Reactions to “Origins of Attachment” (part I)

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A colleague of mine recently drew my attention to a book that I had not heard about before: The Origins of Attachment—Infant Research and Adult Treatment. This book was co-written by Beatrice Beebe and Frank Lachmann and was released in 2014. I thought to myself, “Oh boy, a recent book on attachment, how fun.” I imagined that The Origins of Attachment would talk about John Bowlby and his thoughts concerning Inner Working Models (a concept that largely came from Bowly’s association with developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, see below). I had daydreams of new information on Bowlby’s concept known as the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (a concept that Bowlby pulled from evolutionary theory, which, in turn, came from one of Bowlby’s heroes, Charles Darwin). At the very least The Origins of Attachment would undoubtedly have a lot to say about the very long and productive relationship between John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth (who was the driving force behind the Strange Situation Assessment), and how attachment is an innate, biologically mediated behavioral system. I hoped that The Origins of Attachment would say something about more recent efforts showing a connection between attachment patterns measured at one year (using the Strange Situation Assessment) and Executive Function (EF) development measured at six years (using an assessment such as the Marshmallow Test—see my earlier post on the topic). Turns out that the development of robust EF skills (which include building Inner Working Models) rests upon a foundation built from an early safe and secure attachment relationship with a primary attachment figure (typically the mother) if all goes well.

I immediately looked for The Origins of Attachment on My search revealed that this book was the last volume in a 60 book series (yes, 60) on Relational Perspectives. A cursory glance at the various volumes in the series told me that the series as a whole had a strong focus on psychodynamics and psychoanalysis. As examples, volume four is entitled A Meeting of Minds: Mutuality in Psychoanalysis (by Lewis Aron) and volume 18 is entitled Objects of Hope: Exploring Possibility and Limit in Psychoanalysis (by Steven Cooper). As it turns out, I’ve read one of the volumes (volume 20) in the series: Relationality: From Attachment to Intersubjectivity by Stephen A. Mitchell. Thirty out of the sixty volumes contained “psychoanalysis” and/or “psychodynamics” in the title. I mention all of this as a way of pointing out that The Origins of Attachment hails from what I am affectionately calling Freudland. As a result, many of my hopes and dreams were largely dashed. Let me give you a couple of quick examples.

The “research to clinical practice” project described in The Origins of Attachment largely turns around Bowlby’s idea of Inner Working Models (IWM). Sadly, there was little information on what IWMs are, where they come from, what evolutionary purpose they serve, or even how they are changed or updated. These are topics that other researchers have looked at in some depth (Antonio Damasio in neurobiology, and the geography and psychology research team of Roger Hart and Gary Moore would be examples here). (For the record, back in the 1940s behaviorist Edward Tolman serendipitously discovered Inner Working Cognitive Models while conducting rat maze experiments—a fascinating story that I’ll tell in my next post.)

As another example, The Origins of Attachment principally talks about disturbed communication patterns between mother and infant. However, there is no mention of how digital technologies—such as smartphones, tablets, Facebook, Instagram, etc.—are playing a role in disturbing communication patterns between not only parents and children, but also people in general. At the risk of being glib, how can a mother engage in appropriate communication patterns with her infant or child when she has a smartphone glued to her ear? I found it surprising that a book on communication patterns did not at least mention changing communication patterns out in society. I just read an article by Henry Mintzberg entitled Time for the Plural Sector. Mintzberg writes:

Telephones help keep us “in touch,” but they can also distance us from people [and children] in our community, because it is easier to call than visit. And contemporary electronic devices distance us further: They put our fingers in touch, with a keyboard, while the whole of us sits, often for hours, typing alone. No time even for bowling [a reference to Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone].

Surprisingly, I found that the Freudland perspective displayed by The Origins of Attachment filtered out the social realm. (More on this type of filtering below and in my next post.) As Antonio Damasio writes in Self Comes to Mind, “As humans debate the benefits or perils of cultural trends, and of developments such as the digital revolution, it may help to be informed about how our flexible brains create consciousness.”

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Freudland. Heck, Bowlby started out in Freudland even going so far as to complete the very arduous process of becoming an associate member of the British Psycho-Analytic Society in 1937 (no small feat back in those days). But Bowlby found Freudland to be a bit stifling. Writing in her 1998 book John Bowlby—His Early Life, here’s how Suzan van Dijken reports a story that has become a part of the folklore that surrounds Bowlby:

From 1937 onwards, Bowlby was trained in child analysis under the supervision of [Melanie] Klein [a huge name in psychoanalytic thought back in those days]. The difference of opinion between Klein and Bowlby on the role of inner and external factors in mental disturbances emerged early in this period. At that time Bowlby treated a small hyperactive and anxious boy, and he noticed that the boy’s mother seemed an extremely anxious, distressed and unhappy woman. Klein, however, did not allow him to treat the boy’s mother, as in her mind there was no connection between the boy’s problems and the way his mother behaved and treated the boy.

