We need social connection from the cradle to the grave. Our bodies and brains have evolved to connect with one another1, so strongly that social isolation and loneliness literally kills2. It therefore is vital to understand how social connection works and how it affects our bodily and mental health.
Attachment theory3, one of the most comprehensive current psychology frameworks, is ideally suited to shed light on the inner workings of social connection. Through an attachment lens, we can assess how social connection enables us to not only survive but also thrive. And what happens when we experience a lack of social connection, especially during infancy and childhood. We can learn even more when we consider social connection from a combined attachment and social neuroscience perspective revealing its neurobiological underpinnings.
Social connection as survival strategy
If we feel unwell, threatened or alone, it is our innate response to reach out for help – for a lending hand, a hug or soothing words. From an evolutionary viewpoint, social connection is our primary survival strategy. But why do we instinctively engage in proximity seeking when we feel distressed? We reach out for help under distress because our brains treat social resources as if they were our own. The more we can draw upon others’ resources, the more our own bioenergetic resources can be conserved – as if our own energy were literally increased4. Attachment theory neatly captures this intrinsic link between social connection and energy conservation. It postulates that we engage in proximity seeking under distress because being close to others allows us to draw upon their resources for co-regulation. Initially rather unspecific, proximity seeking becomes increasingly targeted at those people around us who are most available and responsive – because they help us co-regulate and thereby conserve our energy most efficiently and reliably. And these are also the people to whom we become securely attached. For a summary, see Figure 1 below.
What happens if our social connection is reduced or if we feel as if it were reduced? Under these circumstances, we need to look for other ways of keeping our bodily and mental balance. We do so by employing compensatory mechanisms or, in attachment terms, secondary attachment strategies. One compensatory mechanism is to decrease proximity seeking and increase self-regulation. We get ready to face future challenges on our own. This self-focussed secondary attachment strategy reflecting an “individual fight” response is associated with attachment avoidance. Another compensatory mechanism is to intensify our proximity seeking behaviour to re-establish social connection. This other-focussed secondary attachment strategy reflecting a “social flight” response is linked to attachment anxiety. Finally, when social connection is completely removed or becomes a threat by itself, compensatory mechanisms may become more rigid and extreme, or can even break down entirely. In infancy and childhood, this usually happens after prolonged neglect and/or abuse and can – but by no means necessarily has to – lead to attachment disorganisation.
For a summary, see Figure 2 below.
Objective social neuroscience data
We owe many of the insights about the tight interplay between social connection and energy conservation to a novel combination of traditional attachment assessment methods and state-of-the-art social neuroscience tools. One key insight based on our recent functional neuro-anatomical models of human attachment (NAMA5 & NAMDA6) is that social connection is orchestrated by several intertwined neural networks spanning almost the entire brain. We furthermore know that the compensatory mechanisms that kick in if we are or feel socially disconnected can profoundly alter the functioning and structure of these intertwined neural networks. Social disconnection not only alters how the brain processes negative information like threat or anger (i.e., aversion module), but also how it responds to positive information and reward (i.e., approach module). Social disconnection furthermore influences which neural processes we employ for distress regulation (i.e., regulation module) and how effective they are, as well as how the brain builds mental representations of ourselves and others (i.e., mental representation module). In a nutshell: Social disconnection changes what we do, who we think we are and how we see everybody and everything around us (see Figure 3 below).
Most importantly, we can now see how social disconnection affects our bodily and mental resources. Not being able to draw upon others’ resources for distress regulation means that many of our own resources must be devoted to increased self-regulation or intensified proximity seeking. And these resources then naturally become unavailable for other important tasks like exploration and learning, self-care and caregiving.
