Tag Archives: Brain Development

How attachment theory explains Trump’s success – and Hitler’s too

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 02.02.10Donald Trump has done it. He’s won the Republican nomination, having convinced enough Americans that he has the qualities needed to be a Presidential candidate. The rest of the world is looking on with disbelief, confusion, terror and derision.

Many commentators are firmly of the view that, given the statistics, Trump has no chance of actually being elected Presidentcome November 2016. But in many ways, that’s irrelevant now. Trump has already changed America. He has unleashed extremity, humiliation, suspicion and blame. He has done that with a personal style that is abrasive, rude, narcissistic, belligerent, untruthful and ludicrous. Yet he has drawn support from across the USA.

How can that be explained?

Some analysts have put his appeal down to the economic struggles facing many AmericansOthers have attributed it to educational divides. Statistician Nate Silver has highlighted Trump’s ability to manipulate the media. Journalists for the magazine The Week ascribe his success, alternatively, to conservative Republicans’ willingness to abandon traditional norms of governing and also to liberal Democrats’ intolerance of views that they find objectionableThe commentator Steven Poole even jokingly (or maybe not jokingly?) put it down to linguistics: Trump loves to punctuate his dazzlingly vague speeches with the thrillingly seductive morpheme ‘so’. “Together”, he says, “we are going to win so much and you are going to be so happy.” Presumably his supporters are so so happy now.

I want to add another explanation to this mix. Attachment theory can go a long way toward helping us make sense of Trump’s popularity.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 02.05.37I think we will need such an analysis in the coming months and years – regardless of whether or not Trump wins the election. The American political system is in meltdown. So are other political systems. The UK will shortly hold a referendum on withdrawing from the European Union. The outcome of that could well prompt a second Scottish referendum on separating from the UK. The refugee crisis currently engulfing Europe is prompting the return of very real, razor-wire boundaries between countries. Political distrust holds consequences that matter for the whole of our globe. Political distrust is driven by fear. And that’s what’s driving Trump’s success. Fear.

So what is attachment theory? It’s an explanation of why humans (and all other mammals) seek out a sense of safety. Attachment theory helps us realise that this search is a biological drive. We humans have a physiological need to feel safe – not simply to be safe, but to feel safe. Our brains don’t believe we are safe until we feel safe.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 02.50.42Attachment theory first emerged in the 1950s, led by paediatrician and psychologist John Bowlby. Since then, the core tenets of attachment theory have been repeatedly affirmed. Particularly helpful has been the development of technologies that allow neuroscientists to track brain development. This new evidence confirms what Bowlby and his colleagues suspected: early life leaves a long legacy. Our experiences as babies and toddlers lay down neural pathways in our brains that determine how safe versus how risky the world seems. Those pathways are obstinately robust.

Thus, fear starts early in life. If the environment often feels scary to you as a baby, then it’s very likely to feel scary to you as an adult. That continuation happens because your brain and body became wired with enough fear sensors to keep you trapped within the physiological emotional framework your brain set up as an infant. Your brain sees no reason to question that framework. Why question reality?

How, then, does attachment theory help to explain Trump’s success?

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 03.00.28The answer lies in appreciating the extent to which fear is driving Trump supporters. Last September, a political scientist named Matthew McWilliams gathered some striking data while completing his PhD. His findings are drawing considerable attention across social media. He found that the factor most predictive of support for Trump is authoritarianism. The surprise was that this factor cuts across conventional demographic boundaries: education, income, religiosity, age, class, region. McWilliams argues that what binds such diversity together is authoritarianism.

Authoritarianism is a type of personality profile. It characterises someone who has a desire for order and a fear of outsiders. Authoritarians look for a strong leader who promises to take action to combat the threats they fear.

In short, authoritarians are seeking a sense of safety. Their political choices are driven by an attachment need. Trump makes his supporters feel safe.

