Blogging Attachment theory

Posted in emotions, John Bowlby, parenting, personality, psychoanalysis on November 18, 2010 by Steve

In studying psychology I have become increasingly aware of attachment theory and its importance as a framework for understanding emotional and personality development. Attachment theory is centred around the relationship between a child and his (or her) primary caregiver (usually the mother), and has gained increasing popularity and scientific validity over the past 30 years. Since attachment theory was first articulated by John Bowlby in his publications in 1969, 1973 and 1980, the literature refining, rephrasing and adding to this approach has amassed and multiplied incredibly. As a crude measure of the popularity of attachment theory, a database search (Cambridge Scientific Abstracts) of the descriptor ‘attachment’ brings up 18,678 articles!

So, now that I’m on a break from hurried study, I have decided to take the time to go back to the original writings of Bowlby and to learn what attachment theory meant in its original presentation. My plan is to read, on average, one chapter per day, and to blog about what I’ve learnt, hopefully with some applications.


Folk psychology versus…

Posted in Uncategorized on September 24, 2010 by Steve

Folk psychology is the accumulated set of assumptions, wisdom and beliefs by which people understand the world, functioning as a heuristic for successful navigation, particularly within social contexts.

Unfortunately, such assumptions are limited and distorted by subjective experience, especially in light of personal preferences and cultural familiarity. Since more recent and complex forms of psychological investigation (e.g. neuroscience and neurobiology) tend to be less familiar, folk psychology might intuitively discount the interpretative lens of such fields, or, possibly, idolise them as all-authoritative and infallible.

As an example of two ways in which this predisposition for distorted thinking might work, the actor-observer difference (Breckler, Olson, & Wiggins, 2006) states that people attribute their own behaviour more to factors external to themselves, whereas observers tend to attribute others’ behaviour more internally. For example, rather than “The stress pushed him over the line”, or “He is a bad person”, a more scientific analysis would call for a multifaceted consideration of someone’s behaviour, drawing on assessments of traits, situation, conditioning, past experience, mood, neuropsychological functioning, etc.

Overall, scientific psychology appears to provide a more thorough and balanced approach, and is able to offer – on the basis of accumulated methodological research – generalisability, statistical reliability and cross-cultural validity. Despite these advantages, biased scientific methods and interpretations arising from researchers’ limited knowledge and personal/cultural values are still liable.


Breckler, S. J., Olson, J. M., & Wiggins, E. C. (2006) Social Psychology Alive. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

Things that look like brains – Part 1

Posted in neuroscience on July 5, 2010 by Steve

When you study things about the brain, you begin to notice the world of the cortex (and mid- and hind-brain) all around you. It’s quite exciting, but a little disturbing…

So here are a couple of recent encephalon-like things from the kitchen:



Neuroimaging, psychotherapy & emotional change

Posted in counselling, emotions, neuroscience on April 28, 2010 by Steve

Having trained in counselling, I have learnt about the powerful role that emotion plays in the rehabilitation of people who have experienced trauma, abuse and neglect in their lives. The recall, expressing, re-experiencing and subsequent processing of positive and negative affective states in the context of a warm, empathic, trusting relationship is often seen as the primary means for change by those trapped by negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Once established, however, emotional states, are deeply-rooted and extremely resistant to change:

“Affect is a prime mover in psychic activity, and affective patterns of experiencing and of response are more resistant to change than cognitive ones.”

– Quoted in Blanck & Blanck, 1979; as quoted in Greenberg & Safran, 1987

The success of interpersonal therapies, therefore, depends on the availability and accessibility of the person’s emotional content. Such access and accessibility can by no means be taken for granted, given that neuroimaging studies have shown that only up to 5% of the neural activity of our brains is available to awareness at any given time (Zhang & Raichle, 2010), meaning that over 95% of our emotional states, fears, anxieties and beliefs could potentially be unconsciously held. Perhaps this calls for despair; maybe the brain is an unknowable “black box” after all!?

