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

Share this Blog post

In my last post I introduced a few book chapter ideas for my proposed book A Question of Attachment—Bowlby Less Traveled: The Book. In this post I’d like to introduce a few more chapter ideas. But first, I’d like to mention an interesting comment that came in concerning my last post.

For review, here’s the question I see being asked by insecure attachment (if insecure attachment could ask a question):

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

A reader, Kim, who’s a yoga therapist, commented that she resonates with my “question asked by insecure attachment” because she sees it reflected in her practice. According to Kim, people are seeking out practices associated with Buddhist spirituality because of its promise of detachment from the world. Kim writes:

They come to spiritual practice because they have been hurt usually in an adult love relationship and are essentially saying “I don’t ever want to be hurt again.” That’s why Buddhism, in its often misunderstood form, is attractive to them. They think that “detachment” means they will never be hurt again but somehow be able to love. That’s not actually what detachment means, not even for Buddhists, but that’s a common misconception.

I find it fascinating that people here in the US are using Buddhist practices as a way of answering the question asked by insecure attachment. And, in truth, attachment researchers who have an eye toward mindfulness (a practice informed by Buddhist sensibilities) are unintentionally encouraging this phenomenon. Specifically I am here thinking of neurobiologist Dan Siegel’s 2010 book entitled Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation.

A central tenet of Bowlby’s theory of attachment is the idea that we use Inner Working Models to navigate the world, especially the world of social relationships. Inner Working Models map personal experience to social experience. Similarly, ideologies, for better or worse, also allow us to navigate the world, especially the worlds of politics and economics. Ideologies are part and parcel of our Inner Cognitive Maps or Models. We will fight for ideologies beyond where we will go for life and limb (as any war or even the last US presidential election demonstrate).

Given that I’m reading Siegel’s book correctly, Siegel suggests that if one has an Inner Working Model that they do not particularly care for (say, one born of an early history of insecure attachment), then, through Buddhist practices (such as meditation, yoga, and mindfulness), one can simply drop, and operate at a level, below one’s Inner Working Model. Siegel goes a step further. According to my read of Siegel’s book, he correctly suggests that ideologies are a type of Inner Working Model, a model of the world if you will. As a result, like with Inner Working Models, Siegel suggests that we can simply jettison ideologies, especially those we do not particularly care for. [1]

I simply do not see how we can jettison Inner Cognitive Maps or Models. Change them or shift them, sure, but do away with them, not likely. Science itself is an ideology, a very powerful one, one that is being currently challenged by the ideology of postmodernism. So, I tend to shoot a wary eye toward any suggestion that we can just simply do away with or drop below Inner Cognitive Maps or Models. For more on all of this, I would recommend two books:

Changing Visions—Human Cognitive Maps: Past, Present, and Future (1996) by Ervin Laszlo, Robert Artigiani, Allan Combs, and Vilmos Csányi

Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science (2014) by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont

So, please, keep these types of observations coming in as I introduce additional chapter ideas, which I turn to next.

Attachment and the Digital World—Screen Devices as New Primary Attachment Figures

This chapter will pull from MIT researcher Sherry Turkle’s 2011 book entitled Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. While only hinting at Bowlbian attachment theory, Turkle suggests that kids today are forming attachment relationships with their screen devices (smartphones, tablets, computers, etc.). Attaching to a screen device is one way to answer the question asked by insecure attachment. By using screen devices, kids are securing connection while at the same time avoiding the pain that comes when connection is lost. If a “friend” or even lover disappoints, “swipe left” (the new digital de facto form of rejection) or un-friend them.

This chapter will introduce the idea that as a society we are now using all manner of parent or primary attachment figure substitutes. According to Turkle’s research, screen devices are now being used as parent substitutes. In fact, Internet technologies such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram are now being used as parent substitutes. I will also bring in the 2004 book by conservative social critic Mary Eberstadt entitled Home-Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes. Eberstadt expands the parent substitute list by adding the following: day care, behavioral drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall, inappropriate sex, food, music with violent and misogynistic lyrics, and even specialty boarding schools that offer so-called “boot camp” programs. [2] Simply, using parent substitutes is another way to answer the question asked by insecure attachment.