That’s why Trump supporters can hold views that can sound scarily extreme to others.  Muslims should be banned. Mexico should pay to build a wall. Gays and lesbians should be prevented from marrying. In fact, let’s ban them from the country too! And while we’re at it, why not critique Abraham Lincoln’s decision to free the slaves?

McWilliams’ data are compelling because they have proven so predictive. He has conducted several large polls, and the factor that keeps coming up as most predictive of Trump support is authoritarianism. Here, for example, is the graph showing his data from the South Carolina primary. The higher a person’s score on the Authoritarian Scale, the more likely they said they were to vote for Trump. The slope of that line is so steady it’s unnerving. Little wonder, then, that Trump has won 26 primaries so farThat’s half the states in the USA.

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McWilliams isn’t the only one to have highlighted the importance of authoritarianism. Political scientists Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler reached similar conclusions in their 2009 book, Authoritarianism and Polarisation in American Politics. They argued that the Republicans, as the self-proclaimed party of law and order and traditional values, would inevitably prove attractive to large numbers of Americans with authoritarian tendencies. They just hadn’t predicted it would happen as quickly as 2016. But what’s happening completely fits their predicition: “Trump embodies the classic authoritarianism leadership style: simple, powerful and punitive.”

How is authoritarianism measured? It’s astoundingly simple. You just ask four straightforward questions:

  1. Please tell me which one of the following you think is more important for a child to have: independence or respect for elders?
  2. Please tell me which one of the following you think is more important for a child to have: obedience or self-reliance?
  3. Please tell me which one of the following you think is more important for a child to have: to be considerate or to be well-behaved?
  4. Please tell me which one of the following you think is more important for a child to have: curiosity or good manners?

These four questions were devised by political scientist Stanley Feldman in the 1990s. The responses that emphasise behaviour, as opposed to internal qualities, are associated with authoritarianism. Feldman’s studies showed that these four questions turned out to be so reliable in assessing authoritarian tendencies that they now form the field’s ‘industry standard’ and are regularly incorporated into all sorts of political surveys.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 03.14.25It was, though, earlier research that had provided the platform for Feldman’s thinking. Psychologist Diana Baumrind carried out ground-breaking work in the 1960s that identified three main parenting styles in America. Her findings have stood the test of time.

  • Authoritarian parents tend to be rigid and controlling, focusing on external behaviour rather than internal experience. They expect a lot from their children, but without offering warmth or being responsive to their emotional needs. Children are expected to do as they are told, without questioning. The data showed that children raised in environments where they have such little control over their own lives tend to be unsure of themselves, don’t trust easily and have difficulty completing tasks. Baumrind emphasized that parents might adopt such a style due not only to their own personality but because they were trying to protect their child from a dangerous environment.
  • Permissive parents offer lots of warmth. However, they don’t set limits or impose expectations. These children often grow up impulsive and frustrated, with difficulty in adjusting their own desires to meet those of the wider society or relationship partners. It is harder for them to adapt to the restrictions of adult life.
  • Authoritative parents have high expectations of their children, like authoritarian parents. However, they also offer warmth, like permissive parents. They are responsive to their children’s emotional needs; they are flexible; they listen. Children’s internal experiences and emotional needs matter to them.   These children tend to become self-reliant and independent, with high self-esteem and respect for others. They function pretty well in the adult world.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 02.35.40While three descriptive categories absolutely do not explain the whole of a person’s character, Baumrind’s account provides a starting point for making sense of adult behaviour that can, at first, seem bewildering. It helps us to see how a parent’s style of relating to their child intersects with that child’s attachment needs, resulting in a mindset for the child as to how risky or safe the world is.

Except its more than a ‘mind’-set. It is actually a biological orientation to the world. It is a reflection of the child’s early emotional experiences, which may bear absolutely no relation to the present, but which is now woven into their very physiology. Their brain is stuck in the past, filtering the way they perceive and react to the present.

