“The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain (Second Edition)”—Your Brain on Bad Relationships

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If you lived in the US back in the 1980s, you’re probably familiar with this tagline: “This is your brain on drugs … any questions?” This tagline came from a series of TV PSAs (public service ads) sponsored by Partnership for a Drug-Free America. The ad I remember featured a guy who looked like a concerned dad. He holds up an egg and says, “This is your brain.” He points to a very hot frying pan and says,“This is drugs.” He then breaks the egg into the frying pan and shows us the sizzling egg. He then utters the above familiar tagline, “This is your brain on drugs … any questions?” Here’s a YouTube video of this PSA:

Apparently there were variations of this PSA for specific drugs, such as heroine.

I mention this PSA from the 1980s because as I read neuroscientist Louis Cozolino’s book entitled The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain (Second Edition) (2006, 2014), I found myself thinking of this PSA. I began riffing on the above tagline: “This is your brain on bad relationships.” Honestly, if John Bowlby, arguably the father of attachment theory, could have put together a PSA, in all likelihood it too would have used the tagline “This is your brain on bad relationships.” Actually, a variation on Bowlby’s PSA might have been, “This is your child’s brain on evacuation policies.”

Bowlby, along with other social activists such as Donald Winnicott, fought against the policies that Britain put into place during WWII designed to protect young children from the aerial bombings that plagued cities. The plan was to evacuate children to the countryside. Using his nascent attachment theory as a background, Bowlby and his like minded colleagues argued that by separating children from their parents (e.g., their primary attachment figures), and moving them long distances to the homes of strangers (in many cases), more long term psychological and developmental damage would be done than if they were allowed to stay with their primary attachment figures. [1]

If I were to sum up Cozolino’s book, I’d do it by simply stating: “This is your brain on bad relationships … any questions?” The main theme of The Neuroscience of Human Relationships is as follows: Brains are social, they develop within social milieus, and if they happen to develop within so-called bad social milieus, they get fried.” This is not a new message. Bowlby (and many of his like minded colleagues) said effectively the same thing over 50 years ago.

Early in his career Bowlby rejected harsh, rigid, conservative child rearing practices in favor of the more egalitarian child rearing practices espoused by the Child Guidance Movement that surrounded him in the early 1930s. According to the research that Suzan van Dijken presents in her 1998 book entitled John Bowlby: His Early Life, the Child Guidance Movement “had its origins in the USA.” Dijken writes, “As early as 1925, Cyril Burt and others recognized the value of treating difficult children psychologically.” Dijken suggests that Bowlby was drawn to the Child Guidance Movement because he wished to (probably unconsciously) reject the harsh, rigid, conservative upbringing he received as a child. The question then becomes, How many times do we have to hear the tagline “This is your brain on bad relationships” before there is change?

I mention the above because the conflict between liberal versus conservative child rearing practices has been around for almost a century now (probably much longer). I mean no disrespect here but Dr. Cozolino is just another voice in a long line of voices advocating for the liberal way of life. In my last post I profiled a 2014 book by Naomi Klein entitled This Changes Everything—Capitalism vs The Climate. Klein’s whole book can be summed up as a well researched, well organized, well presented PSA for the liberal way of life—“This is your brain on conservatism … any questions?” I could say the same for Dr. Cozolino’s book. I have no problem with experts advocating for the liberal way of life, however, these PSAs for liberalism tend to vilify the conservative way of life. I’m not sure this is helpful.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Man, you’re greatly simplifying these two books.” Yes, I am. Why? According to the research of cognitive scientist turned political commentator George Lakoff (whose work Cozolino references), the brain depends on such simplifications. After reading a book or seeing a movie, we are generally left with an overall impression: that was a great book, or I hated that movie.  Dr. Cozolino has a whole section in his book about these types of simplifications. This section is entitled Prejudice as an Expression of Social Phobia. In this section Dr. Cozolino states: “Many forms of psychotherapy are geared to educating the slow [deliberative brain] system to better manage and eventually transform the fast [more primitive] brain system in situations where automatic responses become maladaptive.”

As I read both books by Klein and Cozolino respectively, my brain kept going toward such simplifications as, “These are books by liberals, about liberalism, designed to sell the liberal worldview.” By triggering the liberal worldview, you’re triggering fast, non-deliberative brain systems. This is why political frames such as “death tax” or “tax relief” are so persuasive (pulling from Lakoff again). If you are a conservative, are about conservatism, and advocate for the conservative worldview, then I would not suggest either book for you. Both will be like fingernails on a blackboard. By triggering the liberal worldview (repeatedly), both books effectively say, “Reject the conservative worldview and embrace the liberal worldview.”