The Many Extensions of Bowlbian Attachment Theory—Confusion Deluxe

This chapter will briefly talk about all of the various extensions or even co-optations of Bowlbian attachment theory that are floating around out there. Here’s a list of extensions I posted back in September of 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 Christian religion
  • Bowlbian attachment—held by ethology and naturalistic systems

Today I would add evolutionary psychology and certain psychoanalytic framings to the list. I often tell people that Bowlby must have done something right because so many groups want a piece of him. That so many groups wish to extend or co-opt Bowlby’s work should come as no surprise. Why? Attachment is a behavioral system not unlike sex or caregiving(receiving), a point Bowlby makes in his trilogy on attachment. Attachment is closely tied to not only body but also biology. What are the most contentious political issues? those associated with the body such as sex, abortion, drug use, reproductive rights, etc. I made the following observation in a March, 2016, post:

What the above list tells us is that one cannot simply use the word “attachment” without using some qualifier like “postmodern attachment” or “conservative Christian religion attachment,” or “reactive attachment.”

Suffice it to say that there is a huge battle waging over who will ultimately control the ideology that will be used to frame attachment. I’ll probably bring in what I call the Midgley Continuum:

worldview <==> ideology <==> methodology <==> intervention

He (or she) who controls ideology, controls intervention. The ideological fight of the century seems to be shaping up between behaviorism on one side and mindfulness on the other, or West versus East, or even conservative versus liberal.

The Systems Theory Story—Bowlby’s Background

I just finished reading Annie Jacobsen’s 2014 book entitled The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top-Secret Military Research Agency. DARPA started out as ARPA back in 1958: (Defense) Advanced Research Projects Agency. In essence, Pentagon’s Brain is about the rise of what is known as mechanistic systems theory. DARPA was established in large part as a reaction to Russia launching Sputnik back in 1957. As Jacobsen points out, US politicians, the military, and scientists wished (and still wish) to never be caught off guard by an event such as a foreign country placing a satellite (Sputnik) into “an elliptical low Earth orbit” (thank you Wikipedia). This was the beginning of the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned us about (and with good reason).

Jacobsen makes the point that to a very large degree DARPA provides us with our technological future. As an example, DARPA gave us the Internet (and gave Apple the code for Siri). By developing and feeding us our future, DARPA is able to determine our future. DARPA argues that by making the future deterministic, the future can never catch us off guard. I mention all of this because the buzz phrase Jacobsen uses throughout her history of DARPA is “the system of systems.” To bring about a deterministic future, DARPA sought to manufacture and control all systems. This is effectively systems engineering. Systems engineering and the system of systems are all forms of mechanistic systems. The Internet is a huge system of systems (and getting bigger with each passing moment).

Why is this important to the Bowlbian attachment theory story? Well, Bowlby was right there when mechanistic systems theory got its start. In addition, Bowlby was greatly influenced by organismic system theory or biological systems theory. Bowlby came into contact with scientists on both sides of the systems fence. As examples, through a series of four conferences held from 1953–1956, Bowlby came into contact with Grey Walter—a robotics pioneer and a proponent of mechanical systems [3]—and Ludwig von Bertalanffy, arguably the father of organismic or biological systems theory. [4] Bowlby used organismic systems theory as his theoretical background. However, he was well aware of mechanistic systems theory trends. And, yes, researchers from both sides of the systems fence were recruited to help with DARPA or DARPA-like projects. The story of this “systems intermingling” is talked about in Debora Hammond’s 2003 book entitled The Science of Synthesis—Exploring the Social Implications of General Systems Theory. In my opinion, the systems theory story of Bowlby’s work has received short shrift. Back in 2010, our Foundation commissioned an article by Dr. Gary Metcalf entitled John Bowlby: Rediscovering a Systems Scientist. I’ll be pulling from Dr. Metcalf’s article in this chapter. Feel free to use the Contact Us link above to request a copy of Dr. Metcalf’s article.