Understanding how social connection works and how it affects our bodily and mental health is of utmost importance. Looking at social connection through a combined attachment and social neuroscience lens starts unravelling its inner workings. In doing so, energy conservation associated with distress co-regulation emerges as a key mechanism. Social connection is vital from the moment we are born and therefore tightly linked to early infant-parent attachment. Attachment, in turn, is known to strongly influence how infants grow their social brains7. It therefore is crucial to translate the emerging social neuroscience of attachment findings for as many parents, but also practitioners, early-year educators and teachers as possible. The free Babygro Book8 published by the UK Charity Babygro and based on NAMA5 is a first step in this direction.
Recommendations and outlook
While we start applying the above-described combined attachment and social neuroscience approach to social connection, we need to be aware of some limitations. First, there unfortunately is quite some confusion about attachment terminology. We therefore often get lost in translation when we talk about attachment theoretical concepts and research. To help redress the situation, the Society for Emotion and Attachment Studies (SEAS) published an excellent and free online guide9 listing brief and usable outlines of technical meanings used by the attachment community. Second, we should be careful not to misattribute attachment labels when working with children and their caregivers. This especially holds true for attachment disorganisation that can have a multitude of causes and cannot be “diagnosed” from short encounters10. We should therefore rather focus on employing attachment-informed approaches based on objective social neuroscience evidence to create safe and revitalising environments for children and their caregivers. Finally, we need to be aware of social neuroscience’s intrinsic limitations and the often oversimplified way neurobiological processes are portrayed in the media. Social neuroscience data is complex and can only contribute one piece to the overall puzzle. Nonetheless, if applied and reported adequately, a combined attachment and social neuroscience approach has great potential to shed light on the inner workings of social connection. And it will hopefully enable us to develop promising new intervention and prevention strategies in the near future.
1) Cacioppo, J. T., Berntson, G. G., & Decety, J. (2010). Social neuroscience and its relationship to social psychology. Social cognition, 28(6), 675–685. https://doi.org/10.1521/soco.2010.28.6.675
2) Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review. Perspectives on psychological science, 10(2), 227–237. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691614568352
3) Handbook of attachment, third edition: Theory, research, and clinical applications. Jude Cassidy and Phillip R. Shaver (Eds.), New York: Guilford Press, 2016, 1,068 pp., ISBN 978-1-4625-2529-4.
4) Coan, J. A., & Sbarra, D. A. (2015). Social Baseline Theory: The Social Regulation of Risk and Effort. Current opinion in psychology, 1, 87–91. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2014.12.021
5) Long, M., Verbeke, W., Ein-Dor, T., & Vrtička, P. (2020). A functional neuro-anatomical model of human attachment (NAMA): Insights from first- and second-person social neuroscience. Cortex 126, 281–321. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cortex.2020.01.010
6) White, L. O., Schulz, C. C., Schoett, M., Kungl, M. T., Keil, J., Borelli, J. L., & Vrtička, P. (2020). Conceptual Analysis: A Social Neuroscience Approach to Interpersonal Interaction in the Context of Disruption and Disorganization of Attachment (NAMDA). Frontiers in psychiatry, 11, 517372. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2020.517372
7) Atzil, S., Gao, W., Fradkin, I., & Barrett, L. F. (2018). Growing a social brain. Nature human behaviour, 2(9), 624–636. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-018-0384-6
8) Babygro Book. Can be downloaded free of charge at https://babygro.org/about
9) Society for Emotion and Attachment Studies (2021). Explanations of attachment theoretical concepts. Version April 2021. https://seasinternational.org/explanations-of-attachment-theoretical-concepts/
10) Granqvist, P., et al. (2017). Disorganized attachment in infancy: a review of the phenomenon and its implications for clinicians and policy-makers. Attachment & Human Development; https://doi.org/10.1080/14616734.2017.1354040. Also see online summary by the University of Cambridge Research Communications office: http://www.phpc.cam.ac.uk/pcu/experts-express-concerns-infant-mental-health-assessment/
This post appeared as an article in the British Association for Community Child Health (BACCH) Newsletter in December 2022 (original post can be accessed here) and is a summary of Dr Vrticka’s keynote talk at the BACCH Annual Scientific Meeting 2022 on September 20, 2022 (talk recording can be accessed here.