A Question of Attachment: Book Chapter Ideas (part I)

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In my last series of posts I announced my (preliminary) intention to write a book entitled A Question of Attachment—Bowlby Less Traveled: The Book. My proposed book will centrally look at the question asked by insecure attachment:

How do I find intimacy and connection while at the same time avoiding the pain that loss of intimacy and connection inevitably brings?

In this series of posts I’d like to briefly introduce chapter ideas, and, in doing so, hopefully get some reader feedback. Without further ado, here are a few chapter ideas in no particular order.

Parentification & Role Reversal—When Mindfulness Goes Bad

In his trilogy on attachment, Bowlby included observations concerning what psychology types call parentification or role reversal. Another term would be adultification. Simply, these are the psychological processes whereby grownups turn kids into adults or parents. During this process roles are reversed. Grownups will then psychologically ask for parenting from their kids. Kids then are saddled with the burden of being the parent or being the adult. Bowlby essentially suggested that turning kids into adults or parents was the royal road toward insecure attachment. When a grownup asks a child to be a parent, that grownup is asking the child to know the mind (e.g., the needs) of the grownup to the exclusion of the child’s own mind (or needs). This is why mindfulness “goes bad” so-to-speak. In 1999, conservative social critic Kay Hymowitz released a book entitled Ready or Not: Why Treating Children as Small Adults Endangers Their Future—And Ours. Hymowitz’s book is on the subjects of parentification and role reversal. Sadly, Hymowitz does not bring in Bowlby’s work in these areas. Not to worry; I wrote an executive summary of Ready or Not. I also built bridges between Hymowitz’s and Bowlby’s work. I would argue that parentification and role reversal are important topics today. As an example, helicopter parenting is a form of overparenting, which is a form of role reversal. At a time when young adults should be doing for themselves (i.e., going off to college), parents are still doing way too much. For extreme examples of helicopter parenting, see the 2015 book entitled How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success by Julie Lythcott-Haims.

The Marshmallow Test—How Early Executive Function Skills Predict Life Success

I’ve blogged about the Marshmallow Test before and I will not spend any time describing this assessment tool here. It was developed by Walter Mischel back in the 1960s and is used with kids age five and six. The Marshmallow Test assesses for the Executive Function skills such as delaying gratification and valuing the future. Over the course of its 50 year history the Marshmallow Test has made the following robust connection: kids who are able to delay gratification and value the future typically go on to have success in such areas as education, career advancement, relationship satisfaction, and even retirement planning. Mischel talks about the history of the Marshmallow Test in his 2014 book entitled The Marshmallow Test—Mastering Self-Control. What I found fascinating was a short section on the connection between the Marshmallow Test and the Strange Situation Assessment (SSA). As I have blogged about before, the SSA is used to assess for attachment patterns in toddlers around age two. Mischel collaborated with attachment researcher Larence Aber, who at the time (the early 1980s) was research director for the Barnard Toddler Center at Barnard College. What Mischel and Aber discovered is that toddlers who were coded as being securely attached on the SSA went on to display the ability to delay gratification and value the future as measured by the Marshmallow Test. This research points out that there is a connection between early secure attachment and EF skills as measured at age five or six. As I have blogged about before, early safe and secure attachment pours the foundation upon which rests robust EF skills, the same skills that are needed for life success in many areas. All of this is important today because as social critics are pointing out, the Internet in general and screen devices in specific are eroding our EF skills. For more on this topic, see Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book entitled The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

Executive Function Skills

I plan on having a chapter that describes Executive Function skills. I’ll pull from a great 2012 book by Russell Barkley entitled Executive Functions—What They Are, How They Work, and Why They Evolved. Barkley is an expert in the area of ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder). Barkley talks about how the current increase in the number of ADHD diagnoses represents a crisis of EF functioning. ADHD is characterized by an inability to engage in certain EF skills such as appropriately focusing attention, appropriately shifting attention, planning, and even forming empathetic connections. Back in the early 2000s, I went through the two-week training program for the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI). If you look at how the AAI works, it effectively works by assessing for the functioning of Executive Function skills such as mental time travel and perspective taking. Not unlike the connection that Mischel and Aber discovered, persons who are coded as being securely attached using the AAI typically have robust EF skills.