Jacobsen maks it clear that DARPA (and DARPA-like agencies—RAND in the US and Tavistock in the UK come to mind) takes a dim view of biology. DARPA sees biology as a vulnerability. This is why DARPA is hard at work developing drugs to make soldiers stay awake and alert for days on end, as well as exoskeletons that will make up for biological vulnerabilities. DARPA takes a dim view of such things as emotions and attachments. See my post of April 7, 2016, entitled Viewing Millennials’ Embrace of Socialism as Locked Mourning for Lt. Col. Grossman’s account of how systems engineers attempted to do away with attachment bonds during the Vietnam War. According to Grossman, this failed experiment contributed to high levels of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) in returning Vietnam vets, a problem we as a society are still dealing with today. Jacobsen alerts us that DARPA, in their quest to get past biological vulnerability, would like us to become robots, or, at the very least, cyborgs: part biology, part machine. Yes, cyborgism is also a “great” answer to the question asked by insecure attachment. Here’s a list of the groups who are now advocating for some form of posthumanism or transhumanism (e.g., going past biology): [5]

  • Those groups promoting postmodernism, (e.g., all of reality is a social construction)
  • Those groups promoting the Singularity (e.g., human minds should migrate toward mechanical brains)
  • Those groups promoting the End Times (e.g. the religious belief that the chosen will leave the Earth and take up residence in heaven as spiritual beings)
  • Those groups promoting cyborgism, like DARPA, Apple, Google, etc.
  • Those groups promoting parent substitutes, like the psychiatric community

With so many groups promoting a future where biology will be transcended, it’s no wonder Bowlbian attachment theory is having a hard go of it. For more on all of this, see Francis Fukuyama’s 2002 book entitled Our Posthuman Future—Consequences of the Technological Revolution.

MacLean’s Triune Brain—Making Sense of It All

Back in the 1960s, Paul MacLean proposed a three layer model of the brain known as the triune brain. The three layers of the brain from bottom to top are: the reptilian brain—home to fight, flight or freeze; the mammalian brain—home to the so-called emotional brain; the thinking brain—home to the so-called rational brain. In terms of science, MacLean’s model has been proven to not be accurate. However, in terms of conveying understanding, MacLean’s model has stood the test of time. Viewing the brain as being comprised of three layers still facilitates understanding. To understand Bowlby’s work, we need a model of the brain. What I find interesting is the number of three layer models that seem to have a certain level of agreement. Here are the ones I see in addition to MacLean’s:

Peter Fonagy et al. (psychology)—psychic equivalence, playing with reality, conceptual reality

Antonio Damasio (neurobiology)—core self, biographical self, extended self

Elkhonon Goldberg (executive functioning)—continuity, content, context

I’ll explain these above models in this book chapter (but not here). We’ll need a model of the brain so we can understand a statement like (and I paraphrase): “Technology companies such as Apple, Facebook, and Google are in a race to the bottom of the brain stem” (which is part of the reptilian brain). This paraphrased statement was made by Tristan Harris during a 60 Minutes segment with Anderson Cooper that aired on April 9th, 2017. Harris is a former Google product manager and saw firsthand how tech companies write software in such a way that people become addicted to their screen devices not unlike when lab rats become addicted to pushing a lever to receive a reward. This is simple behavioral conditioning, which is why Harris used the frame “a race to the bottom of the brain stem.” Tech companies wish for us to operate out of our lower reactive brain and not out of our upper reflective brain. Whereas secure attachment propels us along (developmentally) toward such things as conceptualization, an extended self, and context, tech companies wish to keep us entrapped in the lands of psychic equivalence, core self, and continuity. When we live in such a “low state,” the gap between offense and reaction is infinitesimally small. The result is such things as road rage leading to death (which happened here in New Mexico a few years ago to four year old Lilly Garcia).

What the triune brain model does not show us is how much each layer of the brain depends on the others. [6] As an example, neurologist Elkhonon Goldberg (shown in the list above) refers to the middle brain as the object brain. The middle brain is centrally concerned with perceiving objects out in the world. According to Goldberg, the upper brain is the context brain. In other words, the upper brain provides context for the objects of the middle brain. Without the objects of the middle brain, there would be no need for the context of the upper brain. Similarly, without context it would be hard to know that the reason the middle brain is perceiving a coffee mug is because the organism is in a Starbucks. [7]

Now, interestingly, certain cultures privilege one brain layer over another. In his 2003 book entitled The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why, Richard Nisbett tells us that Asians privilege the context brain over the object brain whereas Westerners do the exact opposite. Ergo, privileging one brain layer over another expresses cultural bias. So, yes, when I say that an early history of secure attachment (if all goes well) allows us to develop robust Executive Function skills, I am privileging the upper context brain—home to EF skills. That’s my cognitive model and I’m sticking to it.

