Does Chronic Internet Use Mimic Insecure Attachment? Bowlby’s Theory Gives Us a Possible Answer (Part III)

Share this Blog post

In this final installment I’d like to continue blogging about Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows—What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. In my post from October 21st, 2011, I finished up by saying that I would look at what Carr calls “deep relationships.” Throughout his book Carr suggests that deep relationships are the royal road toward the development of EF or the executive functions of the brain (often associated with the frontal lobes). Brain researchers will tell us that EF is associated with such higher order cognitive processes as starting and stopping behaviors, planning, mental modeling or mapping (which was the topic I covered in my October 21st post), flexibly shifting attention, focusing attention, engaging in “what if” brainstorming, creativity, perspective taking, empathy, and the list continues. Lets get started.

I’m reading a wildly fascinating book by Elkhonon Goldberg entitled The New Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes in a Complex World (2009, Oxford University Press). At about the halfway point, Goldberg makes the following statement:

Evolution of the brain is characterized by the slow, painstaking transition from a brain simply reacting [to the world around] to a brain capable of sustained, deliberate action.

Bingo! That’s a great way to describe Carr’s deep relationships. Deep relationships are about bringing about a “painstaking transition” from a reactive brain to a proactive brain. OK, I’m sure you know where I’m going. I would argue that Bowlby’s safe and secure attachment relationships are a form of deep relationship that, if all goes well, allows for the painstaking transition from reactive brain to proactive brain. Here’s how most Bowlbians sum up Bowlby’s theory:

If all goes well, early safe and secure attachment relationships between a child and his/her primary attachment figure (typically the child’s mother) lead to the development of open and flexible Inner Working Models. Open and flexible Inner Working Models are part and parcel of an autonomous self.

See, Bowlby got that deep attachment relationships could, if all goes well, lead to the development of open and flexible Inner Working Models, which, in turn, lead to the development of an autonomous self. (Keep in mind that Bowlby was greatly influenced by his close association with Jean Piaget who greatly advanced our understanding of such EF processes as mental models and object permanency.) Open and flexible Inner Working Models are part and parcel of EF or executive functioning. When Bowlbians talk about how Bowlby’s theory could be framed as a theory of empathy development, they are referring to how Bowlby’s theory could also be framed as a theory allowing us to understand how EF in general (either in part or in whole) is developed. Bowlby’s theory of attachment also draws our attention to the connection between the development of EF and the development of an autonomous self.

In The Shallows, Carr talks about how prior to the rise of the Internet and, along with it, hypertext, people formed deep relationships with books. Carr argues that deep relationships with books allowed the development of robust EF functioning to accelerate. Carr laments that Internet, hypertext or screen reading (which is what you are doing here) undermines the formation of a deep relationship and, as a result, undermines the development of robust EF functioning. Carr (along with brain researchers such as Goldberg) associate a decline in EF functioning with such mental maladies as ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder) and OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). EF workshop presenter Dr. Krista Marchman (who I mention in my October 21st, 2011 post), told us that ADHD and OCD (among other mental maladies) really should be framed as EF dysfunction.

Carr focuses in on the deep relationships associated with printed page reading, but consider this quote (one of my favorites) by Bowlby from 1956:

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.

Translation: although the circumstances surrounding and forms of transform, deep attachment relationships are with us from “cradle to grave” as Bowlby would often put it. In essence, there is a deep relationship continuum: with mother, with parents, with caregivers, with community, with teachers, with mentors, with political leaders, with business leaders, etc. Carr focuses in on the deep reading portion of the continuum, but I would say that the continuum as a whole is breaking down. At its heart the current Occupy protest effort is centrally about the breakdown of deep relationships between the general public and both political leaders and corporate leaders. Jeremy Rifkin in his prophetic 1995 book End of Work (executive summary available) talks about how the deep worker – employer relationship is no longer there. Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods—Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, cautions us that deep relationships with nature are on the wan. Carried to the extreme, Louv argues that in one or two generations, there will be no conservationists left. I’m a former geologist and I see the closing or reducing of geology departments across the country as a part of the problem that Louv points to. In her 2004 book Maternal Desire—On Children, Love, and the Inner Life (executive summary available), Daphne de Marneffe talks about how economic and political realities are undermining the deep attachment relationship between mother and her infant. The list goes on. Here are a few more:

  • Christopher Lasch—declining deep relationships with culture
  • Robert Putnam—declining deep relationships within communities
  • Kay Hymowitz and Mary Eberstadt—declining deep relationships with kids
  • Robert Bly—declining deep relationships with mentors
  • Henry Giroux—declining deep relationships within schools

