Allan N. Schore, PhD

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Relational Trauma and the Developing Right Brain: An Interface of Psychoanalytic Self Psychology and Neuroscience

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


Perhaps Kohut’s most original and outstanding intellectual contribution was his developmental construct of selfobject. Indeed, self psychology is built upon a fundamental developmental principle -that parents with mature psychological organizations serve as selfobjects that perform critical regulatory functions for the infant who possesses an immature, incomplete psychological organization. The child is thus provided, at nonverbal levels beneath conscious awareness, with selfobject experiences that directly effect the vitalization and structural cohesion of the self. The selfobject construct contains two important theoretical components. First, the concept of the mother-infant pair as a selfselfobject unit emphasizes that early development is essentially an interdependence between self and objects in a system. This core concept was a major intellectual impetus for the expansion of the intersubjective perspective in psychoanalysis. Indeed, Kohut’s emphasis on the dyadic aspects of unconscious communications shifted psychoanalysis from a solely intrapsychic to a more balanced relational perspective. This challenged psychoanalysis to integrate the realms of a one-person psychology and a two-person psychology.

The second component of the selfobject construct is the concept of regulation. In his developmental speculations Kohut 3,4 stated that the infant’s dyadic reciprocal regulatory transactions with selfobjects allows for the maintenance of his internal homeostatic equilibrium. These regulating selfselfobject experiences provide the particular intersubjective affective experiences that evoke the emergence and maintenance of the self.5 Siegel observes, “Kohut makes major contributions to the understanding of emotional life, and his conceptualizations have far-reaching implications for the understanding and treatment of emotional states.”12 Kohut’s idea that regulatory systems are fundamentally involved with affect is supported in current interdisciplinary studies that are highlighting not just the centrality of affect, but also affect regulation.

Despite his intense interest in the early ontogeny of the self, over the course of his career Kohut never spelled out the precise developmental details of his model, nor did he attend to the significant advances in developmental psychology and psychoanalysis that were occurring simultaneously to his own theorizing. There is now agreement that current psychoanalysis is "anchored in its scientific base in developmental psychology and in the biology of attachment and affects."13 At this point in time self psychology is incorporating a broad range of current of developmental research into its theoretical model. In my own contributions to this effort I have integrated recent advances in attachment theory into the field. 8,9,10

Overviewing and integrating this data, it is now established that 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 primary caregiver. Research now suggests “learning how to communicate represents perhaps the most important developmental process to take place during infancy.”14 Through visual-facial, auditory-prosodic and tactile-gestural communications, caregiver and infant learn the rhythmic structure of the other and modify their behavior to fit that structure, thereby co-creating a specifically fitted interaction.

Kohut described critical episodes of “empathic mirroring, in which “The most significant relevant basic interactions between mother and child usually lie in the visual area: The child’s bodily display is responded to by the gleam in the mother’s eye.”3 During bodily-based affective communications embedded in mutual gaze transactions, the psychobiologically attuned mother synchronizes the spatiotemporal patterning of her exogenous sensory stimulation with the spontaneous overt manifestations of the infant’s organismic rhythms. Via this contingent responsivity, the mother appraises the nonverbal expressions of her infant's internal arousal and affective states, regulates them, and communicates them back to the infant. To accomplish this, the primary caregiver must successfully modulate nonoptimal high or nonoptimal low levels of stimulation that would induce supra-heightened or extremely low levels of arousal in the child. Secure attachment depends upon the mother’s sensitive psychobiological attunement to the infant’s internal states of arousal.

Importantly, research now clearly demonstrates that the primary caregiver is not always attuned and optimally mirroring, that there are frequent moments of misattunement in the dyad, ruptures of the attachment bond. The disruption of attachment bonds leads to a regulatory failure and an impaired autonomic homeostasis. Studies of “interactive repair” following dyadic misattunement15 support Kohut’s assertion that the parental selfobject acts to "remedy the child's homeostatic imbalance."4 In this pattern of “disruption and repair,”16 the “good enough” caregiver who induces a stress response through misattunement, in a timely fashion reinvokes a reattunment, a regulation of the infant’s negatively charged arousal.

In current psychobiological models attachment is defined as the interactive regulation of states of biological synchronicity between and within organisms.17,18,19  The dual regulatory processes of affect synchrony that creates states of positive arousal and interactive repair that modulates states of negative arousal are the fundamental building blocks of attachment and its associated emotions. These interactive regulatory mechanisms optimize the communication of emotional states within an intimate dyad, and represent the psychobiological underpinning of empathy, a phenomenon of intense interest to self psychology. Kohut4 deduced that as a result of the empathic merger of the child's rudimentary psyche with the maternal selfobject's highly developed psychic organization, the child experiences the feeling states of the selfobject as if they were his own. Selfobjects are thus external psychobiological regulators that facilitate the regulation of affective experiences, and they act at nonverbal levels beneath conscious awareness in the regulation of self-esteem and the maintenance of self cohesiveness.6,7