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Friday, February 25, 2011

Attachment and "Bonding": The Mainstream and Some Eddies

Psychologists and clinical social workers will be surprised at my bothering to talk about the subject of this post, but if they look back over some recent comments they’ll see why this needs to be done. I’m going to review historical changes in ideas about emotional attachment and show where the mainstream is today.

Sigmund Freud’s discussion of attachment assumed that a child’s preference for a familiar caregiver depended on experiences of feeding-- a sort of “cupboard love”. He also considered that attachment could not begin until the end of the first year, when necessary cognitive abilities developed. While Freud considered early experiences essential in the shaping of personality, he focused on oral experiences rather than attachment per se as the important factor in early life.

A second generation of psychoanalysts in the 1930s included some whom Freud labeled “wild psychoanalysts”. These were people like Georg Groddeck and Sandor Ferenczi who emphasized the role of the body in emotional life. Ferenczi re-enacted parent-child caregiving actions with his patients, a method later advocated by the 1970s “antipsychiatrist” R.D. Laing. Without specifically discussing attachment, these therapists focused on early interactions that can be interpreted as related to attachment, and were concerned with earlier events than Freud usually focused on. One psychoanalyst, Otto Rank, pursued earlier and earlier causes of emotional problems and eventually held that birth itself was a traumatic event.

In the 1940s, therapists using hypnosis claimed that they could use a process of regression to return patients to early periods of development, and that this process could correct the impact of early problems. Within a few years, a popular book, The Search for Bridey Murphy, suggested to the public that hypnotic regression could return a person not just to an earlier stage of his or her development, but to a past life. Scientologists at about the same time contributed to this belief by stating that under their guidance it was possible to remember not only prenatal life but the moment of one’s conception. Popular acceptance of these ideas was not diminished by various studies like those of T.X. Barber, who showed that in fact age-regressed hypnotic subjects were no more accurate in their depiction of what they had been like at age 3 than they were when told they were now 90 (which they had not yet been). However, belief in memory of prenatal or pre-conception life was not part of mainstream psychological thinking about attachment or any other part of development.

With the publication of John Bowlby’s theory of attachment in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s , mainstream psychology developed an intense interest in attachment, and focused on the timing of this emotional process toward the end of the first year, as Bowlby suggested-- a schedule not very different from the one Freud had originally described. A small number of dissidents offered alternative claims about timing and causes of attachment. W. Ernst Freud (born Halberstadt; the son of Sigmund Freud’s daughter Sophie) published a chapter on “Prenatal Attachment” in a 1980 volume, The Course of Life, edited by Stanley Greenspan and George Pollock.

W.E. Freud’s claims were similar to those made by individuals such as William Emerson, a leader of the Association for Pre- and Perinatal Psychology and Health (APPPAH). Emerson has advocated the use of head and neck massage as a corrective for babies he considers to be influenced by their prenatal and birth circumstances. APPPAH was much influenced by the publications of Stanislav Grof, a psychiatrist, and Frank Lake, a psychiatrist and theologian, both of whom considered experiences induced by LSD to provide useful evidence about the nature of prenatal and birth experiences. These views, while considerably outside the mainstream of psychological thought, were treated with interest by the “psychohistory” school of historians. APPPAH also influenced the suggestion by Nancy Verrier that adopted children experience a “primal wound”.

In the 1970s, the “primal therapy” advocated by Arthur Janov contributed to this picture by its assumption that memory is not confined to the functioning of the nervous system, but is instead a biological function of all cells. Once again, this echoed some thinking of Scientologists and others outside the psychological mainstream.

In the early 1980s, work by M.H. Klaus and J.H.Kennell investigated maternal attitudes and referred to the strong preference of mothers for their babies, and their preoccupation with their babies, as “bonding”. This term was often confused with the term “attachment”, which is properly applied to babies and children, not to adults. Because in Klaus and Kennell’s original work “bonding” appeared to occur shortly after birth, lay readers may have come to believe that attachment occurs shortly after, or even before, birth. As a matter of fact, later work indicated that “bonding” often develops much more gradually than Klaus and Kennel originally reported--- and, to repeat the point, is in any case not an infant process, however much it may influence the infant.

Today, mainstream psychology continues to consider that emotional attachment arises as a result of experiences with a consistent, sensitive, responsive caregiver, and that this becomes evident only in the second half of the first year. For example, the University of Delaware clinician-researcher Mary Dozier, writing in Zero to Three for January 2011, refers to the new attachment concerns of foster children who are more than 10 or 11 months old when they are placed with a caregiver. Dozier and her co-authors also reject the biological factors suggested by Janov , Verrier, and others, stating that “the experience of loss is just as devastating when the infant is moved from a loving, committed foster parent as when he or she is moved from a committed biological parent… From an infant’s point of view, biological relatedness is inconsequential."

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Dr. Mercer! This is a nice concise resource to point to for people who insist that Primal Wound theory is mainstream psychology or science.