Both Klein and Cozolino engage in what Lakoff calls the Rationalist Mistake. In his 2006 book entitled Whose Freedom?—The Battle Over America’s Most Important Idea, Lakoff describes the Rationalist Mistake thus:

A great many progressives function with the folk theory of the mind, based on a philosophical paradigm called rationalism. The folk version of rationalism is a myth about reason and its relationship to politics. It says that progressive thought came out of the Enlightenment in the form of rationalism.

Here are a few entailments that flow from the Rationalist Mistake or Myth (from Lakoff’s book):

  • Reason is what defines our essence as human beings and set us off from other animals.
  • Therefore, reason is universal (all human beings have the same capacity for reason).
  • Universal reason gives rise to universal moral principles.
  • Because reason is universal, we can govern ourselves; we don’t need the authority of the church or a king or aristocrats or experts.

“Modern cognitive science has shown that this theory is false in just about every detail,” reveals Lakoff. He continues, “Most thought is not conscious” (which agrees with Cozolino’s research). Pulling from research by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio (who Cozolino also references), Lakoff tell us that “reason is dependent on emotion, not independent of it; people with strokes and brain injuries that leave them unable to feel emotions or judge emotions in others cannot act rationally.” Again, Cozolino would agree with Lakoff’s position. Here’s the problem with the Rationalist Mistake or Myth (quoting Lakoff):

Many progressives still abide by aspects of the rationalist myth, which results in destructive political consequences for progressives. For example, rationalism claims that, since everybody is rational, you just need to tell them the facts and they will reason to the same conclusion. That’s just false, as we have learned from election after election. The facts alone will not set you free. If the [quick-acting] frames that define common sense contradict the facts, the facts will be ignored. Cognitive science tells us why: The frames that define common sense are instantiated physically in the brain. When you hear a fact that is inconsistent with a physical structure in the brain (a frame), the physical structure (the frame) stays and the fact is ignored or explained away. Nonetheless, progressives keep using facts alone to argue against radical conservative frames.

Both books by Klein and Cozolino respectively suffer from the Rationalist Mistake or Myth. Both argue from a liberal point of view. And both deliver tons and tons of information and facts. And both, in their own ways, ask the reader to simply accept the facts, see that they are right, and, as a result, see that the liberal worldview is the one and only correct and rational worldview. If the climate change debate has shown us anything, it’s that even huge amounts of scientific data are not enough to move the needle any significant amount.

I tend to use the liberal worldview actively, but I am able to entertain the conservative worldview in a passive way. Even though I am engaging the conservative worldview passively, I feel for conservatives. Why? Both books by Klein and Cozolino respectively dismiss the conservative worldview in an offhand way. If I were using the conservative worldview actively, frankly, I’d be very upset, and with good reason. As Lakoff’s work shows us, people need worldviews to live by. They will defend them beyond where they will go for life and limb (as the life of any martyr or person who fights for their country shows us). And once set up, a person’s worldview is exceedingly hard to change. Even Bowlby recognized that once an Inner Working [Cognitive] Model is set up, it is very hard to change. I know what you’re thinking: What about all of this brain plasticity that liberals talk about, that Dr. Cozolino talks about? What if I were to tell you that it’s a liberal myth or a liberal frame.

As I have blogged about before, there is considerable controversy concerning brain plasticity. [2] Yet, increasingly, liberal psychotherapists are hanging their hats on brain plasticity almost without question. At no point in Cozolino’s book does he question brain plasticity. For liberals, brain plasticity has become this panacea—a remedy for all psychological ills. I just find this to be rather off putting. Why? Because in the neurosciences, brain plasticity has become synonymous with liberalism. As it turns out, brain plasticity is incredibly variable. Consider this excerpt from a blog I wrote on the politics of brain plasticity. In this excerpt I’m writing about the following article: Limits on Plasticity (2003) by Michael S. C. Thomas (J. of Cognition and Development, 4(1) 95–121)

Thomas reveals that as a brain center becomes modularized, processing efficiency goes up as plasticity goes down. For instance, when tasks are relatively symmetrical, such as face and limb movements, Thomas observes, “One motor cortex is sufficient to control both sides of the body.” As tasks become asymmetrical, such as voluntary hand movements, the picture changes. “A single motor cortex does not have sufficient developmental plasticity,” writes Thomas, “to take on such a complex function [as voluntary hand movements].” Here’s Thomas’ “bottom line”: “There is likely no single thing as the brain’s plasticity.”

