Freud Is to Hydraulics What Bowlby Is to Control Systems

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In my post of July 16th, 2010, I talked about how John Bowlby used the purpose or goal of mechanical control systems to argue that there is also a purpose or a goal to biological control systems. Here’s the quote by Bowlby (from page 41 of vol. I of his trilogy on attachment) that I pointed to in my earlier post (with my additions in brackets):

At one time to attribute purposiveness to animals or to build a psychology of human behavior on the concept of purposefulness was to declare oneself a vitalist and to be banned from the company of respectable scientists. The development of [mechanical] control systems of increasing sophistication, such as those that control a homing missile, has changed that. Today [the mid-1960s] it is recognized that a machine incorporating feedback can be truly goal-directed. Thus it comes about that nowadays to attribute purposiveness to behaviour and to think, if not teleologically, at least teleonomically is not only common sense, as it always was, but also good [systems] science.

On page 44 of vol. I, there is the following subtitle: Control Systems and Instinctive Behaviour. The overarching point I’d like to make in this post (one that the above subtitle points to) is that Bowlby used the framework of mechanical control systems to frame the biological processes of attachment behavior in much the same way Freud used hydraulic processes to frame the emotional processes of psychodynamic behavior. For an excellent treatment of how Freud tried to use the hydraulic model—very much in vogue back at the turn of the last century—to frame his work, see if you can’t grab a copy of Professor Solomon’s tape series Passions: Philosophy and the Intelligence of Emotions (available through the Teaching Company). Lecture 11 is entitled Freud’s Catharsis—the Hydraulic Model.

What’s going on here? Well, both Freud and Bowlby are trying to explain something that is neither readily apparent nor readily understandable (psychodynamic and attachment behavior respectively) by drawing frequent analogies to things that are (hopefully) apparent and understandable (hydraulics and control systems respectively). Simply put, people tangibly come in contact and interact with hydraulics (if they use a garden hose) and control systems (if they use a home heating thermostat) as they go about their everyday lives; the same cannot be said of psychodynamic or attachment behavior. So, it stands to reason that public intellectuals like Freud and Bowlby would go to great lengths to explain the hidden and obtuse (psychodynamic and attachment behavior) using experiences that are a part of everyday life.

At around page 44 of vol. I, Bowlby goes to great lengths to explain mechanical control systems of increasing complexity as a way of explaining biological instinctive behavior systems of increasing complexity. On the mechanical control systems side of the analogy, Bowlby starts out explaining a simple home heating thermostat, moves to the power steering system in a car, and ultimately moves on to the sophisticated control systems that allow an anti-aircraft gun to track and hit a moving target (which is no small feat). At this point, Bowlby makes the following statement (again, my additions in brackets):

This type of [anti-aircraft gun] system also is replicated in living organisms. There is reason to think that our possession of systems of this kind, appropriately linked and integrated, enables us to hit a moving [target such as a] tennis ball, and that similarly linked systems enable a falcon to seize a flying bird. Henceforward the objective of hitting the ball (or the aircraft) or seizing the bird is termed the set-goal [my emphasis] of the system.

I’d be remiss if I did not point out that when Bowlby uses a phrase such as “appropriately linked and integrated systems,” such a phrase can only be properly understood within a systems theory framework where one of the central focuses is on how various subsystems become appropriately linked and integrated to form larger and more complex “super” or “meta” systems. Systems theory provides the framework consisting of longitude, latitude, scale, north arrow, etc., upon which the roads of Bowlby’s attachment theory rest (metaphorically speaking). Consider this quote by Bowlby from page 45 of vol. I:

Instinctive behaviour is not inherited: what is inherited is a potential to develop certain sorts of system [the use of the singular “system” here a tip of the hat to Bertalanffy’s work], termed here behavioural systems, both the nature and the forms of which differ in some measure according to the particular environment in which development takes place.

In essence, Bowlby is arguing that instinctive behavior is built up through a process of “appropriately linking and integrating systems” (paraphrasing Bowlby), not unlike how the control systems of anti-aircraft guns are linked and integrated. In both cases, processes of linking and integrating are influenced by interactions with the environment. In this section of vol. I, Bowlby deftly moves back and forth between mechanical systems and mechanical forms of linking and integrating (often referred to as cybernetics) and biological forms of linking and integrating (often referred to as Bertalanffy’s system theory). It makes one wonder if Bowlby could have explained the biological version without the aid of the mechanical analogy. The same could be asked of Freud’s use of the hydraulic analogy.

Let me end by making an observation. In the last eight years I have been to a number of workshops and conferences on attachment theory, and at no time did any of the presenters mention control systems—whether mechanical or biological—such as power steering systems, anti-aircraft guns, tennis players, or birds of prey swooping down on a target. In essence, the control system background that Bowlby used to sell his theory is no longer in evidence. One could argue that Freud’s hydraulic background has also evaporated. It’s entirely possible that these backgrounds are no longer relevant. OK, maybe kids aren’t playing with garden hoses (as Richard Louv suggests in his book Last Child in the Woods), but we’re certainly coming in contact with control systems at an ever-increasing pace. Really? How so? Well, here’s a partial list of the cybernetic control systems that we come into contact with on a daily basis:

  • cell phones and smart phones
  • DVR services such as TiVo
  • the Google search engine (actually all search engines)
  • national ID card programs
  • all frequent flyer card programs
  • the Internet is one huge cybernetic feedback system

Here’s the problem as I see it: people are not being told that the above examples are in fact examples of cybernetic control systems. The idea of control systems that have the potential to do something quite amazing—like track and shoot down a moving target—is passé. Today, we don’t really think about air travel (unless we get bumped). But when I was a kid 40 years ago, flying was a huge event that people dressed for. Back then, air travel captured the imagination. Today, getting a good ticket price is what we think of.

All this to say that we simply don’t think about control systems the way people thought of control systems back in the middle of the last century. When Apollo spacecraft went to the moon and back, we were amazed that such systems were in place that would allow for such a feat. Again, the control systems background that Bowlby used no longer captures our imagination. This begs the question: “What background are present-day attachment researchers and clinicians using to sell attachment theory to the laity?” In my opinion (and experience) attachment theory lacks a background (like hydraulics and control systems) against which analogies can be constructed. This was Bowlby’s brilliance: he made extensive use of analogy and metaphor, going so far as to refer to attachment as a biological need as important as food and water. Freud suggested that if certain emotions were allowed to “build up pressure” there could be an explosion. None of this was supposed to be taken literally but was intended to be taken as lesson—building bridges between the known and the unknown to facilitate understanding in that “ah ha” kind of way. My concern for attachment theory stems from the fact that no one (that I know of) today is building bridges, whether metaphoric or analogical. In my opinion, no one is acting as a public intellectual for attachment theory the way Bowlby did. Is it too much to hope for to hear about a power steering system at an attachment conference? Sure would be fun (or am I just being nostalgic).