Indeed, we may still have a long way to go, but neuroimaging is now being used to reveal the neural bases of both conscious and unconscious affective processing. This technology potentially promises to shed light on some the mysteries of human thoughts, feelings and behaviour. As a mere novice in the area of understanding neuropsychological research, I eagerly anticipate knowing what the neuronal bases are for common experiences such as:

  • being in a bad mood
  • having a “gut  feeling” about someone
  • the sense of relief from getting something off your chest
  • falling in love, or out of love
  • the influences of repressed emotions
  • uncontrollable urges & angry outbursts
  • neurotic impulses

In their article on the cognitive control of emotions, Ochsner & Gross (2005) consider the powerful influence that top-down (cognitive) processing can have on the conscious experience of emotions. Reviewing numerous neuroimaging studies, they outline, for example, how reappraisal techniques prior to viewing aversive images, seeing a sad film or anticipating physical pain can reduce the negative experience of these stimuli as a function of the reduced activation of the amygdala, which is involved in spontaneous, basic emotional reactions, such as fear.

Another article (Liebermanž, 2007) summarises how reduced activation of the amygdala is associated with simply putting one’s emotional experiences into words. This affect labelling is akin to what happens in psychotherapy, or what was coined the “talking cure” in reference to Freud’s patient Anna O.

One last application of neuroimaging in the process of emotional change is outlined by Lutz & Thompson (2003) in their article on neurophenomenology. They describe how “first-person methods” can be used in combination with neuroimaging techniques to help people increase their sensitivity to their own experience. According to this concept of ‘reciprocal restraints’, the reported experience of a participant guides and interprets the corresponding neurological data, while this data is then used to help the participant to revise and refine what they are experiencing. This quote (from page 33) clarifies this application of biofeedback:

“Using [phenomenology, psychotherapy and contemplative meditative traditions], subjects may be able to gain access to aspects of their experience (such as transient affective state or quality of attention) that otherwise would remain unnoticed and unavailable for verbal report.”

So, it seems that some of the mysteries of the brain can be made more accessible with the help of neuroimaging. The applications of this technology to counselling could be powerful and exciting.


Greenberg, L. & Safran, J., D.(1987). Emotion in Psychotherapy.  Guildford Publications: USA.

žLieberman, M. D. (2007). Social cognitive neuroscience: A review of core processes. Annual Review of Psychology, 58, 18.1–18.31.

žLutz, A. & Thompson, E. (2003). Neurophenomenology: Integrating Subjective Experience and Brain Dynamics in the Neuroscience of Consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 10, 31–52.

žOchsner K., N., & Gross J., J. (2005). The cognitive control of emotion. Trends in Cognitive Science, 9, 242–249.

Zhang, D & Raichle, M. E. (2010). Disease and the brain’s dark energy. Neurology, 6, 1.

Theories of transsexuality

Posted in 1960s-70s, children's sexual development, homosexuality, Milton Diamond, parenting, psychoanalysis, transsexuality on October 13, 2009 by Steve

The development of human beings is extraordinarily complex. It is the intricate interweaving of genetic, uterine neuroendocrinological, environmental, social, cognitive and cultural factors which come together during the course of our lives to make each one of us absolutely unique. It is no surprise, therefore, that development in the area of one’s sexuality and gender identity is likewise multi-faceted. Understandably, the theories on sexual and gender identity development which have arisen over the years to explain these identity differences are diverse and complex.

Famously, psychoanalytic theories have proposed that resolving the conflicts surrounding one’s genitalia will have a profound influence on the unconscious processes in gender identity development. Freud claimed that a person’s lifelong sexual orientation, determined between the ages of 3 and 6, depends on how a boy resolves the fear that his father will castrate him and how a girl deal with the contempt she feels at her mother for not having provided her with a penis. Perhaps not surprisingly, this view has largely gone out of favour in recent decades.