Writing in her 2010 article entitled The Plastic Brain: Neoliberalism and the Neuronal Self (Health, 14 (6) 635–652), Victoria Pitts-Taylor observes:

Much enthusiasm for the “new” neuroscience of plasticity by some psychologists, sociologists, feminists, and social theorists is shaped by the debates between determinism and social constructionism, with the former almost always being identified as a conservative force of biological thought, and the latter representing the more progressive framework that makes room for human agency and social change.

OK, you’re probably wondering why I’m being so hard on Dr. Cozolino. I like Dr. Cozolino’s work. Heck, I even attended one of his three-day workshops up in Santa Fe around the time the first edition of The Neuroscience of Human Relationships was released. (Contact the Foundation for a copy of my executive summary of this workshop.) I’m only doing what Dr. Cozolino asks us to do at the end of his book: correct misperceptions, and offer alternative perspectives. From the last pages of his book Cozolino writes (sans references):

The evolution of consciousness will involve remembering who we are. On the one hand, we need to learn to use our intellectual [rational] capacity to find ways around the hazards of our still-primitive brains. On the other, we must deepen our appreciation of our interconnection and learn better how to listen and to love. These two directions are actually one and the same, because expanding our mindfulness will involve those around us who remind us to stay on track, correct our misperceptions, and offer alternative perspectives to ours.

Again, with all due respect, I do not see this actually happening. If I were to say, “Dr. Cozolino or Ms. Klein, please leave behind the liberal worldview and fully embrace the conservative worldview,” it’s not going to happen. This is one of the big ironies I see with liberalism: be empathetic … but not toward conservatives. When did empathy become so exclusionary? As Lakoff points out in his 1996 book entitled Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, conservatives are very empathetic but in ways different from liberals. For more on conservative empathy, see the 2012 book by Jonathan Haidt entitled The Righteous Mind—Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

Let me end with my overarching comment concerning Cozolino’s book: He uses some rather thick rose-colored glasses. As one example, Dr. Cozolino has a section on procedural memory. We use procedural memory to ride a bike. This is where the expression “Just like riding a bike” comes from. Cozolino tells us that procedural memory is a key element of the social brain. We need procedural memory to learn skills like flying a plane, performing surgery, or playing an instrument. As I’m reading Dr. Cozolino’s glowing reports concerning procedural memory, I’m reminded of Nicholas Carr’s 2014 book entitled The Glass Cage: Automation and Us. According to Carr’s research, automation is rapidly eroding procedural memory. As a result, commercial airliners are crashing because pilots no longer know how to fly in an emergency.

As another example, Cozolino talks about how families, communities, religious participation, and fraternal groups are important as far as providing support and scaffolding for the social brain. I’m reminded of sociologist Robert Putnam and his books entitled Bowling Alone (2000) and Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (2015). In essence, Cozolino’s ideal social milieus are going by the wayside. “[P]arents who were abandoned, neglected, or abused as children may use shaming and criticism as a predominant parenting style with their own children. This is quite common in rigid and authoritarian parents, religious cults, military families, and when there is mental illness in one or both parents,” writes Cozolino. In Our Kids, Putnam suggests that in poor families, especially those headed by a single mother, rigid authoritarian parenting styles prevail. Why? Because these families do not have the luxury or resources to engage in the loving, flexible parenting style that Cozolino’s social brain model calls for. If we believe Putnam’s research then the process of caring for and nurturing the social brain will be a privilege reserved for the wealthy. What sociologists like Putnam are telling us is that neglect of the social brain goes way beyond “authoritarian parents, religious cults, and military families.”

Another example. Cozolino ends his book by talking about Japanese culture. “Inherent in Japanese thinking is the idea that mental health is reflected in interdependence: a state of being in which we receive care from others and give care in return,” writes Cozolino. Sadly, Japan is the epicenter for the development of robot caregivers. [3] In addition, Japanese men now prefer robot sex as opposed to intimate relationships with real women. For an example here, see Men Having Sex With Life-Like Female Robots: The End Of Human Relationships?

