A decade of research focused on the neurobiology of attachment clearly shows that primary caregivers regulate their children’s affect, which in turn connects and organizes the neural networks in the brain, thus affecting the child’s future ability to be emotionally self-regulated. All future development rests upon these early regulatory foundations, which allow children the freedom to learn and develop in an organized and secure fashion.
“Sensitive” parenting has long been associated with secure attachment (Ainsworth et al., 1978; De Wolf & van IJzendoorn, 1997 (mothers); van IJzendoorn & De Wolff, 1997 (fathers). However, sensitive can have many definitions within an expanded range. For example, The New International Webster’s Concise Dictionary’s (International Encyclopedic Edition, 2000, p. 666) first definition is “of or pertaining to the senses or sensation;” second definition, “receptive and responsive to sensations;” third, “responding readily to sensations esp. of a particular kind: a sensitive ear.” Only when we get to the fourth definition do we find something useful that could be applied to the attachment relationship: “acutely receptive or responsive to the quality or strength of attitudes, feelings, or relationships.” Then the definition widely diverges from something useful: definition 5: “capable of appreciating aesthetic or intellectual subtleties;” 6: “easily irritated;” 7: “hurt;” 8: “reacting excessively,” etc.
Schore’s regulation theory (Schore, 1994; Schore & Schore, 2008) is more useful for on-the-ground clinicians, especially those involved in infant/parent interventions, in that Schore states that the caregiver “must be psychobiologically attuned to the dynamic shifts in the infant’s bodily based internal states of central and autonomic arousal (Schore, 2012, p. 32).” Simply stated, attunement is the ability to connect to the interior states and feelings of another (at any age), as such a connection has everything to do with emotional regulation. It also has everything to do with the ability to feel known (Newton, 2009, 2013, 2017).
Science has advanced to now studying the synchrony between two brains. This is the wave of the future that will likely provide illumination on the power of attunement. For example, Sethre-Hofstad, Stansbury, & Rice (2002) found that sensitive mothers’ physiological response was also significantly correlated with their toddlers’ physiological response [emphasis mine]. Since the lack of synchrony between 4-month-old infants and their mothers predicted insecure, ambivalent and disorganized attachment at 12 months of age (Beebe et al., 2010, 2012), attunement with its resulting products of resonance and synchrony must have something to do with the powerful force of biological entrainment. (Newton, 2009, 2013, 2017).
In a 2017 fMRI study, Ruth Feldman’s group found synchronous high intensity gamma waves in the superior temporal sulcus of the right hemisphere of both mother and child watching their positive interaction on a previously taken video. Gamma waves were associated with mother/child synchrony, but they were not found when mother and child watched video of their own conflictual interaction, nor were they found when they were watching interactions between unfamiliar mother/child dyads. The authors state that “Such self-own-child neural synchrony implicates bottom-up processes at both the neural and the behavioral levels” (Levy, Goldstein, & Feldman, p. 1043) [emphasis mine].
Brain-to-brain synchrony or coupling is a much-needed area of study—particularly for those of us working within primary biological entrainment periods (pregnancy and the first two years of life) or with adults who experienced traumas as children during this period. Since the primary biological entrainment period appears to correspond with the critical developmental period of the nonlinear, relational, right hemisphere (Chiron et al., 1997; Mento et al., 2010), continued scientific focus and resources for this period are urgently needed.
Dr. Ruth Newton is a licensed clinical psychologist specialized in the use of attachment and affect regulation theories in interventions from birth through adulthood. She has been a member of the Allan Schore Los Angeles Study Group for Interpersonal Neurobiology since 2004 and the founding clinical supervisor for the Therapeutic Childcare program at St. Vincent de Paul Village. Dr. Newton is the author of The Attachment Connection designed to help parents raise secure, emotionally regulated children and the originator of Integrative Regulation Therapy (iRT), a neurobiological evidence-informed limbic system scaffolding used for observation, assessment, and interventions for all ages. Dr. Newton is the founder and director of the Newton Center for Affect Regulation (NCAR) and has developed an iRT training program for clinicians entitled Scaffolding the Brain. She is endorsed by the California Center for Infant-Family and Early Childhood Mental Health as an Infant-Family and Early Childhood Mental Health Specialist and Reflective Practice Facilitator III/Mentor.
Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M.C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the Strange Situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Beebe, B., Jaffe, J., Markese, S., Buck, K., Chen, H., Cohen, P., Bahrick, L., Andrews, H., & Feldstein, S. (2010). The origins of 12-month attachment: A microanalysis of 4-month mother-infant interaction. Attachment & Human Development, 12(1-2), 3-141.
Beebe, B., Lachmann, F. M., Markese, S., Buck, K. A., Bahrick, L. E., Chen, H., Cohen, P., Andrews, H., Feldstein, S., & Jaffee, J. (2012). On the origins of disorganized attachment and internal working models: Paper II. An empirical microanalysis of 4- month mother-infant interaction. Psychoanalytic Dialogues: The International Journal of Relational Perspectives, 22(3), 352-374.
Chiron, C., Jambaque, I., Nabbout, R., Lounes, R., Syrota, A., & Dulac, O. (1997). The right brain hemisphere is dominant in human infants. Brain, 120, 1057-1065.
De Wolff, M. S., & van IJzendoorn, M. H. (1997). Sensitivity and attachment: A meta-analysis on parental antecedents of infant attachment. Child Development, 68(4), 571-591.
Levy, J., Goldstein, A., & Feldman, R. (2017). Perception of social synchrony induces mother-child gamma coupling in the social brain. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 1036-1046.
Mento, G., Suppiej, A., Altoe, G., & Bisiacchi, P. S. (2010). Functional hemispheric asymmetries in humans: Electrophysiological evidence from preterm infants. European Journal of Neuroscience, 31(3), 565-574.
Newton, R. P. (2009, 2013, 2017). Scaffolding the brain: A neurobiological approach to assessment and intervention: Integrative Regulation Therapy (iRT). Unpublished manuscript.
Schore, A.N. (1994). Affect regulation and the origin of the self: The neurobiology of emotional development. Mahweh, NJ: Erlbaum.
Schore, A. N. (2012). The science of the art of psychotherapy. New York: Norton.
Schore, J., & Schore, A. (2008). Modern attachment theory: The Central role of affect regulation in development and treatment. Clinical Social Work Journal, 36(1), 9-20.
The New International Webster’s Concise Dictionary. International Encyclopedic Edition. (2000) S. I. Landau, (Ed.). Trident Press International.
van IJzendoorn, M. H., & De Wolff, M. S. (1997). In search of the absent father-meta-analyses of infant-father attachment: A rejoinder to our discussants. Child Development, 68(4), 604-609.
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