Prominent since the 60s and 70s, environmental conditioning theories hold that gender identity arises out of the process of parental identification in the first two or three years of life. Here, for exmple, if a boy has difficulty identifying with a masculine gender identity was thought to be due to an excessive attachment to his mother and absence of a male role model during infancy during infancy. These sorts of environmental conditions could be associated with the development of mild gender identity problems and homosexuality, but do not adequately explain all forms of transgender identity.

In recent decades, neuroendocrinological studies have indicated that the brain’s normal differentiation as male or female may be interrupted if a deficit of testosterone in males, and an excess for females, somehow occurs during foetal development. This would appear to explain someone’s experience of “I’m a man trapped in a woman’s body”. Other interesting findings, such as the tendency for transsexual males to have been born into families with many sons and to have come later in the birth order, add to the mysterious complexity of transsexuality.

One of the most coherent, comprehensive accounts for transsexuality is the theory of gender development proposed by Milton Diamond, termed “Biased-Interaction Theory”. In this theory, Diamond regards a person’s genetics and uterine neuroendocrinological activity as the fundamental organisational factors which will influence the ways in which this person will develop as he or she interacts with the social environment (parents, siblings, culture). Specifically, the course of a child’s psychosexual development depends on whether peers are perceived as are the same or as different. Thus, a typical boy will see himself fitting into the category “boy” and grow up into a sex-typical gender role. The transgender, boy, however, will experience distress in his assigned gender identity, being unable to see himself as similar to other male peers. Finally, this model incorporates the culture’s level of permissiveness as an indicator of how likely the child will be to express his identity.

Diamond’s robust account of transgender identity development reflects the infinite intricacy of psychosexual development and reminds us that we cannot afford to see this experience as resting simplistically on just one or two factors. The mystery and wonder of the formation of the individual cannot be overstated. It is a overwhelming and worshipful thing for parents of both in utero and postnatal children, child-care workers and teachers to contemplate. We must respect the individuality of each human being, knowing that God is at work in the “typically” and “atypically” developed alike. Indeed, in areas where science is still unable to take us, we know that God is not unknowing, uninvolved, or unsympathetic:

You[, God] knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.

Psalm 139:13-16, New International Version

References and access to Diamond’s publications is available online via his website. Australian-based research and various forms of assistance to transsexuals and their friends can be accessed via the Gender Centre website. For an informative audio presentation on the development of sexual identity, check out the most recent podcast at The Psych Files.

References and suggestions for further reading:

Brown, D. G. & Lynn, D. B. (1966). Human Sexual Development: An Outline of Components and Concepts. Journal of Marriage and Family, 28(2), 155-162.

Cohen-Kettenis, P. T., & Gooren, L. J. G. (1999). Transsexualism: A Review of Etiology, Diagnosis and Treatment. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 46(4), 315-333.

Diamant, L. & McAnulty, R. D. (Eds.). (1995). The Psychology of Sexual Orientation, Behavior, and Identity. Wesport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Diamond, M. (2006). Biased-Interaction Theory of Psychosexual Development: “How Does One Know if One is Male or Female?”. Sex Roles, 55, 589-600.

Lips, H. M., & Colwill, N. L. (1978). The Psychology of Sex Differences. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Lips, H.M. (1997). Sex and Gender (3rd Edition). CA: Mayfield Publishing.

Evil, suffering and the original psychopath

Posted in evil, loving people, loving your neighbour, psychopathology, Satan on April 15, 2009 by Steve

We know about the destruction and hurt inflicted by those who are cruel, cold and deeply hurt. Psychologists describe psychopathy or sociopathy – an existence which seeks self-gratification at the expense of others’ comfort, exhibited in behaviours such as remorseless cruelty, violence or rape. Sadly, those who have been cruelly treated as children often become the ones to inflict cruelty onto others. The humiliated seek to gain power over others. The abused become abusers. Thus, the cycle of abuse continues generation after generation, seemingly impossible to break. Whole family and cultural patterns may be responsible for the continuation of such pain-filled existence.

