Allan N. Schore, PhD

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Paradigm Shift: The Right Brain and the Relational Unconscious

Allan N. Schore, PhD


The essential problem of the early development of the unconscious mind, an area of intense interest to the early pioneers (e.g., Winnicott, Klein, Bowbly, Mahler) has been addressed by scientific methods in the ongoing work of Stern, Beebe, Tronick and others. Over the last 15 years my research in developmental neuropsychoanalysis integrates this work with the other developmental sciences. The stages of infancy of attachment and intersubjectivity exactly overlap a critical period of the experience–dependent maturation of the early developing right brain. In 1997 Chiron and her colleagues offered a developmental neurobiological study entitled “The right brain hemisphere is dominant in human infants.” A just-published near-infrared spectroscopy study of infant-mother attachment concludes, “our results are in agreement with that of Schore (2000) who addressed the importance of the right hemisphere in the attachment system” (Minagawa-Kawai et al., 2008).

For the last 15 years I have elaborated regulation theory, a theoretical model of attachment. In emotionally charged attachment transactions of right brain nonverbal visual–facial, auditory–prosodic, and tactile–gestural communications, the psychobiologically attuned caregiver regulates the infant’s arousal states (Schore, 2005a). Indeed developmental scientists now conclude that “A number of functions located within the right hemisphere work together to aid monitoring of a baby. As well as emotion and face processing the right hemisphere is also specialized in auditory perception, the perception of intonation, attention, and tactile information” (Bourne & Todd, 2004). Echoing this in the neuroscience literature, Rotenberg (2004) describes:

The main functions of the right hemisphere [are]…the ability to grasp the reality as a whole; the emotional attachment to the mother (Schore, 2003); the regulation of withdrawal behavior in the appropriate conditions (Davidson, 1992); the integration of affect, behavior and autonomic activity (Schore, 2003); are the basic functions of survival (Saugstad, 1998); and for this reason are the first to appear. Indeed, a converging consensus now indicates “Earlier maturation of the right hemisphere is supported by both anatomical and imaging evidence” (Howard & Reggia, 2007).

The synergistic effect of the integration of psychoanalysis and developmental affective neuroscience has been the generation of a significant amount of new information on the early development of object relational processes, intersubjectivity, and attachment in the first two years of life: “the preoedipal period.” Current explorations of the early maturing right brain are essential to a deeper understanding of not only the unconscious, but emotional development, attachment, and psychopathogenesis in the critical stages of human infancy. During this same period clinical psychoanalysis has become very interested in attachment. According to Chused (2000), “Attachment research can help us understand how psychotherapeutic intersubjective experience becomes transformed into intrapsychic structure.” We now have a complex model of how early intersubjective, preverbal, bodily-based attachment experiences impact the development of right brain psychic structure. This knowledge provides us with a clinically relevant model of precisely how the object representational inner world of mother communicates and shapes the inner world of infant, a heuristic model of the early development of both the structure and function of the bodily-based unconscious (and preconscious) mind.

This theoretical advance is acting as a potent force in shifting the focus of models of personality development, psychopathogenesis and treatment towards the preoedipal period (nonverbal infant) and away from events in the oedipal period (verbal child 3-4 years). As opposed to classical psychoanalytic models that stressed sexuality and aggression as primary motivational factors, updated conceptions focus upon preoedipal object relations, attachment dynamics and affect dysregulation as primary forces that shape the unconscious systems at the core of a unique personality.



Attachment research demonstrates that the primary caregiver regulates not just the infant’s behavior or cognition, but fundamentally his bodily-based states of affective arousal. Recall Winnicott’s description of a communication between the baby and the mother in terms of the anatomy and physiology of live bodies. In the developmental psychological literature on attachment Pipp and Harmon (1987) suggest that throughout the lifespan we are biologically connected to those with whom we have close relationships.

Much more than just a match of cognitions and the emergence of mentalization, the evolutionary mechanism of attachment facilitates the experience-dependent maturation of the right brain’s capacity for the regulation of emotional states. It thus represents the regulation of biological synchronicity between/within organisms (not merely minds). Kohut’s speculation that the infant’s dyadic regulatory transactions with maternal selfobject allows for the maintenance of his homeostatic equilibrium is confirmed by neuroscience, where researchers observe that the dyadic interaction between the newborn and the mother serves as a regulator of the developing individual’s internal homeostasis (2001). A major expression of the paradigm shift is the correction of Descartes’ error. Current models that integrate psychology and biology thus emphasize changes that occur in both mind and body.



The fact that the right hemisphere is centrally involved in “implicit learning” is directly relevant to Stern’s (1998) proposal that “implicit relational knowledge” stored in the nonverbal domain is at the core of therapeutic change. Knox (2003) concludes, “In essence, it is the concepts of implicit memory and the internal working model which provide the basis for a paradigm shift in relation to our understanding of the human psyche.” Mancia (2006) describes the right hemisphere as “the seat of implicit memory.” He notes, “The discovery of the implicit memory has extended the concept of the unconscious and supports the hypothesis that this is where the emotional and affective—sometimes traumatic— presymbolic and preverbal experiences of the primary mother–infant relations are stored.” This conception is being incorporated into revised psychoanalytic models for working with early relational trauma.

The current shift into the implicit realm is echoed in an APA Presidential Task Force on Evidence- Based Practice (2006): “Central to clinical expertise is interpersonal skill, which is manifested in forming a therapeutic relationship, encoding and decoding verbal and nonverbal responses, creating realistic but positive expectations, and responding empathically to the patient’s explicit and implicit experiences and concerns.”



In 1994 I suggested that nonverbal communication in both early development and the therapeutic alliance is the output of the right brain primary process communication system. Like myself, Panksepp (2008) refers to right brain primary process systems and the affective states they engender. Other neuroscientists contend, “The right hemisphere operates in a more free-associative, primary process manner, typically observed in states such as dreaming or reverie” (Grabner et al., 2007).

The relational trend in the field shifts primary process from intrapsychic cognition to intersubjective communication. In an important article on “primary process communication” Dorpat (2001) argues, “The primary and secondary process may be conceptualized as two parallel and relatively independent systems for the reception, analysis, processing, storing, and communication of information.” He asserts that affective and objectrelational information are transmitted predominantly by primary process communication, and that secondary process communication has a highly complex and powerful logical syntax but lacks adequate semantics in the field of relationships. Echoing a description of right brain attachment communications, he concludes such nonverbal communication contains “both body movements (kinesics), posture, gesture, facial expression, voice inflection, and the sequence, rhythm, and pitch of the spoken words.” Integrating this and other research and clinical studies I have argued that therapy is not the “talking” but the “communicating cure” (Schore, 2005).