What is Depth Therapy?: How Cognitive Neuroscience and Attachment Theory Teach Therapy

Uncategorized May 07, 2018

The language of Attachment Theory has become somewhat common parlance in today's mainstream world. You have likely heard of "attachment styles" and have some idea of how your early bonds shape your style of attaching and bonding in early life.

Attachment Theory began with a British scientist named John Bowly in the 1960's, who noticed that humans behave in a manner driven by a biological need to bond with their caregivers. This was a revolutionary notion at the time and caused him to be ostracized by the field of psychoanalysis, which at the time was governed by the notion that humans were motivated by internal fantasies, needs and desires. What is so exciting today is that this one-time dichotomy is now understood as a unified whole.

Object Relations is the fancy medical terminology which describes how our interpersonal relationships become encoded in our internal world, which is why our early relationships have such an enormously influential role shaping our identity, beliefs, needs, hopes, fears and expectations of others. "Objects" simply describes the representations that we have in our internal world of the actual people whom are important to us. These representations make up the cast of characters in our unconscious mind. Just like in a play, a particular cast of characters literally sets the stage for certain kinds of dramas, comedies and tragedies.

While the field of Object Relations has been around for many decades, the field of cognitive neuroscience and neuropsychoanalysis are providing the physiological understanding of how these internal worlds are both created and changed. This understanding is linking and integrating what was once irreconcilable in psychoanalytic theory: the reality of the internal world and the reality of the external world.

As I mentioned above, your internal cast of objects sets the stage for certain stories to be told. What cognitive neuroscience shows us is that our brain is wired to pick up on patterns in the external world, and these patterns are then encoded in our brain so that we can more easily pick up on these patterns and respond more rapidly and efficiently to data in the world. Without these patterns, the data of the world would enter our minds as overwhelming and incomprehensible. Therefore, we are extraordinarily prone to perceive data in a way that lines up with our patterns, or working models. The problem is that if these working models are limited, based on trauma, or parents who were emotionally immature or psychologically unwell, or other deprivations of basic needs, we have no way of processing external data that does not fit these patterns.

Let's take an example. Say you grew up in a household where there was no attention given to your emotional needs, either because there were too many children and a single parent, an emotionally immature parent, marital discord, or for any reason at all. It would be reasonable for you to "learn" that your emotional world was chaotic, not quite real or important, and that you didn't deserve this kind of attention. You'd likely behave in a relationship as if your emotional perceptions and needs were unimportant. But here's the kicker: if you dated someone who did assume your emotional world was important and deserving of attention, your mind would literally be trained to either screen out that data, or it wouldn't have a means of processing that data so it would likely be experienced as intrusive, odd, manipulative, etc.

Cognitive neuroscience and neuropsychoanalysis are the fields of research which are integrating our century old understanding of the unconscious mind, internal fantasies, and object relations with the study of attachment behavior. This confluence of information refines previous notions within psychoanalysis and most importantly, points to actions of psychotherapy that lead to change.

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