On one level, such behaviour seems motivated by a ‘pay-back’ mentally: “If I can’t have what I should’ve had when I was a child (love, kindness, warmth), then I will won’t let anyone have it. Instead, I’ll treat them how I was treated (cruelly, coldly, un-humanly), because that’s fair.” Of course, there are much deeper psychological realities operating, but it seems that, on one level, these people believe they are justified to hurt and mistreat others.

This sort of behaviour (cold-blooded murder, programmed torture and genocide, calculated repeated rape) is often described as ‘evil’, since no other language seems to quite do justice to the horrors of it. Furthermore, such a label seems appropriate since many would believe this type of behaviour is beyond explanation: it must be of another world, of the devil. Such postulations may well be true, since it is so difficult to understand what motivates the rapist, murderer, etc. Yet, out of love for neighbour, we must strive to understand, for the sake of the offender, the victim and for the prevention of future crimes of the same type. Inconceivable as it is, psychopathy and sociopathy seems to make sense; it is the product of a cruel and emotionless upbringing…

All this now leads me to pose some questions: “Is there a  place for interpreting spiritual forces of evil psychologically? If so, how do the spiritual realities of the devil and evil spirits intersect with the findings of psychological disturbance? What is Satan’s psychological state? Is Satan is the original psychopath? Is he purely evil, or has he somehow been deeply hurt? Lastly, if psychopathically disturbed people are simply hurt, not evil, then what happens to the concepts of guilt and culpability? How does God judge those who have sought to re-pay the cruelty they suffer as children?” I do not intend to try to answer these questions, but more so I want to dare to ask them.

I think it is worth considering the psychological make-up of the powerful spiritual forces around us.  Indeed, Biblically it appears to me that Satan may display some psychopathic motivation: “[T]he devil has gone down to [the earth]. He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short” (Revelation 12:12), “The devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Perhaps Satan feels that it is unfair that he should suffer, but not others with him. Biblically, it does not appear that Satan has ‘suffered as a child’, something which might have explained his behaviour. Perhaps he simply belongs to the category of “evil” by himself, having nothing which has caused his behaviour (psychopathically woundedness) such that we can understand him as we try to understand those who suffer cruelly in this world.

Indeed, those who struggle with the desire to “repay” others with suffering do need to be desperately understood and loved for all the ways in which they themselves have suffered. But it is also right to perceive the evilness of such behaviour and to lovingly to hold each other accountable for our actions, as much as our knowledge of this allows. I think it is appropriate to apply the following verse in a psychological way: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48) Some will have been abused so greatly, that a godly life for these people will consist of simply struggling to not hurt others, to such a degree perhaps that others may not even be able to perceive it. But we know God does.

So now we live in a world which has the potential for much cruelty and suffering, which is most probably one of the prime activities of Satan. In Satan’s final short moments, he is wanting to take down as many people with him as he can. He is angry because he knows he has been conquered and will soon be eternally condemned and punished. At Jesus Christ’s  return, all suffering and evil will finally be put an end.

So, whatever the exact relationship of evil, suffering and responsibility, we all are in need of a Powerful Rescuer and Righteous Judge who has promised us vindication and justice against our humiliators, as well as psychological wholeness and emotional vitality; the experience of overflowing fullness of joy and pleasures of the God’s presence (see Psalm 16). We all have the offer of forgiveness, renewal and hope, knowing that “His mercies begin afresh each morning”.

1 I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of his wrath.

2 He has driven me away and made me walk in darkness rather than light;

3 indeed, he has turned his hand against me again and again, all day long.

4 He has made my skin and my flesh grow old and has broken my bones.

5 He has besieged me and surrounded me with bitterness and hardship.

6 He has made me dwell in darkness like those long dead.

7 He has walled me in so I cannot escape; he has weighed me down with chains.

8 Even when I call out or cry for help, he shuts out my prayer.

9 He has barred my way with blocks of stone; he has made my paths crooked.

10 Like a bear lying in wait, like a lion in hiding, he dragged me from the path and mangled me and left me without help.