What’s really sobering is that Baumrind’s research with the children started when they were 3-year-olds. Children were already of an age that “rendered them unlikely to alter their genuine, instinctive reactions.” That sounds unbelievably early to most people who are new to the science of the early years. Yet, the age of 3 years is commonly identified by neuroscientists and by attachment theorists as marking a shift in children’s developmental trajectories.

This all explains why it does not matter to Trump’s supporters whether he grasps international affairs, diplomacy or honesty. What matters is that he makes them feel safe.

And guess what? That’s exactly the approach that Hitler took too.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 02.24.34Hitler made Germans of the 1930s feel safe. No, not all of them. Far from all of them. Many resisted his vision, including his fellow politicians. But Hitler made enough of his citizens feel safe. His message resonated with enough Germans to to allow the Nazi Party to prosper.

The problem wasn’t Hitler. The problem was support for Hitler.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 03.22.21I hope that, at this point, you might have taken a deep breath. It is very clear that I have just compared Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler. I am not, of course, the first to do that. The Mexican President, Enrique Pena Nieto, has done so, as has Holocaust survivor Zeev Hod. Commentator Adam Brown carried out a detailed policy analysis of that comparison in October 2015, and the Philadelphia Daily News made the same comparison on the front page of their paper in December 2015. The historians Robert Paxton and Fedja Buric have taken such uncomfortable debates to a new level by seriously discussing whether a comparison to the fascist Mussolini might be more accurate. The NY Daily News chucked Stalin into the mix.

But even with such illustrious company, you might wonder if I haven’t taken things a step too far. It is not a bit far-fetched to compare Donald Trump to Hitler? Is it not just a bit too insulting or too unimaginable? Is it not according him slightly too much power – especially as he hasn’t yet been elected President and many think he hasn’t got a hope in hell of that anyway.

No, its not. Because, as I said, the problem wasn’t Hitler. And the problem isn’t Trump. The problem is support for Trump.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 02.09.48In his brilliant book Parenting for a Peaceful World, published in 2005, psychologist Robin Grille carried out a psycho-historical analysis of 1930s Germany. He traces the parenting advice popular at the end of the 19th century, just at the time when many Nazi supporters would have been young children. His review shows that the most popular childcare experts were promoting an authoritarian parenting style. They recommended ignoring and even crushing children’s emotional needs, in order to raise well-behaved, obedient adults.

It doesn’t take much to start crushing children’s capacity for connection – especially if experts are encouraging you down a harsh, unwavering path of relating. You can make a pretty good start by the age of 3. By then you’ve had a lasting impact on a child’s brain. And you don’t have to be a parent to achieve that change. Institutions charged with caring for young children, including childcare, social work, orphanages and hospitals can do a lot to damage children. It’s easy. You don’t even have to intend to. Just create policies that prevent staff from meeting children’s emotional needs, make the staff ratios so high there’s too little opportunity to meet them anyway, and be sure to humiliate, exclude and punish bad behaviour.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 02.12.41Adults who had been raised in authoritarian settings were just what Hitler and the Nazis needed — adults who would dispense with compassion in order to have safety. Adults who could feel so good about themselves in the process.

Robin Grille makes the point that such political success didn’t require all German parents of the early 20th century to follow expert authoritarian advice. He has no doubt that many German parents were highly empathic. Indeed, when comparing autobiographical accounts of Nazi sympathisers versus Nazi resisters, he is able to identify distinct differences in the way their parents treated them during childhood.

So  a country – whether that’s Germany or America or anywhere else — doesn’t need all, or even a majority, of its adult citizens to adopt an authoritarian parenting style in order to wreak widespread cultural havoc. All that’s needed is enough of them. As Robin Grille puts it (pg. 120): “Only a critical mass of harsh, authoritarian upbringing is needed to skew a nation towards dictatorship and war.”

