Allan N. Schore, PhD

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Right Brain Affect Regulation: An Essential Mechanism Of Development, Trauma, Dissociation, And Psychotherapy

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

Right Brain Processes in Development: the Interpersonal Neurobiology of Secure Attachment

As summarized in a recent contribution on modern attachment theory (J. Schore & A. Schore, 2007), the essential task of the first year of human life is the creation of a secure attachment bond between the infant and his/her primary caregiver. Secure attachment depends upon the mother’s sensitive psychobiological attunement to the infant’s dynamically shifting internal states of arousal. Through visual-facial, gestural, and auditory-prosodic communication, 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.”  Congruent with the above-discussed models of nonconscious communication, developmental researchers now describe this nonverbal intersubjective communication:
Preverbal communication…is the realm of non-consciously regulated intuitive behavior and implicit relational knowledge. Whether information is transferred or shared, which information gets across, and on which level it is ‘understood’, does not necessarily depend on the sender’s intention or conscious awareness. (Papousek, 2007, p. 258)

During these bodily-based affective communications the attuned mother synchronizes the spatiotemporal patterning of her exogenous sensory stimulation with the infant’s spontaneous expressions of endogenous 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 to the infant. To accomplish this, the mother must successfully modulate nonoptimal high or nonoptimal low levels of stimulation which would induce supra-heightened or extremely low levels of arousal in the infant.

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 “good-enough” 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 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, and resilience in the face of stress and novelty is an ultimate indicator of attachment security (Schore, 2005b). 

These adaptive capacities are central to the dual processes of self-regulation: interactive regulation, the ability to flexibly regulate psychobiological states of emotions through interactive regulation with other humans in interconnected contexts, and through autoregulation, which occurs apart from other humans in autonomous contexts.  According to Pipp and Harmon, “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” (1987, p. 651).  The evolutionary mechanism of attachment, the interactive regulation of emotion, thus represents the regulation of biological synchronicity between and within organisms (Bradshaw & Schore,2007).

In line with earlier proposals that emotional attachment experiences during early critical periods of development facilitate the experience-dependent maturation of emotion regulatory brain circuits (Schore, 1994), neuroscientists now assert:

[T]he mother functions as a regulator of the socio-emotional environment during early stages of postnatal development…subtle emotional regulatory interactions, which obviously can transiently or permanently alter brain activity levels…may play a critical role during the establishment and maintenance of limbic system circuits. (Ziabreva et al., 2003, p. 5334)

It is well-established that the human central nervous system (CNS) limbic system extensively myelinates in the first year-and-a-half and that the early-maturing right hemisphere - which is deeply connected into the limbic system - undergoes a growth spurt at this time (Allman et al., 2005; Bogolepova and Malofeeva, 2001; Chiron et al. 1997; Geschwind & Galaburda, 1987; Gupta et al., 2005; Howard and Reggia, 2007; Moskal et al., 2006;  Sun et al., 2005). 

The right hemisphere also has tight connections with the involuntary autonomic nervous system (ANS) that controls visceral organs, effectors in the skin, and the cardiovascular system, and is responsible for the generation of vitality affects.  Via a right hemisphere vagal circuit of emotion regulation, “the right hemisphere - including the right cortical and subcortical structures - would promote the efficient regulation of autonomic function via the source nuclei of the brain stem.” (Porges, Doussard-Roosevelt, & Maiti, 1994).  Affect regulating attachment experiences specifically impact cortical and limbic-autonomic circuits of the developing right cerebral hemisphere (Cozolino, 2002; Henry, 1993; Schore, 1994, 2005b; Siegel, 1999).  For the rest of the lifespan internal working models of the attachment relationship with the primary caregiver, stored in the right brain, encode strategies of affect regulation that nonconsciously guide the individual through interpersonal contexts.

Earlier speculations (Schore, 1994) are now supported by current studies which observe 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).  Summarizing this data, Rotenberg concludes,
The main functions of the right hemisphere…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. (2004, p. 864)