Combining Together the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) and Electroencephalography (EEG)

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Our Foundation just received an interesting Letter of Intent (LOI) from Kazuko Y. Behrens, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in the Human Development and Family Studies Department at Texas Tech University. Dr. Behrens was kind enough to allow us to print his LOI as a blog post. Dr. Behrens studied under Mary Main and Eric Hesse—co-developers of the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI)—at UC Berkeley. On a simple level, Dr. Behrens would like to “peer inside the brain”—using the EEG (Electroencephalography)—as an interviewee is engaged in taking the AAI. Here’s Dr. Behren’s LOI (with my editorial changes in brackets):

The project I intend to pursue—specifically based on this funding—is to expand on a pilot study that we have recently conducted, utilizing the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) and the EEG procedure. Attachment and neuroscience is one of the emerging topics in the field of attachment [and seeks] to enhance our understanding of the underlying neural mechanisms of parental behaviors. Attachment status assessed by the AAI predicts an offspring’s attachment quality (van IJzendoorn, 1995). Three major states of mind [with respect to attachment]—Secure, Dismissing, and Preoccupied—are determined primarily based on the coherence of discourse [as captured linguistically by the AAI] regarding childhood attachment experiences (Main, Goldwyn, & Hesse, 2002). What is not known is whether different AAI statuses have differential neuroanatomical correlates. Specifically, are the brain activation patterns exhibited by individuals of distinct AAI statuses different when responding to emotional pictures, including childhood photos of their parents and their children? Will the notion that activation of the left hemisphere is associated with positive emotional responses and the right with negative (Davidson, 1984) be upheld [after the attachment and EEG data are analyzed] and educate us regarding, for example, [the] neurological process [parents engage in while] perceiving their own parents or their children? [Can this neurological process be linked] to certain parental behaviors?

In the pilot study, three mothers, with differing AAI classifications, were asked to rate 100 pictures of four categories, differing in emotional content (positive, negative, neutral, or personal), by pressing a keypad ranging from extremely unpleasant (1) to extremely pleasant (6). The personal category consists of the participants’ parents and children. All mothers gave their highest ratings for personal photos. However, EEG pattern of the Preoccupied mother when viewing her child’s photos was most strongly correlated with the pattern obtained when viewing negative pictures, supporting the claim that some Preoccupied parents sometimes view their child as aversive (Cassidy & Berlin, 1994). Further, the Dismissing mother has significantly greater brain activation in the left hemisphere regardless of photo type, consistent with the “idealization” that characterizes a Dismissing status. The Preoccupied mother showed more activation in the right hemisphere for all but the neutral photos, consistent with the “involving anger” often present in Preoccupied individuals. The Secure mother showed more activation in the left hemisphere except for parental photos during which activations did not differ between the hemispheres, which is consistent with the “balanced view” commonly found in Secure individuals.

The results from this pilot project provide a novel glimpse into the underlying brain states that typify parents of differing AAI statuses. However, a larger study is urgently needed to validate the findings and to make significant contributions to the field. If funding is received, a follow-up study can be immediately undertaken by covering participation fees, the AAI transcribing fees, the AAI coding fees, and a partial postdoc salary to analyze the EEG data.