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 02.18.22The articles currently circulating on the web that explore this issue tend to focus on ‘American authoritarianism’. And its certainly true that there’s plenty of that about. For example, Daniel Kolman (@kolman) recently tweeted that he was shocked to discover that 19 US states still allow corporal punishment in schools.  I have myself previously written about the book No Greater Joypopular amongst the Christian Right community in the USA, which advocates training babies’ behaviour by regularly beating them with a 12-inch piece of lawn-strimming cord. After the age of 1 year, the authors recommend upgrading to plumber’s supply line, which is thicker and which you can find at any hardware store, in a variety of colours for you to choose from. The book gets plenty of five-star ratings on Amazon.

A petition in 2011 tried (and failed) to ban Amazon from selling the book. A member of the UK Parliament tried to at least get its sale banned in the UK. But Amazon is global, isn’t it? Authoritarianism transcends national boundaries.

And that’s my real point in this piece. Authoritarianism transcends national boundaries. It isn’t present just in America. It is present in all cultures where humiliation, shame or violence is used to control children. It is present in all institutions where adults become more concerned about managing children’s behaviour than responding to their feelings. It is present in many of the homes in your community where parents are simply trying to do their best to raise their kids.

Donald Trump is dangerous NOT because he is now the Republican nominee.

Donald Trump is dangerous because he legitimises fear.

Leftover baby fears are oh so powerful, lurking in the dark of our neural pathways. That’s the point of attachment theory.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 02.39.50If you’re worried about this election, whatever country you live in, don’t fight Trump. Fight fear.

If you’re worried about world events beyond the American election, do the same thing. Fight fear.

 

 

Changing nappies is as much about babies’ brains as their bottoms

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 11.13.53We are conflicted about nappy changing these days. As a society, it makes us uncomfortable. It is distasteful, involving dirty, smelly bodily substances. It is anxiety provoking, requiring the exposure of babies’ genitals. It is inconvenient, necessitating a pause in the midst of whatever other activity a parent has underway. And it frequently emotional, with babies refusing to lie still or staring intently into their caretaker’s face.

For all these reasons, nappy changing is something we don’t usually talk about in polite circles. It may be a necessity of life with a baby, but it’s not exactly a subject for the dinner table, is it? It might therefore seem too inconsequential a topic for a whole article, especially when you consider that other pieces in this blog series have focused on ‘serious’ subjects, like terrorism and abuse and brain development.

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 11.06.25Yet, to my mind, that is exactly the reason for writing a piece on nappy changing. Babies’ brains grow more rapidly during the period of life during which they need their nappies changed than will ever be the case again. Approximately 1000 synaptic connections are formed every second during this period. Astounding. And it is the emotional experiences that babies have over and over again that build the most robust neural pathways. Nappy changing is undoubtedly an activity that babies encounter repeatedly. Indeed, over just the first six months, there are approximately 10 changes per day, each lasting, say, 5 minutes. That’s 9000 minutes or 540,000 seconds, and thus half a billion synapses.

So nappy changing isn’t quite as inconsequential as we might at first have thought. It has an impact on babies’ brain development. More specifically, the emotional experiences that caretakers give babies whilst changing their nappies are being built into babies’ brains.

I thought, therefore, that it would be interesting to reflect on the ways in which modern society encourages us to approach the task of nappy changing. This is an appropriate moment for such reflection, given that Real Nappy Week is taking place this very week in London. Most people won’t have any idea there is a group of committed individuals who want to celebrate the benefits of real cloth nappies. This article is my way of supporting their efforts.

So what are some of the big messages we get about nappy changing in today’s society?

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 10.59.48One message is that nappies are disgustingly funny. Take, for example, the videos that regularly travel the web that show fathers wretching whilst changing nappies. In August 2015, a tattooed, uniformed father gained international attention when the video of him vomiting as he soldiered on with nappy changing went viral, featuring eventually on television and in newspapers.

Why is it always Dads? I know that we regard ourselves as having ‘moved on’ as a society, because once upon a time fathers never changed nappies at all. But this humiliating form of humour says something darker about the way we frame modern masculinity. We are either laughing at dads’ incompetence – or turning them into heroes for coping with something ordinary. Indeed, if you want a gag gift for new fathers, you can buy a doodie apron, which comes complete with nose peg, face mask and gloves, all designed to help a father keep the disgusting productions of his baby’s body at bay.