In essence Melanie Klein told Bowlby to not go into the corner that included the mother–child relationship. Where did Bowlby wish to go? into the corner that included the mother–child relationship. Thus began Bowlby’s habit of pointing to lands beyond Freudland and asking, “What’s over there … isn’t that important too? How does that fit with what’s here in Freudland?” Bowlby was of course pointing to lands such as ethology, evolution, information processing, cybernetics, developmental psychology, cognitive science (which includes the study of Inner Working Models), and others. In Bowlby’s mind, information from all of these various lands had to fit together in order for the big picture to make sense. Before psychology, Bowlby studied to be a naturalist (like Darwin). Today, we call naturalists geologists. Darwin was also a naturalist (geologist). It was Darwin’s background in naturalism that allowed him to bring together all of the various pieces of biological thought that surrounded him into a coherent theory that we now know as evolutionary theory. My guess is that Bowlby brought this same integrative, interdisciplinary approach to his study of psychology. Bowlby would stand on the shores of Freudland and repeatedly ask, “What’s over there? What’s in that corner? How does that fit? What’s the big picture that makes sense of all of this data?” It’s this type of questioning that led Bowlby to play a central role in assembling some of the greatest minds of his generation in an attempt to get big picture answers. The result: a series of meetings were held between 1953 and 1956 with the title: World Health Organization Study Group on the Psychobiological Development of the Child (the transcripts of which were collected, edited, and published under the title Discussions on Child Development). Here are just a few of the big names Bowlby was able to assemble:

  • Konrad Lorenz – Ethology
  • Margaret Mead – Cultural Anthropology
  • Jean Piaget – Developmental Psychology
  • Charles Odier – Psychoanalysis
  • J.M. Tanner – Human Biology
  • W. Grey Walter – Electrophysiology
  • Erik Erikson  Psychoanalysis
  • Julian Huxley – Evolutionary Biology
  • Ludwig von Bertalanffy – Organismic Systems Theory & General Biology

So, going in I knew that the Origins book (for short) was going to use a background heavily steeped in psychoanalysis and psychodynamics. As mentioned above, Bowlby started his career in the world of psychoanalysis (Freudland), and then spent the rest of his career translating the concepts he found expressed by psychodynamic theory over to such worlds as evolution, ethology, information processing, cognitive psychology, organic systems theory, cybernetics, and, of course, attachment. My read, then, of Origins should be a piece of cake. As experts in the field of persuasion tell us (and I’m specifically thinking of Jacques Ellul here): Good persuasion is 90% fact and 10% spin. If you can look past the 10% of spin, then you are able to enjoy the 90% of fact. The Origins book did not disappoint. There was probably about 80% useable fact, 10% spin (toward the psychoanalytic frame), and 10% of what I would call “unintelligible postmodern gibberish.” In my next post, I’d like to focus in on and react to some of the great facts from that 80%. Clearly I will not be able to cover the entire 80%, so I’ll be cherry picking my examples. With no disrespect intended, I’ll largely gloss over the 20% that covers psychoanalysis and postmodern gibberish. If these topics are of interest to you, by all means, grab a copy of Origins. (I have talked about postmodern gibberish in earlier posts.)

I’ll start out my next post with a question I ask all the time of psychology researchers: “Where is all of this trauma coming from that you talk about?” As a general comment, as I read Origins, I found myself channeling John Bowlby as I asked, “What about data from other disciplines? How does that other data fit with your picture? What’s the big picture that makes sense of all of this data, not just the data you have meticulously collected?” I guess I’m a lot like Bowlby. If you tell me to not look in a particular corner, that’s where I wish to go. I guess it’s the geologist in the both of us.

As an additional general comment, there are many distillations of Bowlby’s theory of attachment. As a result, many different frames are being used to sell the attachment process. Here are just a few that I have encountered: strict religion, New Ageism, behaviorism, Buddhist meditation, postmodernism, and psychoanalysis. [1] In my experience all of these various distillations objectify Bowlby’s theory: taking a part and making it a whole. When you encounter a book or article on attachment, the very first question you must ask is: “What frame is being used?” The next question is: “What kinds of information does that frame allow in and what kinds of information does that frame filter out?” As an example, the Origins book filters out any information concerning evolution. [2] There’s even a not-so-subtle diss against Bowlby and his desire to move away from psychodynamics and toward more scientifically based theories like evolution. I guess some psychoanalysts are still upset over Bowlby’s defection.

Have a safe and enjoyable Memorial Day weekend! I’ll be back after the break.


[1] Here’s the list of Bowlbian attachment theory distillations I included in a post from September, 2011:

  • RAD (reactive attachment disorder)—held by behaviorism
  • Neurobiology and attachment—held by reductionism
  • Mindfulness—held by Buddhist religion
  • Attachment parenting—held by New Ageism
  • Self-esteem—held by postmodernism
  • Attachment or holding therapy—held by conservative religion
  • Bowlbian attachment—held by ethology and naturalistic systems

[2] In volume II of his trilogy on attachment theory, Bowlby disses Freud for his Lamarckian evolution leanings. But at least Freud believed in some version of evolution.