Bowlby: Attachment, Fears, Phobias, Death Drive from Infancy to Old Age – V

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Bowlby’s interpretations of children’s fears and phobias spring from the evolutionary view of attachment and entail a very different theory of explanation to that of the death drive. The new concept of instinctive behaviour, familiar to ethologists for many years, makes the traditional antithesis between innate and acquired characteristics unnecessary. Every class of behaviour is a product of the interaction of genetic endowment and a specific environment. Although the human species has a tremendous capacity for versatility and innovation, many behavioural systems only operate in their environment of evolutionary adaptedness, points out Prof. Ashoka, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.

An evolutionary perspective is necessary to make sense of the last two characteristics of instinctive responses listed by Bowlby: first, that the consequences of a sequence of instinctive responses may contribute to the preservation of an individual or the continuity of a species, second, an instinctual response may develop in an individual “even when the ordinary opportunities for learning it are exiguous or absent” (Bowlby, 1969). Clinicians usually do not consider the evolutionary context. Frequently, their background is in medicine and they have not been trained to interpret the behaviour of individuals within the context of species survival. Moreover, clinical practice does not provide much opportunity to acquire this perspective.   

Consideration of the evolutionary perspective should affect psychoanalytic theory and practice. What sort of inferences do clinicians make when they are unable to explain behaviour in terms of the individual, including his or her particular history and present environment? The practitioner usually concludes that such behaviour is caused by “constitutional” factors or that it is a bizarre externalisation of the patient’s phantasy life. Melanie Klein’s concept of persecutory anxiety, a state that gives rise to all sorts of destructive phantasies and is itself consequent upon the workings of the death instinct, exemplifies this sort of explanation. Bowlby’s interpretations of children’s fears and phobias spring from the evolutionary view of attachment and entail a very different theory of explanation to that of the death drive. 

The new concept of instinctive behaviour, familiar to ethologists for many years, makes the traditional antithesis between innate and acquired characteristics unnecessary. Every class of behaviour is a product of the interaction of genetic endowment and a specific environment. Although the human species has a tremendous capacity for versatility and innovation, many behavioural systems only operate in their environment of evolutionary adaptedness. Moreover, this adaptedness is a property not only of the individual but of the population. 

The Nature and Function of Attachment Behaviour from Infancy to Old Age 

In 1958, Bowlby published “The Nature of the Child’s Tie to His Mother.” This paper marked the second major juncture in Bowlby’s intellectual development and was pivotal to many of the ideas that he pursued later. In this work, the somewhat anecdotal comments and observations of “Child Care and the Growth of Love” (1953) coalesce into a coherent theory. He no longer underpins his argument with references to Freud but rather to ethology and the new evolutionary point of view. Bowlby had not yet incorporated the systemic approach, but his terms now belonged to that framework. 

This paper confronted the various psychoanalytic schools with a direct challenge. Despite subsequent developments in Bowlby’s attachment theory, this critique remains a valuable summary of many of the major differences between the attachment and psychoanalytic viewpoints. Much of the paper is devoted to an informative and incisive account of four traditional theories of the child’s tie to the mother: 

  1. The theory of the secondary drive. According to the view, the baby becomes interested in and attached to his mother as a result of her meeting the baby’s physiological needs. In due course, the infant learns that she is also the source of gratification.
  2. The theory of primary object sucking. The infant has an inbuilt need to relate to a human breast, to suck it, and to possess it orally. In due course, the infant learns that attached to the breast is a mother with whom he or she must develop a relationship.
  3. The theory of primary object clinging. There exists an inbuilt need to touch and cling to a human being, and this need is on a par with the need for food and warmth. 
  4. The theory of primary return-to-womb craving. Infants resent their extrusion from the womb and seek to return there. 
  5. In this early account of attachment, Bowlby includes the theory of primary object clinging. This view had been proposed by Imre Herman in Budapest and adopted by Alice Balint and Michael Balint. Together with W. R. D. Fairbairn and Donald Winnicott, they were to become prominent members of the British Middle Group. This school of psychoanalysis, to which Bowlby belongs, shares with him an emphasis on bonding and object relating over gratification or the avoidance of pain. Bowlby (1958) lists five instinctual responses—sucking, clinging, following, crying and smiling. These five instinctual responses “serve the function of binding the child to the mother and contribute to the reciprocal dynamic of binding the mother to the child…. Unless there are powerful inbuilt responses which ensure that the infant evokes maternal care and remains in close proximity to his mother throughout the years of childhood, he will die” 

Bowlby remarks upon the vast discrepancy between formulations springing from empirical observation and those made in abstract discussions. He points out that leading child analysts with the first-hand experience of infancy, such as Anna Freud, Dorothy Burlingham, Melanie Klein, Therese Benedek, and Rene Spitz, are apt to describe such interactions in terms suggesting a primary social bond. In their theorizing, however, they persist in describing social interaction as secondary.