I know it’s supposed to be funny. And I know I sound like I need to get a life if I’m not laughing at the innocent joke. But I find myself wondering about the baby’s experience. Is the baby scared when confronted with Dad clad in a face mask? Does the baby feel ashamed when Dad looks disgusted in reaction to the substances that her body produces? Does the baby feel embarrassed when parents start laughing whilst filming ‘poo faces’ to send to Pampers as part of an advertising campaign?

Here’s my point: we feel okay about all this laughter because we think it’s only about the adults. We don’t think it matters to the babies. We wouldn’t laugh at older people with dementia who are pooing, because we would think that was disrespectful. But when it comes to babies, we think they don’t notice. That why the joking seems innocent and can’t do harm to anybody.

Except it’s not true. Babies are born with a connected brain. That means they are already aware of and attuned to and reading other people’s emotions, facial expressions and behaviour. Babies learn about themselves by the way we treat them. This includes the way we treat them during activities as ‘inconsequential’ as nappy changing. If we react often enough to babies’ bodies with disgust, then they start to see themselves as disgusting. It is ominously fascinating to realise that we can build a sense of shame into our child’s brain by the way we treat them during nappy changing. As parent, we can do that without ever realizing or intending to. And modern society makes it more, not less, likely that we will do just that.

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 11.09.21What’s another message that we get in today’s world about nappy changing? How about this one: the less it happens, the better. Pampers and Huggies make disposable nappies designed to last 12 hours without the need for a change. The idea is that parents don’t have to be interrupted in the midst of other activities with their wee ones. Babies can remain strapped into car seats and strollers and carry cots. They don’t have to risk being woken at night.

Modern society creates more and more devices that reduce babies’ opportunities to feel their parents’ touch. Of all the senses, touch is the most important for babies. It is the first sense to develop in the womb and the most developed at birth. Skin is our largest organ, and the sensations that skin sends to the brain are so powerful that they act as pain relief. In our evolutionary history, babies spent much more time experiencing touch, strapped as they were to a parent’s body during the day and sleeping next to a parent’s body at night. Modern babies experience an extremely different type of infancy than did our forebears.

Yes, babies adapt to the modern world. Skeptics will reply that babies are clearly surviving in today’s world of nappies, transport devices and sleeping arrangements. I agree, they are. But I also know that without sufficient touch and physical attention, babies die. That was one of the points to come out of studies of Romanian orphans. Infant humans depend on the physical presence of another human being in order to survive.

Could the decreasing amount of touch that modern babies receive be one of the reasons that our society is witnessing an increase in behavioural problems associated with emotional regulation? The most fundamental pathways that the brain is forming during the early years are the ones that enable to us to cope with – that is, regulate – our emotions.

So maybe it would be better if disposable nappies weren’t quite so efficient? Maybe it would be better for babies’ emotional health if nappy companies could find ways to inform parents about the crucial importance of touch and cuddling and feeling Mum’s warm fingers on your skin — even while they search for ways to keep urine from reaching a baby’s skin.

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 11.10.53That’s one of the aims of Real Nappy Week. The celebrations aren’t designed only to highlight the value of non-disposable nappies, but to get us as a culture to rethink the whole business of nappy changing.

So what’s one final modern-day message to which we might pay attention? How about the way in which our fear of sexual abuse now overlaps with nappy changing?

Many nurseries now have a policy that requires two members of staff to be present when nappies are changed, in order to guard against the risk of inappropriate touch. We are scared that the people who have been vetted to take care of our children might harm them, and nakedness makes nappy changing seem a particularly vulnerable setting.

Videos that instruct new parents on how to change nappies are frequently shot from an angle that avoids revealing babies’ genitals, or are edited so that the genitals are blurred out. How ironic that the very parts of the body that generate the need for a nappy change cannot be shown on film. In our struggle to come to terms with the very real risks that children face of being sexually abused, we have further sexualised our youngest children.

