The Still Face Experiment, by Dr. Edward Tronick, is a powerful 3 min video that demonstrates how we, as humans, have a hard-wired need to connect with our tribe. It also shows how distressed we become when we are blocked from attaching to meaningful people in our life and we don’t get those nurturing needs met, especially in our early development. This forms the basis of our attachments through our life.
Here is why this matters…
Top 4 reasons Attachment Matters
- Attachment Styles shape how we parent and how we behave in our closest relationships with partners or friends. In fact, we can accurately predict a child’s attachment style before they are even born based on the attachment style of their primary caregivers. We can also accurately predict people’s attachment styles in romantic relationships in the same way. This happens because we can’t teach what we don’t know! Note: Attachment styles rarely change without conscious effort or intervention, but they can change!
2. When we don’t understand attachment styles and survival maps, we often make harmful interpretations about our own, our partner’s, or our children’s challenging behavior . For example, we may think “I am just lazy” because we procrastinate, when perhaps we were punished or ridiculed by our tribe when we were successful growing up, so of course we won’t feel safe and will sabotage our success if it means loosing our tribe or being rejected. Alternatively, we may think our child “always needs to be in control” or is “manipulative”, when they learned they are not safe backing off or not trying to control a situation. Perhaps we think they are just a “bad kid” when they just learned that “the best defence is a good offence,” and if they aren’t aggressive and mean, they will be the ones victimized.
3. Without understanding the root of problems, it is difficult to prevent or treat/ intervene effectively. You can see some of the blogs about “Filters and Survival Maps” for more information about this. I will also be writing about the different attachment styles next week.
4. Important because it is one of the biggest determinants of Quality of Life for both children and adults. This makes sense, as a tribal/ social species, whether or not we know how to have healthy tribe interactions will play a big role in our lives!
What we need to understand
1. Our lives as humans revolve around getting our needs met and ensuring our survival. This has been supported through 70+ years of research. This is most clearly illustrated by Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. We don’t pursue the higher level ones unless our most basic needs for survival are met first.
2. Because our brains are constantly receiving input from the world, it would be impossible to process and interpret it all. Within weeks of birth we start to create shortcuts or filters. Our brains more than triple in size in the first few years of life. We are biologically primed to learn and we learn mostly through relationships and associations. These filters are created based on our experiences, mostly with our primary caregivers. Our filters help us organize and predict the world. They help us feel safe and get our needs met. They become our survival maps. (Click here for more on survival maps).
3. In the Still Face Experiment, the baby had a map of the world that included the expectation that her mother will engage with her when she does certain things. It took the baby only a few seconds to notice when something changed. This really highlights how incredibly hard-wired we are to connect and the power of mirror-neurons, even in babies.
Mirror-Neurons are the part of our nervous system that allows us to mirror or reflect each other’s emotions. It is what makes us feel generally down when around sad or negative people, and generally upbeat when around happy people. It is an evolutionary adaptation to facilitate us co-existing as a social species. This allows us to be on the same page emotionally so we continue to work together, which ultimately increases our chances of survival.
In this 2 min video, we see a baby who looks to be about 5 mo. old, imitating their dad. Notice how when they imitate, it maintains the proximity and engagement of their caregiver, they figure that out and do it instinctively.
4. Children, especially when young, are hyper-attuned to the emotional state of their parents because their survival depends on the caregiver liking them. Attachment refers to the child’s experience of how consistently available their caregivers’ are (emotionally and physically). Attachment styles refer to the pattern of behaviour they have learned to use to try to keep their caregivers as close and available as possible. Basically, Attachment styles are people’s survival maps of relationships.
5. No one likes to feel scared and we actually feel like something terrible will happen when our survival maps are activated. Biologically, our bodies can’t distinguish between a perceived threat vs a an actual threat. This is why when we think someone is going to reject us, our bodies react as if it already happened, as if it is a fact. For example, for those of us who have learned we are not safe and can’t get our needs met when other people are upset, it feels panicky when someone is upset, even when it isn’t at us. It also makes us feel compelled to DO something to fix it- anything! (See any of the blogs about “Filters” for more information about this).
Given how dangerous it feels when our survival map is activated (which will be any time there is a situation that reminds us of a past unsafe situation, or when there is uncertainty and stress), once we have learned a particular survival map, it can be really hard to try something different. In fact, we often cling to it, even in the face of mounting evidence that it isn’t working. This is because we develop a bias where we will actually notice the times that support us using our map and we will ignore or minimize the times it didn’t work.
Now that you know why attachment is important and some of the basics, tune in next week when we introduce the different attachment styles!