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


A cardinal principle of self psychology dictates that as a result of optimal self-selfobject relational experiences the infant becomes able to perform the drive-regulating, adaptive and integrating functions that had previously been performed by the external object. Kohut specifically posited that phase-appropriate maternal optimal frustrations of the infant elicit "transmuting internalization," the developmental process by which selfobject function is internalized by the infant and psychological regulatory structures are formed. Developmental data are consonant with this, although interdisciplinary data emphasizes that not just optimal stressful frustration but interactive repair is essential to the formation of a structural system that can regulate stressful affect. The formative experiences of the self are built out of internalized selfobject functions that facilitate the emergence of more complex regulatory structures.

Recent research also support Kohut’s speculation that the infant’s regulatory transactions with the maternal selfobject allow for maintenance of his homeostatic equilibrium. According to Ovtscharoff and Braun, “The dyadic interaction between the newborn and the mother...serves as a regulator of the developing individual’s internal homeostasis. The regulatory function of the newborn-mother interaction may be an essential promoter to ensure the normal development and maintenance of synaptic connections during the establishment of functional brain circuits.”20 These researchers conclude that subtle emotion regulating attachment interactions permanently alter the brain by establishing and maintaining developing limbic circuits.21

A large body of studies now clarify the developmental neurobiology of the selfobject mechanism. In my own work I have suggested that the self-organization of the developing brain occurs in the context of a relationship with another self, another brain. More specifically, the self-selfobject relationship is embedded in infant-caregiver right-hemisphere-to-right-hemisphere affective attachment communications.6,17,18,19 In light of the observations that the emotion processing human limbic system myelinates in the first year-and-a-half22 and that the early-maturing right hemisphere 23,24,25,26,27 -which is deeply connected into the limbic system -is undergoing a growth spurt at this time, attachment experiences specifically impact limbic and cortical areas of the developing right cerebral hemisphere.6,28,29,30 Affirming Kohut’s speculations on empathic mirroring, neuroscience researchers now conclude, developing children rely upon a “right hemisphere-mirroring mechanism – interfacing with the limbic system that processes the meaning of observed or imitated emotion.” 31

Ongoing neurobiological research on the mother-infant intersubjective dialogue indicates, “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.”32 Social experiences thus facilitate the experience-dependent critical period maturation of right brain systems that process visual-facial, auditory-prosodic, and tactile-gestural affective communications. From infancy through all later stages of the life span the right hemisphere is dominant for the nonconscious reception, expression, and communication of emotion, and the cognitive and physiological components of emotional processing.9,18 With respect to empathy, a core process of self psychology, it is now thought that “self-awareness, empathy, identification with others, and more generally intersubjective processes, are largely dependent upon...right hemisphere resources, which are the first to develop.”33

Furthermore, the “complex psychological regulatory structures” described by self psychology can now be located in “the right hemispheric specialization in regulating stress -and emotion-related processes.” 34 Indeed, the brain’s major self regulatory systems are located in the orbital prefrontal areas of the right hemisphere that undergo an anatomical maturation in postnatal periods of mammalian development.35 The experience-dependent maturation of this affect regulatory system is thus directly related to the origin of the self.6 Earlier research documented that the development of the self and self-awareness is reflected in the ability of two-year olds to recognize their own visual image in a mirror.36 Functional magnetic resonance neuroimaging studies show that when subjects look at an image of their own face, activation seen in occipito-temporoparietal junction and the right frontal operculum,37 and that self-face recognition activates a frontoparietal “mirror” network in the right hemisphere.38

Indeed, a substantial amount of research indicates that the right hemisphere is specialized for generating self-awareness and self-recognition, and for the processing of “self-related material.”33,39,40,41,42,43 Neuroscientists now suggest that the essential function of the right lateralized system is to “maintain a coherent, continuous, and unified sense of self.”44 Summarizing this knowledge Molnar-Szakacs and colleagues assert, “Studies have demonstrated a special contribution of the right hemisphere (RH) in self-related cognition, own-body perception, self-awareness, autobiographical memory and theory of mind, Many studies of self-face recognition have also found a RH advantage, suggesting a special role for the RH in processing material related to the self.” 45 These data clearly indicate that self psychology is in essence a psychology of the unique functions of the right brain.