A Question of Attachment—Bowlby Less Traveled: The Book (part II of III)

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Part II—My Motivation Behind Writing Question

In his book chapter Modern Attachment Theory (mentioned in part I), Dr. Schore suggests that brain studies will be the new background for attachment theory. Schore calls Bowlby’s work “classical attachment theory.” Schore mentions “the decade of the brain.” According to the web site for The Association for Psychological Science,  “A Congressional Resolution … signed by President Bush designate[d] the 1990’s as the ‘Decade of the Brain.’ ” In 2013, President Obama upped the ante by committing $3 billion toward mapping the brain. As mentioned in part I, efforts to map biological systems, like the brain or the genome, are signposts marking the path toward posthumanism. The idea behind mapping the brain is to develop “a definitive map of interaction between the human brain’s approximately 100 billion neurons.” This quote comes from an article over at the online version of The Atlantic entitled Why Some Scientists Aren’t Happy About Obama’s $3 Billion Brain Research Plan. To say that we have gone “brain crazy” would be an understatement. The Atlantic article goes on to state: “Funding-strapped researchers should be rejoicing at President Obama’s promise to put $3 billion towards mapping the human brain, right? Not according to scientists who say the project lacks clear goals and gobbles up money that could’ve gone to a lot more smaller studies.” There’s a bigger problem here.

With so much research money at stake researchers will be forced to add a brain studies component to their project or risk not being funded by federal funding agencies like NSF (National Science Foundation) and NIH (National Institutes of Health). More than one researcher has sought funding through our Foundation because they could not get funding for a non-brain studies attachment research project. What we have here is Abraham Maslow’s hammer. It was Maslow who reportedly observed, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” The hammer here is brain studies. If that’s the only hammer you have, then all mental health maladies must be framed (pulling from George Lakoff) as brain organization and function deficiencies. As a result, all therapeutic change must then be framed using the ideology of brain plasticity and changing the brain. This then leads to the decidedly liberal belief that there is an endless supply of brain plasticity, and that if your brain is not properly wired for whatever reason, rewire it (typically through some form of therapy including psychopharmacology). [1]

In his 2000 book entitled Chemicals for the Mind—Psychopharmacology and Consciousness, Ernest Keen cautions that if one ideology is used wholesale, gross misunderstandings will inevitably arise. “Bodily language and mental language belong to two vastly different traditions of understanding,” writes Keen. He continues, “Bodily language is the disciplined and precise language of science, and mental language is the complexly layered, multimeaninged, experiential language of everyday life.” By reducing everything to brain functioning, we lose out on the world of mental language. We lose out on what kids and adults are trying to tell us by engaging in self-defeating strategies like acting out in class or drinking heavily (respectively), or, from Bowlby’s world, stealing things like trinkets: simultaneously valued and valueless. In the introductory pages of the 2014 edited volume Addictions from an Attachment Perspective (which I have blogged about before), we hear this question: “Is addiction a search for a secure base?” I’m not sure the language of brain studies is able to answer this type of existential question.

All this to say that if we use the lens of brain studies to look at Bowlby’s work, we’re going to miss out on a lot. Here’s a partial list of the types of things I see that will hit the cutting room floor if brain studies directs the Bowlby story:

  • Attachment as a motivational system among other motivational systems such as sex and caregiving(receiving)
  • Ethology or the study of animal behavior
  • Any true treatment of Bowlby’s concept of Inner Working (Cognitive) Models
  • Any true treatment of Bowlby’s take on loss, grief, and mourning
  • Attachment expressed at the level of society (such as liberal and conservative approaches to attachment)
  • Using Bowlby’s theory of attachment to develop new theories of objectification

I’m just very afraid that if we let brain studies direct the Bowlby story, so much of Bowlby’s brilliance and insight (and fight) will be cut away. So, my main motivation in writing A Question of Attachment is to highlight Bowlby’s brilliance and insight (as I see it) before it fades away.

Thankfully I do see glimmers of Bowlby’s brilliance and insight in modern thinking. As an example, writing in his 2010 book entitled Self Comes to Mind, neurobiologist Antonio Damasio writes the following:

[H]omeostasis needs help from drives and motivations [such as attachment], which complex brains provide abundantly, deployed with the help of anticipation and prediction and played out in the exploration of environments. Humans certainly have the most advanced motivational system, complete with endless curiosity, a keen scouting drive, and sophisticated warning systems regarding future needs, all meant to keep us on the good side of the railroad tracks.

To me, this is a great description of Bowlbian attachment theory. It hits on such things as systems theory; motivational systems; Executive Function skills such as prediction, anticipation (attachment patterns, after all, are anticipation schemes), and concern for the future; and cognitive mapping and spatial cognition through exploring or mapping or “scouting” the environment. It’s attachment in and of the world. Personally, I’m drawn to Damasio’s modern version of attachment because it resonates with my background in geology: making excursions into the world to map out environments. Maybe today the paradigm has shifted from mapping and exploring analog worlds to mapping and exploring digital worlds.

Now more than ever we need to bring Bowlby’s work back. Why? Because Bowlby was there at the very beginning of cybernetic thinking, the very same cybernetic thinking that has given us the digital revolution. Most are not aware that a huge systems theory battle waged back in the 1940s and 50s. [2] It was Norbert Wiener, arguably the father of cybernetics, who observed, “[T]he automatic machine … is the precise economic equivalent of slave labor” (quoting Wiener here). Wiener continues his thought thus: “Any labor which competes with slave labor must accept the economic consequences of slave labor.” Wiener’s prediction has come true as we are now experiencing high levels of un- or underemployment. In many ways, cybernetic or mechanical systems battled organismic or biological systems for dominance. And Bowlby had a front row seat for that battle and even got a bit scuffed up in the process. If you have a smartphone in your pocket (and who doesn’t these days), give a thanks to Norbert. If you’re out of a job because automation displaced you, you can thank Norbert as well. [3] I know I cover many aspects of this battle in Bowlby’s Battle, but I’m hoping to attract a more popular audience with A Question of Attachment. We’ll see.

In part III, I’ll very quickly talk about eBooks and publishing an eBook using Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform.


[1] As mentioned in part I, with respect to feeding young children copious amounts of behavioral drugs more potent than cocaine, the frame of therapeutic effect is now giving way to the frame of enhancement, especially cognitive enhancement. Using the frame of enhancement, the road is now clear to feed all kids behavioral drugs, which must make pharmaceutical companies giddy with glee.

[2] For more on this theme, see Debora Hammond’s 2003 book entitled The Science of Synthesis—Exploring the Social Implications of General Systems Theory. Ludwig von Bertalanffy is arguably the father of General System Theory. And, yes, Bowlby did come into contact with Bertalanffy, and other systems thinkers, as a part of what I’m calling the UK Macy Conferences (1953–1956). Hammond also contributed a chapter to the 2014 edited volume Traditions of Systems Theory—Major Figures and Contemporary Developments. I’ve blogged about Hammond’s book chapter and would recommend this reference as well.

[3] These Wiener quotes actually come from economist Jeremy Rifkin’s prophetic 1995 book entitled End of Work. For a look at what Rifkin sees in a world after work, I invite you to read my blog post Rifkin’s Economic Fight of the Century—Capitalism vs “Commons”-ism—Called Because of Extreme Weather and No Electricity.