Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Making & Breaking of Affectional Bonds

John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth developed attachment theory by applying to human beings that branch of observational biology (developed by K. Lorenz and N. Tinbergen) known as “ethology” because it investigates the ethos or character of a species as the heritable result of its evolutionary environment (Bowlby, 1969). Like bees, dolphins, or our fellow primates, ours is a profoundly social species whose neurological makeup requires for its health and development a rich tissue of interpersonal relationships. Attachment theory focuses on the neural and behavioral unfolding of the first relationship—mother and infant—and the way this earliest relationship tends to act as a template for later relationships.

The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds comprises a selection of Bowlby’s lectures from the 1950’s through the 1970’s, as A Secure Base collects some of his lectures from the 1980’s. Both volumes, especially the earlier, show Bowlby trying to reach his profession with a message for which they are not entirely ready. If Darwin pulled down human vanity by discovering our origins to be continuous with those of all the other organisms on Earth, Freud further injured our vanity by discovering the unconscious as our hidden master. Bowlby’s own insult to human vanity resulted from his synthesis of Darwin and Freud—at some cost to the latter’s metapsychology.

As Darwin derived the body of mankind from the bodies of predecessor organisms, Bowlby derived the human psyche from the unfolding, in lived experience, of those heritable attachment behaviors with which evolution has provided our species. Though this particular heritable repertoire of attachment needs and behaviors seems unique to our species, it is entirely consistent with our position in the animal kingdom that we do in fact have such a repertoire. Freud had read his Darwin and understood mankind to be one animal among the others; unfortunately, Freud’s understanding of “drive” or “instinct” was limited to the important domains of sexuality and aggression. That left the rest of human life to be explained by reference to culture, and its effects on the expression of those two basic drives. If Freud uses the term “instinct” as a black box labeled “sex and death,” Bowlby’s recourse to ethology gives “instinct” real behavioral content, this time grounded in the evolutionary imperatives of survival and heredity (not in a Cartesian metaphysics, nor in a bourgeois social arrangement that fostered atomized individualism).

Today, the revolutions in cognitive and (especially) affective neuroscience have verified Bowlby’s account of infant development. The result, perhaps best represented by the work of Allan Shore, is a new synthesis comprising neuropsychology, attachment theory, and the considerable portion of “object relations” psychology that remains compelling.

In Making and Breaking, Bowlby exerts pressure on his rivals in psychoanalysis—especially the followers of his erstwhile supervisor, Melanie Klein, whose emphasis on the role of unconscious fantasy seemed to Bowlby to be more applicable to adults and children than to infants. He is also at odds with the behaviorist psychology that was in the ascendant in midcentury, a synthesis of Pavlov and B. F. Skinner called “learning theory.” Whereas that synthesis has been largely swept from the field, psychoanalysis is still around, and it is just catching up to John Bowlby now, in the 21st Century. The meantime was occupied with a great arc of polemical psychoanalytic theorizing by I. Hoffman, O. Renik, R. Stolorow, T. Ogden, S. Mitchell, and many, many others, all at pains to wake analysis from the dogmatic slumber of Freudian metapsychology. The theory of psychoanalysis they developed is called “intersubjectivity,” or in somewhat different versions, “interpersonal” or “relational” psychoanalysis. By any name, it amounts to the momentous discovery that human beings require relationships; that there are two simultaneous but distinct human beings in any psychoanalysis, or any mating pair, or any nursing couple; that the dogmas of a one-person psychology were just a weird intellectual aberration, the long shadow of Freud the 19th Century positivist. His thought, together with that of his contemporaries like the physicist Helmholtz, trained psychologists to think like medical laboratory experimentalists whose precious surgical objectivity lay in their detachment from the object (the patient) they observed.

It should never have been necessary for Harry Harlow to torment infant Rhesus monkeys with maternal deprivation, in order to “discover” that primate babies need their mothers for love, not just for food. The horrific “hospitalism” that R. Spitz found inside the walls of institutions was not the result of faulty scientific knowledge, but of understaffing, bureaucratic organization (which conducts responsibility away from individual actors), and trauma (which makes for deficits in parenting skills) in the staff. The faulty scientific knowledge was just the ideological convenience that gave participating adults the necessary white lab coats and sociopathy. From kings to kittens, everybody knows that baby mammals need love.

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