublished paper (commissioned by our Foundation) with a working title of  John Bowlby: Rediscovering a Systems Scientist, Bowlby provides copious references for the material side of his attachment project, but  otherwise leaves us with a paucity of references (in some cases none) with respect to the spiritual side of the equation. As an example, Dr. Metcalf points out that although Bowlby makes frequent use of systems concepts such as organismic biology, equifinality, and goal-directed behavior, there are few if any references that allow a reader to know where these concepts in specific and systems frames in general come from. I mention this because this so-called reference imbalance (e.g., references stacked heavily in favor of the material side of attachment to the detriment of the spiritual) makes assessing whether Bowlby was successful in bringing about a true monism difficult to say the least. Sadly, most modern-day attachment researchers have tapped in to the material side of Bowlby’s attachment project while allowing the spiritual side to languish. A few researchers, such as Jeremy Holmes, Peter Fonagy, and Stephen Mitchell, have attempted to build bridges between Bowlby and Freud’s work, and these bridging attempts are well worth looking at as long as the “dual” between body and mind is, well, kept in mind. Mitchell’s book Relationality: From Attachment to Intersubjectivity clearly indicates a movement from body (attachment) to mind (intersubjectivity).

In a follow-up post, I’ll take a stab at pointing out what happens when one-sided dualisms are created. If you’re impatient, this is a topic that is taken up in Critical Thinking. And I did take the time to summarize several key chapters from Critical Thinking that look at one-sided dualisms, and I’d be happy to send along a copy of my summary to you (use the CONTACT US button above to request a copy). Copies of Dr. Metcalf’s article John Bowlby: Rediscovering a Systems Scientist are also available. Stayed tuned as we continue to look at the attachment – body-mind “dual.” If you know of a good treatment of the body-mind issues contained in attachment theory, please leave a comment and let us know.