QUICK LOOK—Volume III of Bowlby’s Trilogy on Attachment

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Over the July 4th weekend I was able to finish rereading volume III of Bowlby’s trilogy on attachment. In my last post I mentioned that I would offer up a few observations concerning volume III once I finished rereading it. Here’s my quick take on volume III.

Many times before I have made the following statement:

Early safe and secure attachment relationships (if all goes well) pour the foundation upon which rests robust Executive Function skills.

I developed the above observation from my first read of Bowlby’s trilogy combined with my readings on the topic of Executive Function (EF). [1] But if you were to ask me where specifically one should look in Bowlby’s trilogy for this type of connection, I’d be hard pressed to offer up a reply. So, yes, my second read of volume III turned up what I consider to be a concrete example.

On page 388 of volume III, Bowlby makes the suggestion that in cases of disordered mourning, EF can be adversely affected. Bowlby writes:

Many of the children’s psychological problems seemed directly traceable to their having been exposed to situations of these kinds [e.g., parental suicide]. Their problems included chronic distrust of other people, inhibition of their curiosity, distrust of their own senses and a tendency to find everything unreal. During therapy it was found that some of them were possessed of two or more distinct and incompatible systems of ideas, beliefs and plans, each with its corresponding feeling.

As a review, EF includes such skills as mental time travel (a sense of past, present, and future), empathy, appropriately focusing and shifting attention, delaying gratification (which is about valuing the future), making plans, and forming coherent cognitive models. In my opinion, trust and empathy go hand-in-hand. Without curiosity, kids cannot explore. In turn, they are not able to form coherent and comprehensive cognitive maps. Without coherent cognitive models, it is very difficult to make plans. If you distrust your senses, you cannot properly integrate them. As a result, within an overall cognitive model system, there will be smaller sub models that will potentially conflict. Ergo, there will not be any effective way for the upper brain—home to EF—to provide context for the object loving mid brain. As a matter of fact, the upper brain will act more like the mid brain, both with conflicting systems and conflicting stories, stories centered on fear, suspicion, and disbelief. As neuorbiologist Louis Cozolino told us during a workshop up in Santa Fe, [2] what we find here is a middle brain (in a two brain system) riding roughshod over the upper brain. In essence, the mid brain’s fear center—the amygdala—enlists the help of EF centers to enhance and intensify its focus on stories of fear and alarm. And, yes, Bowlby too uses a two brain model.

On page 345, Bowlby talks about his two Principle Systems. One system holds all the things that are associated with distance from attachment. Distance from attachment involves:

  • A state of not caring about or longing for love and care
  • No memories of relationships of bonding and affection
  • No disappointment over an attachment figure not being there

I would argue that this is the mid brain system that maintains a hyper focus on fear and alarm. Coexistent with this system, Bowlby imagines, is one that remembers attachment and values it. This I would call the upper brain system. On page 348, Bowlby describes a situation that is best characterized as the mid brain not working with the upper brain. “A main reason for this inefficiency, it is postulated, is that the [mid brain] system, being largely deactivated (by means of the defensive exclusion of virtually any sensory inflow that might activate it), is denied access to consciousness with the many benefits that [EF] brings,” writes Bowlby.

So, just a quick observation to point out that in volume III Bowlby not only outlines a two brain system [3] but also outlines how through attachment trauma the two brain systems could become disconnected. Therapeutic change would then take the form of trying to get the two brain centers working together again. No small task.

Now that I have finished rereading Bowlby’s trilogy, I plan to start writing my eBook A Question of Attachment. As I mentioned earlier, once I start writing Question, my posts here will be sporadic. Wish me luck as I start out on my new book project.


[1] – For more on Executive Function, I’d recommend two books that I have enjoyed:

Russell Barkley’s 2012 book entitled Executive Functions: What They Are, How They Work, and Why They Evolved

Elkhonon Goldberg’s 2009 book entitled The New Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes in a Complex World

[2] – Contact the Foundation for a copy of my executive summary of Dr. Cozolino’s workshop.

[3] Goldberg also proposes a two brain system that dovetails nicely with Bowlby’s. Goldberg proposes that the mid brain is the brain of objects and content. In contrast, the upper brain is the brain of context and perspective. Developing context and perspective is part and parcel of the upper EF brain.