Sunday, 8 November 2015

Bowlby's Attachment theory, trauma and scientific dogma

Was very honoured to attend a lecture yesterday organised by the Hampshire Association of Counselling and Psychotherapists (HACP) featuring Sir Richard Bowlby the son of the eminent psychiatrist and researcher who, together with Mary Ainsworth, developed attachment theory of human development. I cover the significance of this theory in my new book but it was great to hear it 'from the horses mouth' so to speak via his son. It's interesting that his theory was so radical at the time (and very contrary to the current understandings of human mind of his supervisor and senior colleagues) that he almost failed to pass his psychiatry exams! Until then it was though that any behavioural problems with children were due entirely to failings in the brain of that child rather than as a direct response to their environment (and specifically their bond with mother). It was a radical departure to suggest that the infant brain was affected in its development by the degree of attachment to the mother (and later the father).

Mary Ainsworth, (who, typically, is often missed out in the official record), developed a practical test called the 'Strange Situation' to monitor the behaviour of very young children (typically less than a year old) when a stranger enters the room, and later the mother leaves. They identified 2 distinct patterns (later expanded) - securely and insecurely attached. We watched videos of these experiments and close-ups of the children's faces which would search their mothers eyes for clues to whether this was safe or unsafe. Children who are securely attached (i.e. have bonded with their mother who is attuned to their needs) will seek close proximity and refuse to be comforted by a stranger. Those insecurely attached will dissociate (show by a wide eyed look of pain but numbing) and play disconsolately with their toys instead and show no relief when mother comes back. It is a telling moment because these bonds and their behavioural adaptations remain with us for life.

We can become avoidant of close relationships because we are not sure we will be rewarded/comforted or clingy where we feel imminent abandonment so ask for constant reassurance.
I was so interested to see the neurological consequences are being considered finally.

In the afternoon Richard presented the results of a pilot study conducted by another researcher Jane Sherwood who has proposed that early trauma across the generations of the maternal line may predispose to Alzheimer's Disease (AD) and dementia generally. It was fascinating stuff. She's written a book called  'In the shadow of Loss'. Richard was careful to say there were flaws in the study as it was small and privately funded but nevertheless with 120 participants and a clear pattern of association, not to be dismissed. Indeed I think we may be able to point to a  method of transmission. Mitochondrial DNA is passed from the maternal line and is intimately linked with the cell danger response when stress (environmental including attachment trauma) is present. This switches off the efficient energy production cycle of the mito's into a low energy pathway. We know that AD results in protein tangle accumulation in the brain but not everyone who has these gets the disease. Could it be that trauma is at the heart of this disease too.?

Richard was clearly in the shadow of his father but sensibly has decided to dedicate his life to further promulgating his ideas while not taking any money for doing so (remarkably his career has been designing racing cars!). So we were privileged to hear the latest research and without having a/ travel to London or b/ pay a fortune. Thank you Sir Richard and the HACP.

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