In the run-up to Real Nappy Week, my team released our brief film ‘dance of the nappy’. The film is excerpted from our longer feature-length film, ‘the connected baby’, first released in 2011 with funding from the British Psychological Society. We estimate that the longer film has now been viewed by 100,000 people, but this is the first time we have released an entire segment for public viewing on YouTube.

The film shows the intricate emotional dance that goes on between a 5-week-old baby and his mother during an ordinary nappy change. The baby’s emotional responses to his mother’s movements and facial expressions are so nuanced that it would be easy to miss them. That’s why we wanted to make the film: because such moments of connection are happening for babies across the world, but it is easy for parents to overlook them because they are so subtle and fleeting. Video footage makes it possible to slow everything down and reveal what is not apparent to the naked eye.

After filming that session, I realised the baby’s genitals were in full view. The mother realised it too. She commented on it at the time, whilst we were filming. Later, during editing, she confirmed that she was comfortable with retaining the footage. But I had to ask myself: was I comfortable with it? Was it appropriate in today’s society to show a 5-week-old baby’s genitals on a movie screen? What would I say if someone challenged my decision? What if, later, when the baby is grown, he resents having had his bum shown off to the world? What if I was accused of encouraging inappropriate touch because his genitals appear briefly but undeniably?

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 13.15.00My decision was not to change anything. I decided that real-life nappy changing means exposing and cleaning baby’s genitals. I decided that merely alluding to that, by editing out that footage, actually feeds our modern day fear that genitals are inherently sexual, even those of a 5-week-old baby. I decided that I was making a film that was trying to show how connection is possible at all points in a baby’s day, including during an activity as ‘disgusting’ as changing a pooey nappy. Because that’s exactly what the film shows – not just a Number One, but a Number Two. And the interaction between the mum and her baby is still loving and affirming. The baby gets no sense that his bodily excrement is shameful to her. After weeks of fretting, I decided I could defend such a scene to the world.

This week, I was reminded about my early worries. Since our public release on YouTube last week, I have received queries from three people, expressing unease that the film shows ‘everything’. I was relieved to realise that I now welcomed such debate, rather than feared it. Those weeks I had spent agonizing had been valuable, for they enabled me to articulate the position I take in this debate.

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 10.55.38And here is my position: Something is emotionally askew in our modern society. On the one hand, the global company Pampers can make an award-winning film that is intentionally designed to make us laugh at babies’ unease and discomfort when they poo. On the other hand, we can be made uncomfortable by a film that shows the real poo and the parts of a baby’s body that produced it. Something is awry in our reasoning.

I like the idea that a scene of something as tediously ordinary as a pooey nappy can become a radical act. A baby boy’s bum can make us reflect in new ways on our own humanity.

So, to the grown man of the future who was once that baby boy, let me offer my thanks and my apologies now. It was your bum that offered us this gift of reflection. Your mother says in the film: “One day you might really hate that I did this in front of the camera.” I hope you don’t. Because every time I show this film, I offer you a silent, grateful thanks for the trust you placed in us that day.

Parting is hell: That’s the point of attachment

Kayden and the rainLast weekend, I attended the memorial service of a friend. She was much loved, as demonstrated by the fact that more than 350 other people were there too. Each of us was trying to find a way to celebrate her life, to bid her goodbye, and most of all, to find a way to live with our sense of loss.

As I listened to one of the readings, I found myself thinking: “Ah yes, that’s another way to describe attachment.”

If I should go before the rest of you,
Break not a flower nor inscribe a stone
Nor, when I’m gone speak in a Sunday voice,
But be the usual selves that I have known.
Weep if you must: Parting is hell.
But, life goes on
So… sing as well.

This is the popular poem written by English entertainer Joyce Grenfell. It was read out by a brave young granddaughter.

