Allan N. Schore, PhD

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Modern Attachment Theory: The Central Role of Affect Regulation in Development and Treatment

Judith R. Schore &
Allan N. Schore, PhD
UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine

The Psychobiological Core of Developmental Attachment Communications: Interactive Regulation

The essential task of the first year of human life is the creation of a secure attachment bond of emotional communication between the infant and the primary caregiver. In order to enter into this communication, the mother must be psychobiologically attuned to the dynamic shifts in the infant’s bodily-based internal states of central and autonomic arousal. During the affective communications embedded in mutual gaze episodes the psychobiologically attuned sensitive caregiver appraises nonverbal expressions of the infant’s arousal and then regulates these affective states, both positive and negative. The attachment relationship mediates the dyadic regulation of emotion, wherein the mother (primary caregiver) co-regulates the infant’s postnatally developing central (CNS) and autonomic (ANS) nervous systems.

In this dialogical process the more the mother contingently tunes her activity level to the infant during periods of social engagement, the more she allows him to recover quietly in periods of disengagement, and the more she attends to his reinitiating cues for reengagement, the more synchronized their interaction. In play episodes of affect synchrony, the pair are in affective resonance, and in such, an amplification of vitality affects and a positive state occurs. In moments of interactive repair the ‘‘goodenough’’ caregiver who has misattuned, can regulate the infant’s negative state by accurately re-attuning in a timely manner. The regulatory processes of affect synchrony that create states of positive arousal and interactive repair that modulate states of negative arousal are the fundamental building blocks of attachment and its associated emotions, and resilience in the face of stress and novelty is an ultimate indicator of attachment security. Through sequences of attunement, misattunement, and re-attunement, an infant becomes a person, achieving a ‘‘psychological birth’’ (Mahler et al. 1975 ). This preverbal matrix forms the core of the incipient self.

Thus, emotion is initially regulated by others, but over the course of infancy it becomes increasingly self-regulated as a result of neurophysiological development. These adaptive capacities are central to self-regulation, i.e. the ability to flexibly regulate psychobiological states of emotions through interactions with other humans, interactive regulation in interconnected contexts, and without other humans, autoregulation in autonomous contexts. Attachment, the outcome of the child’s genetically encoded biological (temperamental) predisposition and the particular caregiver environment, thus represents the regulation of biological synchronicity between and within organisms.

The fundamental role of nonconscious attachment dynamics is therefore interactive psychobiological regulation. According to Pipp and Harmon ( 1987 ), ‘‘It may be that…we are biologically connected to those with whom we have close relationships…Homeostatic regulation between members of a dyad is a stable aspect of all intimate relationships throughout the lifespan.’’ At the most fundamental level, attachment represents the evolutionary mechanism by which we are sociophysiologically connected to others (Adler 2002 ), and nonconscious implicit interactive regulation is the central strategy that underlies all essential survival functions of the human self system (Schore 2003a , b ).

This principle is echoed in current developmental brain research, where Ovtscharoff and Braun ( 2001 , p. 33) report that ‘‘The dyadic interaction between the newborn and the mother...serves as a regulator of the developing individual’s internal homeostasis.’’ Notice the similarity to Kohut’s ( 1971 ) proposal that the infant’s dyadic regulatory transactions with the maternal selfobject allow for maintenance of his homeostatic equilibrium. Furthermore, attachment regulatory transactions impact the development of psychic structure, that is, they generate brain development (Schore 1994 ). In very recent writings Fonagy and Target ( 2005 , p. 334) conclude,

If the attachment relationship is indeed a major organizer of brain development, as many have accepted and suggested (e.g., Schore, 1997 , 2003), then the determinants of attachment relationships are important far beyond the provision of a fundamental sense of safety or security (Bowlby 1988 ).

Even more specifically, the regulatory function of the mother–infant interaction acts as an essential promoter of the development and maintenance of synaptic connections during the establishment of functional circuits of the right brain (Henry 1993 ; Schore 1994 ; Sullivan and Gratton 2002 ). A growing number of studies now support the observation that right lateralized limbic areas responsible for the regulation of autonomic functions and higher cognitive processes are involved in the ‘‘formation of social bonds’’ and are ‘‘part of the circuitry supporting human social networks,’’ and that the ‘‘the strong and consistent predominance for the right hemisphere emerges postnatally’’ (Allman et al. 2005 , p. 367).

Because implicit attachment regulatory functions mature so very early in development, before later forming verbal explicit systems, Schore ( 1994 , 2003a , b ) has focused upon the unique operations of the earlier maturing (Chiron et al. 1997 ) right hemisphere. From infancy throughout all later stages of the lifespan this early evolving right lateralized system is centrally involved in implicit processes and in the control of vital functions supporting survival and enabling the organism to cope with stresses and challenges. He has therefore suggested that the implicit self-system of the right brain that evolves in preverbal stages of development represents the biological substrate of the dynamic unconscious (Schore 2002 ). Studies in neuroscience now report that this early maturing right hemisphere is centrally involved in ‘‘maintaining a coherent, continuous and unified sense of self’’ (Devinsky 2000 ), and that a right frontal lobe process, one that connects ‘‘the individual to emotionally salient experiences and memories underlying selfschemas, is the glue holding together a sense of self’’ (Miller et al. 2001 ). Using functional magnetic resonance imaging Buchheim et al (2006 ) report that the Adult Attachment Projective activates the right inferior frontal cortex, an area involved in ‘‘the control processes involved in emotion regulation’’.