Bowlby’s paper also challenges the traditional psychoanalytic view of morality. First, he downplays both sucking and the primary orientation towards the mother’s breast. He argues that psychoanalytic theory is fixated on this response and that clinging and following play a more central role in the later disturbance. Both Bowlby and Margaret Mahler emphasize the importance in the ontogenesis of the pathology of disturbances arising during the second half of the second year. In Mahler’s view, the rapprochement phase of the separation-individuation process is particularly stormy because the child’s growing independence conflicts with the continuing need for mother’s care and control. Bowlby focuses more on the mother’s rejection of the child’s clinging and following. He also points out that an infant’s oral behaviour has two functions: attachment as well as feeding. Western culture has overlooked the fact that the infant spends more time in non-nutritional sucking than in feeding. Whereas traditional psychoanalysis views oral symptoms as regressive to an earlier, more infantile stage of development, Bowlby interprets such disturbances as displacements. Within the context of attachment, oral symptoms designate the substitution of a part for a whole. They chronicle the splitting off of feeding on the rest of a relationship. Compulsive thumb sucking might express a frustrated attachment or even a displacement of the non-nutritional aspect of feeding itself, rather than regression to some autoerotic stage. 

In similar fashion, Bowlby distinguishes sexuality from attachment in loving (traditionally called libidinal) relationships. Although these two systems are closely related and share some of the same patterns of behaviour, they are distinct. Their activation varies independently of one another. Each directs itself towards a different class of objects and is sensitised at a different age. 

As already noted, Bowlby holds attachment behaviour to be instinctual and on a par with the pursuit of sex and food. He expresses his fundamental difference with traditional psychoanalysis most clearly in his interpretation of the complex repertoire of behaviours with which the infant maintains proximity to his or her caretaker. For Bowlby, the primary function of this behavioural system is to insure the child’s survival and protection from predators. Most psychoanalysts do not think in such terms. Although they do enumerate various primitive mechanisms of defence, none of these concern the survival of the individual in his or her environment. The term “defence” is used to refer to psychological processes, such as projection, projective identification, idealisation, denial, splitting, repression, and regression. Bowlby follows traditional usage by reserving the word “defence” for psychological defences and using the word “protection” when talking about the function of attachment behaviour. Since this distinction does not exist in traditional theory, the child’s tenacious efforts to keep close to his mother are not usually seen as related to a social system in which they elicit reciprocal responses of retrieval and picking up. Rather, the child’s demands for closeness are interpreted one-sidedly as a denial of separateness or as an attempt to omnipotently control the “object” for the fulfilment of narcissistic wishes. The infant is seen as using crying and clinging as weapons of control. Some analysts even believe that the infant’s clinging and grasping and enjoyment of being held indicate a wish for the return to the womb. 

In general, the evolutionary viewpoint leads us to interpret a great deal of human behaviour, whether of children or mature adults, as cooperative rather than self-seeking. Since the unit of biological adaptation is the social group and not the individual, survival depends upon cooperation. Psychoanalysis has concentrated on those behavioural systems that are limited by particular events, such as orgasm, eating, or elimination, and has ignored systems such as attachment whose goal is a constant state. Attachment theorists believe that only an indirect relationship exists between such interactions as feeding, weaning and toilet training, and a healthy attachment. Attachment is neither a developmental stage nor a system limited by an event. Its continuing set-goal is a certain sort of relationship to another specific individual. Attachment is regarded as the product of a control system that maintains homeostasis by means of behavioural rather than physiological processes. The maintenance of proximity between child and mother is a kind of environmental homeostasis. As Bowlby points out, there are many alternative ways of maintaining this homeostasis. However, the organization that controls these behaviours is conceived as permanent and central to a child’s personality. This organization is never idle. As Bowlby (1969) says: “In order for a control system to perform its function effectively it must be equipped with sensors to keep it informed of relevant events, and these events it must continuously monitor and appraise.” In the case of an attachment control system, the events being monitored fall into two classes: one, potential danger or stress (external or internal), and two, the whereabouts and accessibility of the attachment figure. 

(To be continued)

©Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

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Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the ‘most educationally qualified in the world’.