Frogs, Sex and “Stayin’ Alive”

Share this Blog post

Frogs, Sex and Stayin’ Alive—OK, not exactly Drugs, Sex and Rock and Roll, but probably as close as I’m going to get in these Bowlby Less Traveled posts. Hey, frogs can produce hallucinogenic substances and Stayin’ Alive was a disco song from the 1970s by the Bee Gees—that’s close to rock and roll. So, what do frogs, sex, and staying alive (no, not the Bee Gees song) have to do with Bowlby?

Well, it’s no secret that Bowlby was very influenced by ethology or the study of animal behavior (not to be confused with ethnology). In my December 9th, 2010, post I mentioned that Bowlby was influenced by the work of Julian Huxley, a big name in avian ethology back in the early part of the last century. If you have read Bowlby’s trilogy on attachment then you know that he spends a lot of time talking about bird mating patterns and even bird mating dances. Trust me, this is a road that is never traveled at attachment conferences. But why spend so much time on bird mating practices, rituals, and dances in books primarily on psychology and development? I’ll tease you here a bit: part of the answer can be found in the latest research that suggests that flamboyant male (human) dancing attracts women best. According to Bowlby’s research, male birds who are able to dance flamboyantly, that is to say, in a well coordinated and coherent fashion, are better able to attract mates. Why would this be? Well, turns out that coordinated and coherent dance tends to suggest or “display” behavioral systems that are coordinated and coherent. “What behavioral systems?” you ask. To answer this question, I’m going to “repurpose” some text from my summary of Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s 1969 book General System Theory (GST). This excerpt starts out with a quote from von Bertalanffy’s book, so Bert (as I often call him for short) is the one doing the taking here … and, yes, it’s more philosophy (see my January 6th, 2011, post). As always, my additions are in brackets. Lets listen in as Bert tells us that …

[A] point of philosophical interest should be mentioned. If we are speaking of “systems,” we mean “wholes” or “unities.” Then it seems paradoxical that, with respect to a whole, the concept of competition between its parts is introduced. In fact, however, these apparently contradictory statements both belong to the essentials of systems. Every whole is based upon the competition of its elements, and presupposes the “struggle between parts” [a phrase von Bertalanffy attributes to Roux]. The latter is a general principle of organization in simple physico-chemical systems as well as in organisms and social units, and it is, in the last resort, an expression of the coincidentia oppositorum that reality presents.

The main point to keep in mind here is that natural wholes tend to be made up of systems that dynamically interact. Because these systems have motivations or goals that often are in conflict with one another (more on this in a moment), many of these dynamic interactions are about harmonizing these conflicting demands. The following quote holds my comments on the above (again from my GST summary):

A central component of Bowlby’s attachment theory (one that is rarely mentioned today) is the idea that a psychological whole arises out of a competition between three behavioral systems: the attachment behavioral system, the caregiving behavioral system and the sexual behavioral system. Bowlby noticed that animals often are confronted with the challenge of balancing the demands of two or more behavioral systems at one time. As an example, a frog “knows” (to use an anthropomorphic concept) that he has to make croaking sounds to attract a mate. At the same time, he also knows that as he croaks louder and longer, the risk of predation (e.g., being killed and eaten) goes up. If he is eaten, he cannot pass on his genes. But if he does not croak, likewise, he cannot pass on his genes. The challenge for the frog is to croak in such a way that two goals are achieved simultaneously: to mate successfully and to not be eaten in the process. Drawing from the area of ethology, Bowlby noticed that in humans, attachment relationships provided for one of the best opportunities for the developing child to play out the challenges of balancing and harmonizing the motivations arising from competing behavioral systems. Bowlby also noticed that these types of systems challenges are with us for life—the sexual behavioral system makes itself known to us full-force during puberty; and Freud’s thanatos (motivations arising from our reflection upon our eventual and inevitable death) confronts us as we age. Again, von Bertalanffy reminds us that if you take on a systems perspective, then “you cannot sum up the behavior of the whole from the isolated parts.” He continues, “You have to take into account the relations between the various subordinated systems and the systems which as super-ordinated to them in order to understand the behavior of the parts.” von Bertalanffy gives us this “bottom line”: “Analysis and artificial isolation are useful, but in no way sufficient, methods of biological experimentation and theory.” Again, researchers do learn a lot about attachment relationships and functioning using “analysis and artificial isolation,” but, for whatever reason, these same researchers often neglect to place their results within a naturalistic systems perspective.