One last example. At no point does Cozolino talk about “What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” (quoting the subtitle to Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book The Shallows). Considering that the second edition of The Neuroscience of Human Relationships was compiled in 2014, I find this to be a big oversight. MIT researcher Sherry Turkle, writing in her 2011 book entitled Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, talks about how kids are increasingly attaching to parent substitutes like smartphones, the Internet, and Facebook. Conservative social critic Mary Eberstadt, writing in her 2004 book entitled Home-alone America—The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes, extends Turkle’s list of parent substitutes by adding food (especially fast food), inappropriate sex (i.e., hooking up), violent music, and drugs (both recreational and legal, such as behavioral drugs). How will all of these parent substitutes affect the developing social brain? Dare I say, there appears to be a “nurturance economy.” And dare I say that the nurturance economy may be big enough to rival the hydrocarbon economy.

Here I’ll agree with Klein: there is a connection between the hydrocarbon economy and the nurturance economy. During an attachment conference out in Salt Lake back in January of 2007, the Honorable Judge William A. Thorne Jr., Utah Court of Appeals, spoke on the topic The Effect of Foster Care Upon Children. Judge Thorne, who is of Native American descent, told us (and I paraphrase), “Our current US foster care system is based on the old Indian boarding school system. Until we recognize this connection and strive to do away with such systems of acculturation, children—and our society as a whole—will continue to suffer.” To Canada’s credit, they have begun the process of redressing the wrongs committed by their boarding school system. Sadly, this has not happened here in the US. So, if you advocate for the dismantling of the hydrocarbon economy (as Klein does), you better be willing to advocate for the dismantling of the nurturance economy as well. There is a connection as Klein points out in This Changes Everything.

Writing in a 2002 article entitled What Can Be Wrong With Growth? [4] sociologist Peter Marris (who did extensive fieldwork in Britain, Africa, and the US) talks about what happens when attachment relationships are put into an economy. “Attachment cannot be conceived in terms of marketable goods, any more than markets can be conceived in terms of attachments,” writes Marris. He continues, “Only when we confront the incompatibility between the conditions which sustain attachments [and the social brain] and the conditions which allocate resources most productively, can we begin to think about how to reconcile them.” I hope that I am not revealing anything startling when I point out that psychotherapy is part and parcel of a nurturance economy.

OK, one more liberal beef. Cozolino writes:

[I] struggle with the vast sea of unmet nurturance I come across every day in my practice and in the news from around the world. My hope is that, as evidence of the importance of early experience mounts, it will begin to have an effect on public policy and the allocation of resources.

The above exemplifies Rationalist Myth thinking—just keep throwing data at the problem. What I find to be typical of liberal psychology books, presentations, and workshops is the following: No one asks the most obvious question: Where is all of this trauma coming from? This in part may explain why I gravitate toward Bowlby’s work. Not only does he actively point out where the trauma is coming from, he goes out and tries to do something about it. [5] How do you deal with a “vast sea of unmet nurturance” and not wonder where that sea is coming from? This baffles me. Maybe it’s just hard to recognize that unmet nurturance provides the raw materials that feed a nurturance economy, a nurturance market.

Both Bowlby and attachment researcher Jay Belsky tried to talk about the nurturance economy (in the context of day care) using science, and they were personally and professionally crucified. [6] It may be that people are afraid (and with good reason) to touch the “third rails” of day care, pre-K, foster care, and how our society increasingly drugs our kids using behavioral drugs more potent than cocaine. [7] For an example here, see this September, 2015, NPR article entitled California Moves To Stop Misuse Of Psychiatric Meds In Foster Care.

Conservatives seem to have their hand on the pulse of the nurturance economy more so than liberals (as Eberstadt’s work, mentioned above, points out). As an example, in his article entitled The Fractured Dream of Social Parenting—Child-Care Policy Lessons and Losses (which appears in a Special Issue of Family Policy Review entitled The Child-Care ‘Crisis’ and Its Remedies (vol. 1, no. 2, Fall 2003)), conservative social commentator Allan Carlson frames the process of institutionalizing child care (e.g., putting child care into an economy) in the following way:

[T]here is mounting evidence that … child care may be a human activity that cannot be industrialized. The psychological evidence is overwhelming, and still mounting, that children in extended day care—even very good day care—are on average more aggressive, less sociable, and less emotionally secure: traits that, ironically, undo the key socialist goal of enhanced human cooperation.

Dr. Cozolino’s research tends to support the above statement. He tells us that when the social brain is not attended to properly, sociability goes down as aggression goes up. (Aggression was a topic that Bowlby studied early in his career.) As Cozolino points out over and over in his book, mother is a child’s first developmental environment.