One of the EF skills that the AAI assesses for is the ability to create, maintain, and manipulate what cognitive scientists call mental containers. As an example, to engage in mental time travel, one must be able to create mental containers for the past, the present, and the future. During an AAI assessment, test subjects are effectively asked to do just that, create mental containers for the past, the present, and the future. Now, in order to talk about the past, the present, and the future to other people, we must be able to create mental containers for the self and the other (the other person who we are talking to). During the AAI, a test subject has to create a mental container for themselves and one for the interviewer. I like to use the analogy of a circus act where we see many plates spinning in the air. To create, maintain, and manipulate mental containers is to keep so many plates in the air. The AAI assesses how well a person is able to keep plates up in the air and spinning. People who are able to keep plates in the air typically have robust EF skills. They are then coded as being securely attached. Now, I know what you are thinking: people who are able to multitask are good at keeping multiple plates in the air. Actually, no. They can get multiple plates in the air but they tend to fall rapidly because there is no overall coherent model that maps where all of the plates are.

The False Belief Test—Early Evidence for the Presence of Mental Containers

I’ve blogged about the False Belief Test before. The False Belief Test assesses for the first signs that a young child (around five or six) has the ability to form a mental container. If we look at the Marshmallow Test, what’s going on here? In order to delay gratification and value the future, a child must be able to form a mental container for the future. The future does not exist, therefore, the child is valuing something that does not exist and must be imagined. This is a huge cognitive milestone, one that Jean Piaget looked at extensively. In order for a child to entertain a false belief, he or she must be able to form a mental container for the true belief and one for the false belief. All of this to say that it appears that secure attachment goes hand in hand with the ability to create, maintain, and manipulate mental containers. Language that uses tense constructions that convey a sense for the past, present, and future (i.e., he believed, he is believing, he will believe) encourages, nay, expects that we have developed mental container abilities. The False Belief Test shows us the beginnings of mental container abilities.

Mental containers “go bad” if you will when we experience the past as if it were happening right now in this moment. Psychology types call these reliving experiences. PTSD or post traumatic stress disorder is characterized by reliving experiences. So, yes, traumatic episodic events in one’s life can play havoc with mental container skills. And the Adult Attachment Interview assesses for when mental containers fall apart (when plates begin falling). I’m not sure how much Bowlby talked about mental containers, but I find the subject critical to the overall Bowlbian attachment theory story. Bowlby did, however, place emphasis on the concept of an Inner Working Model, which is a form of mental container. A book that has shaped my thinking in this area is the 2002 book entitled The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending And The Mind’s Hidden Complexities by Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner. Even though Bowlby did place emphasis on such things as Inner Working Models, post-Bowlbian researchers dropped the ball in this area. Fortunately researchers in such areas as spatial cognition, mental containers, and cognitive mapping have provided us with a wealth of information in these areas. We just need a little bit of bridge building.

Hopefully the above four book chapter ideas will give you some sense for the kind of book I have in mind (e.g., in my future book mental container). And I hope you get the sense that this book will be fun in that it uses interesting examples taken from psychology like the Marshmallow Test, the False Belief Test, and others (like the phantom limb phenomenon and Edward Tolman’s Mice in Mazes). I’ll introduce more book chapter ideas in future posts. If anything tickles your fancy, feel free to leave a comment using the Contact Us link above. Or if you know of a book that deals with any of the above topics that has helped you, pass it along.

Note: This is my 300th post here at Bowlby Less Traveled. That’s quite a milestone! I started the BLT blog back in 2010, so about seven years ago. I’m not sure I have 300 more posts in me, but I’ll keep plugging away for the foreseeable future (mental containers permitting). Thanks for all of your support over the years.