As I mentioned in my January 6th, 2011, post, in the material world things can only go in one direction at one time. When Bowlbian attachment types say things like, “the child moves out to explore the environment and returns to mother when afraid,” they are using concepts drawn form the material world. But when you “step up” to the world of naturalistic systems what you find is that things start happening at the same time and, often, in different directions. The frog is motivated by a desire to have sex AND stay alive at the very same time. In a naturalistic systems worldview, a child moves away from his mother AND moves toward her at the same time. I’ll make a radical suggestion here (one that I think the early naturalistic systems theory types were well aware of): between the world of materiality on one side and the world of spirituality on the other exists the bridging world of competing behavioral systems. I would suggest that it is the world of competing behavioral systems that allows us to bridge body (the material) to mind (the spiritual). Simply put, a good dancer, whether bird or man, has found a possible solution to the body-mind dilemma through his or her ability to balance and harmonize the often conflicting motivations arising from competing behavioral systems. Why is this important? Well, the material world does put restrictions on the spiritual world and vice versa. As a very simple example, although the spiritual can go in many different directions at one time, the material cannot. If your ultimate goal is to get the material out of danger (because that tiger is bearing down on you) then the spiritual needs to heed this restriction and imagine a path that goes in one direction at one time. During the SSA (Strange Situation Assessment), which assesses for attachment functioning in toddlers, it is sad to see disorganized toddlers moving as if they were drunken sailors (a scene that Bowlby describes in his trilogy). I would suggest that what you are looking at in large part is a spirituality—with it’s multiple simultaneous paths often in different directions—that is not able to heed the “one path, one direction” restriction of the material. Again, the result is a toddler moving as if he or she has had one too many drinks at the local bar. As simple as it sounds, what the SSA assesses for is how well a toddler is able to solve the body-mind dilemma that confronts us all. Let me end this post by framing the Strange Situation Assessment using a naturalistic systems theory persepctive.

Fred Fischer—writing in an obscure edited volume from the early 1970s on The Use of Space by Animals and Men (the name of the book published by Plenum)—tells us that …

the relationship between foreign space and enemy thus contributes to a differentiation between anxiety and fear, (Angst und Furcht). Anxiety, as an expression of enclosure, of being “hemmed in,” is spatially delineated. As opposed to this, fear calls our attention to the object [the attachment figure]. The concept of “pain” or “smarting” goes back to the Indo-Germanic root “smerd” which means “to sting or bite.” The concepts of anxiety and fear and of pain or “smarting” emerge as a spatially and distance-determined alarm sequence. Anxiety signifies the lack of a way out (claustrophobia), fear refers to an object (the enemy) and pain to pressure (contact). To over-simplify, fear governs the outward stretch [of an excursion] and anxiety the return stretch. Anxiety and fear anticipate pain just as seeing anticipates touching and aiming anticipates grasping.

