Bowlbian Attachment Theory for People On the Go—Behavioral Systems

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In my post of 6.26.18, I make a few observations concerning MIT astrophysicist Max Tegmark’s 2017 book entitled Life 3.0—Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. As a result of my read of Tegmark’s book, Amazon is now recommending books by astrophysicists. One in particular caught my eye: a 2017 book by Neil deGrasse Tyson entitled Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. For just a brief moment, I thought to myself: “I should write a book entitled Bowlbian Attachment Theory for People On the Go.” I quickly dismissed the idea because thoughts of all the hard work and long hours I put into my last book A Question of Attachment (which was released in January, 2018) are still fresh in my mind. But then I thought: “Hey, what about a series of blog posts on the essentials of Bowlbian attachment theory that, when taken together, could get a person up to speed on Bowlby’s theory in short order. So, welcome to part I — Behavioral Systems.

In its simplest form, attachment is a behavioral system.

Let’s say that you are a hardworking field geologist mapping an area during the summer heat. You wipe your brow and glance at the noonday sun overhead. A thought occurs to you to take a long swig of water from your trusty canteen, and you do so. Thirst is a behavioral system. Your body requires water to stay hydrated, and to keep things in balance, regulated you might say. Water is necessary for all kinds of biological processes, like perspiration (which your shirt seems to be covered in). Your body’s need for water creates a chain reaction that eventually reaches the conscious level and you are motivated to seek water. If you are able to quench your thirst (as this field geologist was able to do), then biological systems return to some form of equilibrium and off you go (mapping merrily). However, as thirst grows, other behavioral systems give way and the quest for water becomes paramount: It becomes a matter of life or death. Carried to the extreme, a person could die from thirst. Such is the nature of behavioral systems. The same could be said of food. From my good friend Wikipedia, we learn the following about the Law of Threes that survivalists use:

  • You can survive three minutes of severe bleeding, without breathable air (unconsciousness generally occurs), or in icy water.
  • You can survive three hours in a harsh environment (extreme heat or cold).
  • You can survive three days without drinkable water.
  • You can survive three weeks without edible food.

The Law of Threes gives you some idea of how fast a situation could become critical for a particular behavioral system, whether our need for air, regulated body temperature, water, or food.

Most of us are familiar with the behavioral systems of food, water, air, and regulated temperature. Can you think of another? How about sex? Yes, sex is another behavioral system (one that Freud focused on almost exclusively). Now, sex is an interesting behavioral system: You could go your entire life without sex and survive to tell about it (as many religious devotees evince).

How about another behavioral system? Yes, attachment. Attachment is a behavioral system. All of these behavioral systems were developed as the result of evolution. As neurobiologist Antonio Damasio points out in his 2018 book entitled The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures, the first simple organisms had behavioral systems. [1] You poke them and they try to move off in a direction away from the poke. That’s the nature of behavioral systems: evolution “designs them” (speaking teleologically or in terms of purpose) to aid the organism in its quest for survival.

As John Bowlby—arguably the father of attachment theory—points out in his Trilogy on Attachment (hereafter Trilogy), the attachment behavioral system was developed to protect defenseless infants from predation, from being eaten by a predator like a tiger, lion, or alligator. For infants (and this could be an infant lamb or infant human baby), the ability to attract an adult, usually the infant’s mother, in times of need is very much a matter of life or death. Now here’s where things get a bit funky for the attachment behavioral system.

Like with sex, are we able to go an entire life without attachment? In simple terms, that’s the question Bowlby tried to answer in his Trilogy. Let’s look at the question a bit differently. Is there ever a time not securing attachment could kill us? Yes. If you expose an infant (to the elements let’s say) and the infant is not able to attract an adult (typically by crying and flailing about), yes, that infant could die. And infants typically die because other behavioral systems, like the need for food, water, and body temperature regulation, become dysregulated.

Yes, behavioral systems interact one with another. (We’ll learn more about this in a future installment.) The thirst behavioral system could send out a signal to the infant that says “we need some water here or things could get tough for us.” The attachment behavioral system could then kick in and engage in behavior that is designed to attract the attention and (hopefully) care of an adult. (Caregiving/receiving is yet another behavioral system.) However, as the infant matures into a child and that child is able to do for him or herself (secure for him or herself such things as food and water), the chances of death go down. As a psychotherapist working with teens in a residential treatment center setting, I heard amazing stories of how these teens (as very young children ages four and five) were able to secure food when adults were absent for days and even weeks on end. These kids would rummage through garbage cans, beg at a neighbor’s door, even steal from a local grocery store.