So, I hope the above gives you a sense for the types of chapters I have in mind for A Question of Attachment. Keep the comments coming in. I’ll have more chapter ideas in the next post.


[1] There’s an irony here that I’d like to point out. By dropping below the level of ideology, the message is clear: we should live in a world without ideologies. But living in a world without ideologies is itself an ideology. As another example, many postmodernists wish for a world beyond theories, such as the various theories of science. Again, a world without theories is itself a theory. So, in promoting a world without ideologies or theories, one is advocating for the very thing one stands against. In the same way there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no postmodernists in elevators or driving across suspension bridges. If you’re in a foxhole, you pray for a god (or goddess). If you’re on a suspension bridge, you pray for competent structural and materials engineers. I guess there are no postmodernists on the operating table either.

[2] Sadly, New Mexico is home to several of these specialty boarding schools. One in particular was in the news back in 2013–2014: Tierra Blanca. Local news reports profiled alleged abuses taking place at Tierra Blanca such as jalapeño juice being dripped into the eyes of boys restrained in a chair. For more on this theme, see The Atlantic article entitled When Wilderness Boot Camps Take Tough Love Too Far.

[3] Grey Walter is known for his mechanical tortoises, which, 60 years ago, operated very much like the robotic vacuum Roomba does today.

[4] In truth, Bowlby came into contact with a number of systems thinkers during these conferences who believed in organismic systems theory such as Julian Huxley, Bärbel Inhelder, Konrad Lorenz, Margaret Mead, and Jean Piaget, not to mention Ludwig von Bertalanffy.

[5] A reader wrote to me and suggested that there is a huge conspiracy behind the various trends of postmodernism, posthumanism, and transhumanism. As an example, this reader suggested that anthropologist Margaret Mead, who Bowlby met with as mentioned in the note above, infiltrated the feminist movement and pointed them in the direction of postmodernism. I take a more “accidentalist” approach. In my mind, it’s by accident that certain groups come together to support a particular position. As an example, in my two-part blog series entitled The Love Wars—Harry Harlow and the All Night Comfort Food Café (October, 2016), I mention that at the turn of the last century medical doctors and psychologists came together over the issue of cleanliness. But both groups initially embraced cleanliness for different reasons. Medical doctors embraced cleanliness because they thought that unclean environments were killing infants housed in fondling homes at alarming rates. Psychologists embraced cleanliness because they considered emotions and feelings to be too messy. The two trends came together but purely by accident. Today we know the offspring of this commingling as behaviorism. Where I see accidents, conspiracy theorists see, well, conspiracies.

As another example of accident, in the mid-1960s, two trends came together: people wishing to be happy without any work, and psychiatrists wishing to elevate their profession to the same level of respectability afforded “regular” medical doctors. Thus began the pill-pushing era that we are now still in (as evidenced by the number of kids—some as young as two-and-a-half—who take behavioral medications like Ritalin and Adderall). I don’t see conspiracy here (and Dworkin does not suggest one). If anything, it’s simple supply and demand. Mothers demanded “mother’s little helper” (as the Rolling Stones sang about in the mid-1960s) and psychiatrists were more than happy to supply drugs like Valium. As alluded to above, pill-pushing is part and parcel of transhumanism. However, I don’t see that the early pill-pushers had transhumanism in mind. They wanted something more basic: respectability. I’m pulling all of this from Ronald Dworkin’s 2009 book entitled Artificial Happiness: The Dark Side of the New Happy Class.

[6] The triune brain model also does not show us such things as brain specialization. The left side of the brain is specialized in terms of language whereas the right side is associated with emotional processing. The front of the brain is specialized in terms of Executive Functioning (see next note) whereas the back is associated with vision processes. From a organic systems theory perspective, the human brain is incredibly complicated and neuroscientists are still hard at work trying to tease out these complexities.

[7] See Goldberg’s 2009 book entitled The New Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes in a Complex World.