If I can likewise over-simplify, Fischer has just provided us with an exquisitely accurate description of what takes place within a Strange Situation Assessment. What’s important here is this idea that anxiety is spatially delineated and refers to the ability of space to contain or hold. Fear is object oriented (although any object relations theorist could have told you so). Pain refers to pressure, contact. There is nothing more disturbing, in my opinion, than to observe an infant running to her mother (sometimes backwards), screaming, falling down, arching her back, but yet desperate to return home. In this case, the spatially oriented cognitive landscape has become particularly hostile and difficult to manage. As a result, it can’t be conceptualized, represented, mapped. Within a naturalistic systems theory framework, how you move out says something about how you will touch, which, in turn, says something about how you will return, all within some type of holding environment (which previously I have called the Grand Bowlbian Attachment Envitonment). Similarly, how you care says something about how you attach, which, in turn, says something about how you “sex” (again, using the same clumsy phraseology from my previous post). All of this is happening at the same time, at least in the spiritual world. If the often conflicting demands arising from the behavioral systems of caregiving, attaching, and sex cannot be balanced and harmonized, then this discord will show up or be represented in the body (or the material) in the form of jerky, uncoordinated, “all over the place” movement. Again, there is nothing more disturbing than to observe an infant running to his mother, screaming, falling down, arching his back, but yet desperate to find a clear path that will return him safely to home. Even the AAI (Adult Attachment Interview—a tool used to assess attachment functioning in adults) will reveal narratives that contain jerky, uncoordinated, “all over the place” movement.

So, I guess whether higher order animal or human, we value good dancing as a sign that someone (or some animal) has arrived at a reasonable solution to the body-mind dilemma. Being able to dance to a song like Stayin’ Alive really could be about, well, staying alive.

Believe it or not we’re (finally) at a point where we can take a stab at that pesky question, “Do mothers (therapists) really attach to their babies (clients)?” Again, within a worldview of reductionism (e.g., reducing all phenomena to simple cause and effect chains) the answer is probably “yes.” But lets “pull a Cheney” and reject the reductionistic frame that holds this question. Further, lets adopt a naturalistic systems theory frame (as Bowlby did). If we do all this then the answer is not so clear-cut. Events in a naturalistic systems theory world do not operate in single directions at single times. In truth, when the attachment behavioral system of the infant is activated (that pesky tiger is still around), this may cause a “reaching out” (outward stretch to use Fischer’s term from above) on the part of the infant. This reaching out on the part of the infant (for what, she knows not, but reach she must) may activate the attachment behavioral system of the mother, which, in turn, may motivate her caregiving behavioral system to provide or “return back” care. In turn, the “returning back of care” on the part of the mother may trigger her attachment behavioral system in a way that motivates her to reach out sexually to her partner. Again, returning back and reaching out can take place at the same time and even in different directions, and even involve different people. Within a reduced framework, this is called “attachment.” Within a naturalistic systems theory framework, this would be called “trying to find some way to balance and harmonize the often conflicting demands arising from the behavioral systems of two (and maybe more) individuals now held by a grand, spatially delineated system.” Not very elegant, but as mentioned in earlier posts, we lack language up to the task of representing what happens within these dynamic naturalistic systems environments. Some Bowlbian attachment types (i.e., see work by Allan Schore or Dan Siegel) use a term such as “co-regulation.” Although co-regulation tips its hat to the world of naturalistic systems theory, in my opinion, it still stays firmly in the world of reductionism. Co-regulation points to a one-sided dualism, one in which mind is pulled into body.

In my next post I’ll take a look at this idea of regulation. Turns out regulation can get a bit political. As an example, Rachael Peltz, writing in the 2006 edited volume Psychoanalysis, Class and Politics, states: “[F]reud’s conviction [was] that culture represented the expression of desires in conflict [my emphasis—sound familiar … think “competing behavioral systems”] with one another and with society.” She continues, “The job of society was the regulation and control of human instincts [e.g., various behavioral systems], which inevitably pit the needs of the individual and society against one another.” Freud nominates society for the position of grand regulator. Can you think of other nominations? Who (or what) would religion nominate? Therapists? Conservatives? Liberals? Materialists? In all cases, “regulation” is code for “solving the body-mind dilemma.” As an example, the subtitle to Siegel’s 1999 book The Developing Mind is How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are, which was changed from Toward a Neurobiology of Interpersonal Experience. In either case, you have the material on one side (brain or neurobiology) and the spiritual on the other (relationships or interpersonal experience). What I found surprising about The Developing Mind was a lack of any substantive discussion of what I consider to be a central issue in the world of Bowlbian attachment theory: the body-mind dilemma. To quote the Star Trek character Spock (eyebrow slightly raised), “Fascinating.”