We instinctively get it, in the context of bereavement. Loss is hard. In fact, it’s terrible. It makes you cry, even when you don’t want to. It sneaks up on you when you weren’t expecting it. You hold on to whatever memory might get you through: one that makes you laugh, comforts you, leaves you feeling less alone. Or you try to make the feelings go away. You chew your lip; your press your fingers together until they hurt; you stop breathing. You fear that you might drown under the rising sense of panic and pain, if you can’t get it under control.

This is attachment. This is the point of Grenfell’s simple brutal line. “Weep if you must: Parting is hell.”

Photo by our team's photographer, Brett Housego, from his series 'Hearts in Nature'

Photo by our team’s photographer, Brett Housego, from his series ‘Hearts in Nature’

Attachment is about loss.

We don’t have to have the scientific language of ‘attachment to identify with the human experience of loss. That’s why we are kind to the person who is crying. We seek some way to comfort them. We wrap them in our arms, or cry with them, or tell a funny story, or stand protectively nearby. We make emotional space if that’s what they seem to need, because kindness can make the feelings worse, knocking down the dam and exacerbating the sense of losing control. Should things get so bad that they end up kicking a tree or smashing a plate of sandwiches, we forgive the behaviour, because we recognise that it comes from pain.

It really is painful. A growing number of studies* using MRI and other scanning technology, have shown that emotional pain is processed by the brain using the same areas as is the case for physical pain.

We get it. Our brains get it. Loss is brutal. Parting is hell.

What fascinates me, as a human being and as a research scientist, is that in other settings, we are less likely to get it. We often don’t recognise when behaviours and emotions are being driven by attachment needs. We fail to glimpse the underlying struggle with disappointment. This oversight is especially likely with our young children.

It is understandably easy for parents to miss moments of loss. We’re tired. We’re exhausted. We’re juggling deadlines and pressure. We’re adults, so we can’t remember what it was like to experience the world for the first time, fresh and confusing.

So we underestimate our children’s sense of loss. We read frustration as misbehaviour, not as disappointment. We can’t fathom what all the drama is about. And even when we can, we may not have the time or energy to deal patiently with it. That’s when conflict leaves wounds: when we aren’t able to respond empathically – kindly — to our children’s feelings of loss.

This is the source of attachment patterns: the ways in which adults respond to children’s feelings of loss. I find this single piece of information to be invaluable, because once you know that loss is the key thing to look for, you see attachment moments happening everywhere.

Here’s a good example. This is a charming little film called ‘Kayden and the Rain’, posted on Vimeo in February 2014. It shows a 15-month-old toddler discovering rain for the first time. Kayden’s joy proved so endearing for viewers that the film went viral, viewed at least one million times over the past year. Numerous bloggers have picked up on the film, commenting that it reminds us adults to appreciate the simple things in life – like rain.

There is an aspect of the film that no one, to my knowledge, has yet commented on: the brief moment of conflict. One of the adults in Kayden’s life – her mum? — has decided that getting wet in the rain is a bad idea, and so she picks Kayden up and runs back into the house. But Kayden has other ideas. She immediately kicks her feet in resistance, urgently muttering ‘Mama, Mama, Mama’. As soon as she is put down, Kayden heads back down the pathway, so that she can once again stand in the amazing rain.

In that moment of conflict, we are witnessing a moment of loss. This is a moment in which a child wants the joy she is feeling to continue. She doesn’t want this wondrous experience to end. We are witnessing a moment in which an adult is thwarting joy because they think they have a better idea: staying dry.

I do not say any of this to criticize the adult’s actions. Kayden’s mum was doing what we all do: trying to get through the day making her best judgments. What is notable, from an attachment point of view, is that conflict resulted. What the adult wanted and what the child wanted differed. This happens ALL THE TIME in families!

It is in such moments of conflict that attachment patterns are formed. This means that attachment is inherently about loss and disappointment. The way that a parent or caregiver resolves a child’s sense of loss is what forms secure and insecure attachment patterns.