Attachment, then, sits between food, which we must have, and sex, which you can do without. What Bowlby investigated was what happens when the attachment behavioral system is stressed for prolonged periods of time but does not ultimately lead to death. In her 1990 book entitled The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women, Naomi Wolf points out that German scientists, during WWII, attempted to find the level of caloric intake that would keep prisoners (imprisoned in concentration camps) alive physically but render them compliant psychologically. What Bowlby found was that the attachment behavioral system could be stressed in such a way that a person would remain alive physically, but would suffer from a life of psychological challenges, such as criminality and difficulty with interpersonal relationships. [2] Let’s look at an example.

Many persons who went through the Great Depression of 1929 (both of my parents were kids then) would go on to experience life using a background lens of privation. I remember going out to dinner with my parents and a couple of their friends who were a bit older. Both of these friends stuffed ketchup and sugar packets into their pockets, almost unconsciously. Stressing a behavioral system like food, clothing, and even shelter, for prolonged periods of time can leave a lasting imprint that is hard to shake. There’s this constant expectation of exposure and starvation.

This was Bowlby’s main focus: Is it possible to assess the kind of imprint that stressing the attachment behavioral system for prolonged periods of time leaves on a person. The answer is yes. In the next part, we’ll look at the imprint patterns, if you will, that stressing the attachment behavioral system could produce. To whet your appetite, what Bowlby found, working with his longtime collaborator, Mary Ainsworth, is that we form certain strategies, strategies that we use to secure attachment for ourselves, a sense of being protected, cared for, nurtured. Sadly, these strategies are often unconscious and motivate us to “stuff ketchup and sugar packets into our pockets” so to speak.



[1] In his book Life 3.0 (mentioned above) Max Tegmark puts forward a position that I find most perplexing. Apparently astrophysicists view the Universe through the lens of atoms or arranging matter in some way. Tegmark sees the emergence of biological lifeforms as just another way of ordering atoms or matter. Tegmark does not see much distinction between the coming together of atoms to form planets just after the Big Bang, and the coming together of atoms to form biological lifeforms and their attendant behavioral systems. Tegmark is open about not making such distinctions because he does not wish to get involved in the messy controversy over biological intelligence versus artificial or mechanical intelligence. This is why Tegmark’s definition of intelligence could include both biological as well as artificial intelligence. Tegmark defines intelligence thus: Intelligence = ability to accomplish complex goals. That’s it.

Humans (and the vast majority of organic life) have evolved innate behavioral systems to help them accomplish goals. But, according to Tegmark’s definition, if humans could build machines that have behavioral systems, these machines will be intelligent as well. Yes, we have built machines with mechanical behavioral systems. Anti-aircraft guns (which appeared during WWII) are an example of machines that display what systems engineers call “goal-corrected behavior.” In other words, the goal of the behavioral system (find food, find water, shoot down aircraft) can be corrected or refined using feedback from the environment.

I for one am not willing to jump onto the “all behavioral systems are created equal” bandwagon. Simple organisms can have rather complex behavioral systems. As a geologist, I examined numerous rocks. Rocks do not have behavioral systems. They are not motivated to do anything (putting aside the effects of gravity). There’s a big difference between inanimate matter (such as rocks) and animate matter (such as organic material). Tegmark advocates for the creation of life by humans. He goes even further. He advocates for the day human-created life will replace humans. Humans are Life 2.0. In Tegmark’s mind (and in the minds of many other artificial intelligence researchers) the real show gets started with Life 3.0: Artificial Life.

I may be way off base but all of this seems to express a strong desire to play God. If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on evolution. Evolution has a rather long, 3.8 billion year track record of creating successful lifeforms that are innately motivated to survive. I do not see evolution giving up without a fight. I am worried, however, that as scientists spend more of their time trying to animate inorganic material, the value we place on organic material (which includes us humans) will become degraded. And along with that degradation could come increased levels of violence. As Sherry Turkle points out in her 2011 book entitled Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, once kids get over their initial attachment to animated toys like Furbies (which hit the scene in the late 1990s), they get angry over being fooled into thinking that Furbies are real, that they have real feelings and real emotions. Turkle describes kids throwing these types of toys down stairs or stomping on them. I think we are innately programmed to repel attempts designed to get us attached to inanimate material brought to life. This may well be the cautionary message in Mary Shelley’s tale of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster.

[2] Our Foundation has provided funding to attachment researchers working in the area of the neurobiology of attachment. One of these researchers is Dr. Karlen Lyons-Ruth. Dr. Lyons-Ruth recently contacted us to let us know that that she was profiled in a short NOVA video on current child separation policies and the psychological damage such policies could cause. Click on this link to view this video over at NOVA’s Facebook page. What this video shows is that even brief separations of a few days or weeks in the early life of a child could cause damage by adversely changing the structure and functioning of the brain. Do these kids die? No. But as the other researcher profiled, Dr. Robin Deutsch, puts it: “Recovery is certainly possible, but I think the prognosis for most of these children is: they’re not going to be okay.”