With such severe declines along the entire deep relationship continuum, how can we reasonably expect EF functioning to continue on in any robust way? Again, we need EF for such things as empathy, perspective taking, a theory of mind (e.g., the ability of one mind to imagine or model the mind of another), planning, delaying gratification, what if scenarios, creativity, etc. Interestingly, there are a number of authors and researchers who are in effect saying that not only are EF functions not relevant anymore but they in fact get in the way of such things as creativity and progress. Here are two examples:

In his 2002 book Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life, Richard Florida (with great detail) chronicles the rise of the brain worker and the fall of the back worker. Florida argues that increasingly the brain worker will be the valued and sought-after worker of the future. Mark Zuckerberg (of Facebook fame), the late Steve Jobs (of Apple fame), Bill Gates (of Microsoft fame), and Jerry Yang (of Yahoo fame) are all examples of famous (and very rich) brain workers, brain workers of the new creative class. What ties all of these brain workers together is the very real possibility that they all “suffer” from being on the Asperger’s Syndrome spectrum. Roughly speaking, Asperger’s is a form of high functioning autism. And the autism spectrum disorders are characterized by EF dysfunction or deficit. Florida convincingly argues that as we move from “analog creativity” (i.e., reading printed page books, going to the theater, etc.) to “digital creativity” (i.e., reading hypertext, meeting friends in Facebook, etc.), the services of creative brain workers (who will in all likelihood fall on the autism spectrum somewhere) will increasingly be called upon. According to researchers such as Goldberg, brain workers use a very narrow and very specific subset of EF functions; theory of mind, empathy, perspective taking and others are not included. Interestingly, the so-called “mindful” EF functions tend to get in the way of digital creativity. This leads me to the second example.

Psychologist David Anderegg works with and advocates for what he calls “nerds”—high functioning autistics. In his 2007 book Nerds—How Dorks, Dweebs, Techies and Trekkies Can Save America…and Why They Might Be Our Last Hope, Anderegg protests that nerds—who are now leading the way as far as economic, philanthropic and political clout is concerned—are being oppressed by the mindfulness agenda: an agenda that promotes and advocates for the EF function of mindfulness. Anderegg goes further and suggests that nerds are being bullied because there is an unconscious knowing on the part of parents and other caregivers that, 1) nerdy brain workers will be the most sought-after and most rewarded workers of the future, and, 2) the vast majority of kids (many of whom will be “saddled” with robust EF functioning) will not make the transition from the back worker economy to the brain worker economy. Again, I would suggest that at its core the current Occupy protest effort is (unconsciously) about this knowing, that the vast majority of kids (and young adults) will not make the jump to the brain worker economy. This creates a huge dilemma for parents as well as social architects (which includes us philanthropists): do we prepare kids for the old analog, back worker economy with its focus on robust EF functioning, or do we accept that the digital age is here and begin the process of preparing kids for the brain worker economy with its very narrow and specialized EF functioning? I would suggest that the current focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) maps this process. Suffice it to say that the move from an analog paradigm to a digital paradigm will continue to be mapped by such excruciatingly painful dilemmas, especially for parents. Preparing kids and young adults across a paradigm shift is incredibly difficult and challenging. Do we tell them that the earth is flat or round? How will parents “saddled” with robust EF—mindfulness, empathy, perspective taking, etc.—prepare kids with the very limited and narrowly focused EF set that they will need to succeed in the digital world? As a social work colleague of mine recently told me (and I paraphrase), “Even though my intuition tells me my son does not have ADHD, I had no choice but to do what his teachers and doctor told me to do—put him on a behavioral drug. If I didn’t, it would have put my son at such a disadvantage … all the other kids in his class are on these drugs now. It was the most difficult choice for me to make.” So, are we using behavioral drugs as a way of helping parents and other caregivers wean kids (and increasingly adults) off of the old robust EF set so they can then gain access to the limited and focused EF set that the digital world demands? Only time will tell how successful this plan will ultimately be and how many kids (adults) will successfully make the jump.

I’ll end with this sobering thought: If we accept the latter—that Florida’s digital creative class is here and transforming everything from leisure to work to community—then Bowlby’s theory tells us that we should encourage insecure attachment not secure. Bowlby’s theory never tells us which form of attachment we should value; only politics or economics or philosophy can do that. And currently the political, economic and philosophical environments are telling us to select insecure attachment. This in part may be why insecure attachment and EF dysfunction are on the rise. So, I guess the meek (e.g., nerds) really will inherit the earth.

PS – This post marks the 100th post in the Bowlby Less Traveled blog. Thanks to all who have helped along the way. Here’s to hoping that there will be 100 more posts along the way.