In the moment of conflict captured in this film, we see Mum respond by giving way. Kayden proves to be so irrepressible that her mother lets go of her own ideas. She makes it possible for Kayden to continue rejoicing in the existence of rain. Indeed, it is Kayden’s determination to return to that place of joy that stamps the charm into this film. And then all the adults around her join in! We see everyone laughing with delight as they share Kayden’s sense of awe with her. That spontaneous act of emotional sharing is a demonstration of what developmental theorists mean by the term ‘intersubjectivity’.

Imagine if Kayden’s mother had responded to that moment of conflict in another way. What if she had firmly closed the door, to prevent Kayden from getting wet and catching a cold? Or what if she had been trying to manage a tight schedule, with the family needing to climb into the car? Imagine how Kayden’s sense of loss would have escalated then. Imagine her crying and screaming from behind that door. Imagine her perhaps kicking the door, and maybe even knocking over a plate of sandwiches from the nearby table, because it was just too much to bear, being parted from the joy of the rain.

Photo is by our team's photographer, Brett Housego, from his series Hearts in Nature

Photo is by our team’s photographer, Brett Housego, from his series ‘Hearts in Nature’

I am not saying that either course of action would have been the ‘right’ one for her mother to take. I am not saying anything about the decisions that any parent should take. I am saying something more basic. I am saying that life is hard. It is full of loss.

That is as true for our children as it is for us adults. We lose people we love. Parents die; lovers tell us they want to end the relationship; friends move away. We are disappointed that experiences we relish have to stop. Its time to come in out of the rain; its time to put away the toys; its time to stop hoping I will buy you a pack of Smarties.

Attachment is the process of learning to cope with loss – the loss of people, of pleasure, of a wish. Attachment is the process of learning how to recover from loss, and how to stay open to whatever comes next. Grenfell was right. That process is hell.

We are lucky if, as children, we find that there are people around who can be counted on to help us when we’re suffering from disappointment. If they help us, comfort us, keep us safe from the overwhelming sense that we may drown in grief, then we unconsciously learn how to help ourselves. Our physiological system develops in such a way that it can promote our emotional recovery, rather than our continuing distress.

Continuing distress makes us ill. That’s the point of the many emerging health studies.**

Emotional recovery is what researchers now call ‘resilience’. But sitting in that packed memorial service, I found the scientist in me thinking: Grenfell’s way of expressing it is so much more eloquent. That’s what she really means when she encourages us to sing. She means we should find a way to live with the ache of joy.

Weep if you must: Parting is hell.
But, life goes on
So… sing as well.

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* Examples of studies showing the brain’s processing of social and physical pain:

  • Romantic break ups. Kross, E, et al. (2011). Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. http://www.pnas.org/content/108/15/6270.full
  • Friendship.    Eisenberger, N, et al. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An FMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302, 290-292. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14551436
  • For a review of this literature, see: R. Pond, et al. (2014). ‘Social Pain and the Brain: How Insights from Neuroimaging Advance the Study of Social Rejection’, in T. Dorina Papageorgiou et al. (Ed.), Advanced Brain Neuroimaging Topics in Health and Disease: Methods and Applications.   http://www.intechopen.com/books/advanced-brain-neuroimaging-topics-in-health-and-disease-methods-and-applications

** Examples of studies charting impact of childhood experiences on health:

 

How stand-up comedy helps us understand children’s brain development

Michael McIntyreI’ve been reading Michael McIntrye’s autobiography, Life and Laughter. For anyone unfamiliar with the comic landscape of contemporary Britain, Michael McIntyre is the country’s leading expert on goofy obsessiveness. He manages to shine a light into the private, excruciatingly painful moments of our ordinary lives, and to twist them in such a way that they suddenly seem laughable.

Here’s how he describes (pg. 247) making the Big Announcement that he wanted to be a stand up comedian. He was 21. He had realised his whole life revolved around making people laugh. A comedian was simply Who He Had To Be. So when he shares this deepest hope with his loved ones, how do they react? Continue reading