The insecurely attached brain: How early social interactions can shape adult brain function

In a first review paper within the field, Patrik Vuilleumier and I recently proposed a model describing how attachment insecurities influence social brain function in healthy adults. It has been known for more than four decades that early social interactions can crucially shape social behavior throughout the lifespan. Evidence regarding the underlying neural mechanisms, however, has only started to emerge during the last years. Because attachment insecurities have a high prevalence, can be transmitted across generations, and increase the risk for social emotional disturbances, we hope our model can help advancing new prevention and treatment approaches.

Humans are a highly social species. We enjoy the company of friends and like sharing our personal experiences with others. Mutual social interactions and self-disclosure usually entail increased activity in our brain’s reward circuit: the very same network that is activated by basic reinforcers such as food or sex. It simply feels good to be social. Conversely, when we are socially excluded, activity increases in areas of our brain that mediate physical pain responses. Social rejection really does hurt.

In some people, however, these intrinsic links between social versus antisocial behavior and brain activity appear to be malfunctioning. Furthermore, such malfunction seems to trace back to unfavorable social interactions in early life. The brains of avoidantly attached healthy adults have been found to insufficiently activate, but the brains of anxiously attached adults to excessively respond to social and antisocial cues. Yet, what does it mean to be avoidantly or anxiously attached?

Attachment theory proposes that every child is born with an innate attachment system. Its biological function is to enhance survival through proximity seeking in times of need. Although all children become attached, their attachment can be insecure. In the case of attachment avoidance, children experience repeated interactions with unresponsive attachment figures. They therefore learn to expect social rejection and fail to associate social behavior with positive feelings. In the case of attachment anxiety, children experience repeated interactions with inconsistent attachment figures. Sometimes they are comforted by others, sometimes rejected, and this in an unpredictable way. As a consequence, anxiously attached children become overly sensitive to cues of social approval and disapproval.

Attachment theory furthermore states that these negative early attachment patterns remain rather stable during the lifespan. An insecure attachment style can thus influence social behavior and associated brain function from childhood through adolescence and adulthood. In addition, evidence summarized in our review paper indicates that attachment insecurities not only affect directly attachment-related processes (e.g., parent-infant relationships), but (almost) all social interactions, even with strangers.

Roughly 40% of individuals are insecurely attached. In addition, the plot thickens that attachment insecurities can be transmitted across generations. Insecurely attached people also run a higher risk for developing psychological and psychiatric disorders. A better understanding of the neural basis of an insecure attachment style therefore is of high general interest. If we learn how to successfully prevent and treat attachment insecurities, we can proactively increase the wellbeing of future generations.

The above described review paper appeared in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, and is freely available here:

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  • As a lay person I may not be clued in on the whole thing. But it seems like a futile and very societal constricting idea. Ican say for sure that right now I insecurely attached through avoidance. I am working through it but it has do with the fact that I am Transgender and for a very long time I didn't anyone to get close enough to find out.

    I ams ure you can imagine a myriad of reasons. Most of which involve a fear rejection and possible physical harm. But that can only be cured by two things: 1. I found the courage to let people in. It is a lonely existence. 2. A change in our culture's perception of difference. 

    The other huge flaw in this is the pretentious notion that everyone needs to be defined as normal and the very narrow definition of normal. Perhaps that is where you can start, broadening the cultural derfinition of normal. Because based  on cultural standards I do not fit neatly in the norm.   

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    • Pascal Vrticka
    • Research Scientist, Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences
    • 3 yrs ago
    • flag

    Thanks much for your comment, Lilah.

    I think you raise a very important point by asking the question of what is normal and what is not. In my research, I usually measure attachment in healthy individuals. The attachment distribution I have described above therefore represents a normal pattern. Some people are more secure, some more anxious, and others more avoidant (in terms of their attachment). This simply is the observed range of attachment style in healthy people and does not classify anybody into normal or abnormal. It is like saying that somebody is more extraverted, without any further judgment.

    Another important issue your post mentions is the awareness of our own attachment style. This is exactly what would like to promote. If we know how we function in close relationships, then we can talk about it with our interaction partners, ask them about their attachment style, and thus figure out together what is the best way to relate to each other.

    Altogether, I personally see attachment style as a very useful tool for improving social relationships. We can hardly influence our social interactions early in life, but we can actively modify them when we grow older. In my opinion, this action upon the quality of our relationships with others can only profit from knowing more about attachment style and its neural basis.

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  • What I am curious about how "healthy" is defined. What are the criteria to define healthy? Do you use MRIs, questionnaires, observations or all of the above? I assume there is a spectrum but how narrow or wide is it? One thing that has always bothered me is the need to define normal. Also is there an extreme at the other end, say someone who requires constant validation of self?  I think the hardest part is to find ways to change a culture that thrives on humiliating others to boost self esteem.    

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    • Pascal Vrticka
    • Research Scientist, Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences
    • 3 yrs ago
    • flag

    Lilah -- as in most studies of this kind, we define "healthy" by relying upon a number of different criteria. Participants should not have any psychological, psychiatric or neurological problems (e.g., depression, trauma, personality disorder, epilepsy, etc.). Participants should also not abuse drugs/alcohol and not take any prescribed medication known to importantly alter brain function (e.g., anti-depressants). In addition, participants' personality scores should not deviate too strongly from the average because this could cause data artifacts. Finally, participant age, gender, IQ, handedness etc. might also be a concern.

    In some cases, however, studies are particularly interested in determining differences between healthy controls (as defined above) and patients (e.g., depressed persons) - so to speak between "normal" and the "extreme at the other end" as you write. In that case, additional criteria are employed to determine who can be admitted to the study as a patient (e.g., disease duration, medicated versus non-medicated, etc). These criteria may vary from study to study as a function of the disease that is being assessed.

    Regarding your general concern about the "need to define normal", you may want to check out other contributions in this forum (e.g.: Exploring the origins of "us" and "them"). There is a very interesting line of research on the topic of implicit biases / prejudice that could be better suited to introduce you to concepts related to "normal" versus "abnormal" in a cultural context.

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