I know I have not talked about Cozolino’s social brain model in any detail. He does present a lot of very important information concerning the development and functioning of the brain within social milieus. But I feel that most of the information is mute. If being sociable is going by the wayside, then that spells big trouble for the social brain. If the social brain can only be understood from within the liberal worldview, then that leaves out about 50% of the US population. If poor families, especially those headed by single mothers, do not have the time, luxury, and resources to properly engage the social brain (as Putnam suggests), that leaves them out. If kids and young adults are not in fact being social by engaging in social media, that leaves them out. How about people who cannot afford to pay for years of expensive psychotherapy? Leaves them out. If men now prefer relationships with robot or virtual women, leaves them out. How about all the people using the many different parent substitutes from behavioral drugs to smartphones? Leaves them out. The nurturance economy alone will remove a lot of people. Who exactly is left? Maybe conservatives who are homeschooling or setting up charter schools. Sorry liberals … fingernails on a blackboard.

As a consolation, if you’d like to know more about Cozolino’s social brain, please read his book or feel free to request a copy of my executive summary of the workshop I attended back in the fall of 2006. I agree with Peter Marris (who’s work in the area of attachment and public policy has inspired me): “Only when we confront the incompatibility between the conditions which sustain attachments and the conditions which allocate resources most productively, can we begin to think about how to reconcile them.” In the same way Naomi Klein encourages us to imagine a world without the hydrocarbon economy, maybe we should encourage one another to imagine a world without the nurturance economy. If you need some encouragement, I’d recommend Peter Marris’ 1996 book entitled The Politics of Uncertainty—Attachment in Private and Public Life.

I know I have presented a lot of unframed information possibly triggering the Rationalist Mistake. So, just remember the nurturance economy frame. And maybe try to pay attention to the many things and processes that make up the nurturance economy like day care, parent substitutes, behavioral drugs (i.e., Ritalin and Adderall), Facebook, smartphones, social media, robot nannies, fast food, foster care, etc. Once you recognize the nuturance economy frame, it’s easier to see the things and processes that go into making up the nurturance economy. Personally, Eberstadt’s Home-alone America really opened my eyes. Her book and Putnam’s Bowling Alone.


[1] Our Foundation commissioned an article by Dr. Gary Metcalf entitled John Bowlby: Rediscovering a Systems Scientist. In doing research for his article, Dr. Metcalf became fascinated by the story of Bowlby’s opposition to Britain’s evacuation policies during WWII. As a result, Dr. Metcalf devoted the last section of his paper to this story. Contact the Foundation for a copy. Turns out there was a dark side to these evacuation policies. Many children were ultimately sent to places like Australia and Canada. In addition, many were received by homes run by religious groups. Sadly, many of the children were abused. Only recently has the British government owned up to this otherwise dark chapter in an attempt to make things right. In an email to me Dr. Metcalf wondered, “Do you think Bowlby knew about these receiving homes?” Dr. Metcalf was not able to find an answer. If Bowlby did know, it may explain why he fought so hard for the minds and bodies of young children. It may also explain why he accepted the WHO’s invitation to conduct a long term study designed to assess the psychological and developmental well being of the many orphans roaming the streets of Britain’s cities in the aftermath of WWII.

[2] I invite you to read my four-part blog series entitled Of Marshmallows, Brain Plasticity and Attachment, which I wrote back in January, 2015.

[3] For more on this theme, see the 2010 article by Noel and Amanda Sharkey entitled The Crying Shame of Robot Nannies: An Ethical Appraisal (Social Behavior and Communication in Biological and Artificial Systems, vol. 11, no. 2, p. 161–190).

[4] This article appears in the 2002 edited volume entitled Candles in the Dark (edited by Barbara Sundberg Baudot).

[5] For more on this theme, see the 2006 article by Ben Mayhew entitled Between Love and Aggression: The Politics of John Bowlby (History of the Human Sciences, vol. 19, no. 4, p. 19–35).

[6] According to Sir Richard Bowlby, his father’s harsh treatment by the popular press dogged him his entire career. Things got so bad for Dr. Belsky that he put his experiences down in a moving but tragic article entitled The Politicized Science of Day Care: A Personal and Professional Odyssey. Dr. Belsky’s article also appears in the Special Issue of Family Policy Review mentioned in the text.

[7] For more on this theme, see Finn Bowring’s 2003 book entitled Science, Seeds, and Cyborgs: Biotechnology and the Appropriation of Life.