Neuroscience and Attachment

By understanding some of our brain anatomy and functioning regarding relationships it can bring clarity and deeper understanding of what happens during attachment between a new-born baby and their primary caregivers and why it is so important. I have felt passionate about this branch of science for some time, for me it links together intuition and scientific in a fascinating way. It helps to explain things that happen instinctively. I love knowing why it felt so comfortable cuddling my baby on my left side or why it feels so great when a baby begins to smile back in response to me smiling at them. Then to actually find out that these things each has an area of the brain dedicated to their function: how amazing!

On a basic level our brains are not much different to any animal. But the difference is that our brains are like a layer cake. We share the inner most layer with most animals as it evolved some two hundred and fifty million years ago. That is the reptilian brain, maybe you have heard of it before? Many antenatal classes talk of our different brains. The reptilian brain is concerned with sensory input. The second layer of the cake is the Limbic system or Mammalian brain. This brain is concerned with feeling and evolved about one hundred million years ago. The final layer, like a thin smear of icing on the top of the other two, only evolved a mere two or three million years ago. It is our Neocortex. This is what makes us human. It is our thinking brain and it looks like it is running the show but we must not forget the other layers underneath.

Understanding the functional organisation of the brain helps us to understand why we do many of the things we do and to increase compassion for self and others. Many of our feelings and body sensations are beyond our conscious control, being linked to our Limbic or Reptilian brains. We’ll look at how further on.

Many of us also know about the two sides of our brains, the left and right hemispheres. They have different functions and also develop at different times. The left brain is concerned with languages and logic. It is creative and optimistic (‘I can do it’). It works with symbols and puts a time stamp on things, memories are remembered as a when such and such happened.

The right hemisphere is non-verbal and procedural. It is pessimistic (‘Why bother, I know I can’t’) and works with feelings. There is no time stamp in the right hemisphere. It will store feelings up and bring them up when triggered, often without us being conscious of that happening. Have you ever had your computer functioning slow down for no apparent reason? Then later on found out that anti-virus software had come on silently in the background with was slowing down the functioning…Well the right hemisphere is like that. It is also the only hemisphere that develops in utero and continues to operate on its own until the baby is eighteen months old when the left hemisphere begins to operate as well. This is the reason why most of us cannot remember our births or babyhood as the information was encoded in our brain only as feelings about ourselves and others, with no time stamp.

In the early weeks of a baby’s life it is completely dependent on its bonds of attachment with other human beings to care for it and keep it alive. Due to this need there is a whole area of the brain related to attachment and it is located in the….yes you’ve guessed it … the right hemisphere.

When we hold a baby in the nook of our left arm and turn our head down to the left to gaze at them as they turn their head up to the right something amazing happens. Our right hemisphere connects with their right hemisphere triggering attachment. Then the Polyuagal Theory, which is devoted to the control of facial expression (which might not seem directly linked to the survival of our species but is) kicks into action. The joy expressed in Mama’s face is taken in by baby, who then (when they get control of their facial muscles) can smile right back. The good feelings will ping pong back and forth between mother and baby firing their mirror neurons. Then the good feelings being created inside baby will be taken into their insula where a sense of self is being created. Good attachment also means a good sense of resilience and competence. Poor attachment, for example of Mama is distracted or depressed, will mean that the referring loops being fed into the insula are giving a different message.

For good attachment to happen there is a need for trust and safety. In their absence poor attachment can mean that our self-image becomes a self-judging inner critic instead of an inner resource. Our right orbital pre-frontal cortex when activated affects how we feel about ourselves in relation to others, ‘I make people happy, I belong.’ Our right insula affects how we feel about ourselves, ‘this is me, I am good.’ The right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex relates to directed gaze, so important for bonding and attachment. The right occipital controls vision and mirror neutrons which are in service of attachment bond formation. Mirror neutrons function to mirror the internal feeling in the body of what state of feeling of another person is. So if someone tells how they gashed their leg on a rusty nail we say ‘ow’ and rub our own leg as we can feel, in our body, what they felt, in their body. It is not conscious compassion, its root is the need to bond with and be attached to other human beings, to belong to the group which also meant survival. The right medical prefrontal is where mirrored interception is recorded. All these right hemisphere parts of the brain are activated when a baby is held/fed on the left hand side of the caregiver.

This knowledge makes me wonder about my own childhood, as well as feeling excited about how I could use this information to help other new mothers understand the importance of attachment in the early days. Had I had good attachment with my parents? If I hadn’t how would I know? Could I do anything about that now as an adult?

Secure attachment in early life stimulates parts of the brain related to sense of self and sense of self in relation to others. Good attachment makes us more resilient to trauma. Understanding how our brains work and why brings in the light of awareness into our lives. Yes, we can continue in the future being more mindful of making strong attachment with our babies.  Yes, we can be more compassionate with ourselves knowing that things happen that are out of our control.

The final message is that we don’t need to do anything, but just to be with what is, feel what we feel, bring awareness to ourselves. Or as Eckhart Tolle said, ‘accept it as if you’d chosen it.’



References :

Dr Roberta Bennett & Mr Phillip Jones

Gaskin, I, M. (2003) Ina May’s Guide To Childbirth, Vermillion, London.

Odent, M. (1999) The Scientification of Love, Free Association Press.

Simply Birth (2013) Active Birth by Janet Balaskas,




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