12 He drew his bow and made me the target for his arrows.

13 He pierced my heart with arrows from his quiver.

14 I became the laughingstock of all my people; they mock me in song all day long.

15 He has filled me with bitter herbs and sated me with gall.

16 He has broken my teeth with gravel; he has trampled me in the dust.

17 I have been deprived of peace; I have forgotten what prosperity is.

18 So I say, “My splendor is gone and all that I had hoped from the LORD.”

19 I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall.

20 I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.

21 Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:

22 Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.

23 They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

24 I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.”

25 The LORD is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him;

26 it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.

Lamentations 3:1-26

Underbelly, Sex & Psychopathy – The case of Terry Clark

Posted in children's sexual development, John Bowlby, Narcissism, parenting, personality, psychopathology on March 24, 2009 by Steve

terry-clark-alison-smallerHaving been watching this series of Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities, it has been facinating, enthralling and disturbing to see qualities in the relationships between characters such as trust, fear, respect, cowering, allegiance and power working themselves out in such an interesting period of Australian history (1970s-80s).

So far the main character – Terry Clark – has been revealed as the devious drug trafficking-boss; the persuasive and empassioned two-faced person-user; the brilliant and calculatingly cruel mastermind; the perfectly charming seducer and womaniser. Last night’s episode gave particular insight into the psychopathic and narcissistic aspects of his personality. Not knowing any of the true story apart from this series, I am basing my observations entirely on the character of Terry as revealed by the Channel 9 TV series.

Firstly, Terry is characterised by a cold, calculating attitude and remorselessly cruel treatment of anyone who threatens his drug importing schemes. He uses people for his own ends, buttering them up with praise and flattery, only to turn on them when they fall out of his favour. Superficially, he is warm and generous, lavshing money, parties and praise on his “friends”. However, without much warning at all, these so-called friends soon discover the daker side of Terry’s personality, and his perfectionistic standards don’t permit second chances. The result is that those failing to perform or “cracking” under police pressure don’t last long, usually ending up savagely murdered, battered and buried.

The underlying issue seems to be Terry’s incapacity to genuinely feel the reality of another’s emotions – an inability to empathise. This particularly came to the fore on last night’s episode when Terry threatens to kill his ex-girlfriend over her taking their son back to New Zealand: “If you take him away from me, I’ll kill you.” She aptly replies: “What do you think that will do to him? You don’t know how to love him. Until you can feel somebody else’s pain, you don’t know how to love.” Here, Terry’s obvious emotional coldness is verbalised in terms of his inability to feel another’s pain.

Interestingly, this comment seems to make an impression on Terry, since it stops him for a moment, catching him off guard. Momentarily aware of his emotional deadness, it saddens him, thus experiencing a genuine emotion. His super-cool façade is prized open, revealing a instance of grief and perhaps anger over his lost, emotionless existence. This momentarily living in his ‘heart’ rather than in his ‘head’ reveals that he is not simply a purely evil monster after all. He is not a monochrome Dr-Evil-carboard-cut-out villain of darkness. Some part of him is still emotionally alive; he is hurt – with a deep sense of powerlessness – and trying desperately to hide this pain behind his perfectionistic strivings, coldness and accomplishments of power and prestige.

Another facet of Terry’s narcissistic disturbance is reveal in his intimate and romantic exploits – particularly in his performance of sex acts. As revealed in the series so far, Terry has an appetite for women – particularly for having sex with them (the series is very intent on showing us this!). Having impregnated his first girlfriend from New Zealand, Terry is quick to move  in on a younger, more available girl – Alison – while the first is back home preparing to give birth. His lack of genuine attachment is seen in his inability to remain loyal for any lengthy period. Indeed, being alone is probably too painful a reminder of some past abandonment that Terry must find someone to share his lonely nights (bed) as soon as it is empty.

Nevertheless, Terry is an intense lover, and it may seem to stand in contrast to the earlier observations that Terry is emotionally cold to see such a passionate and romantic side to Terry’s personality. Indeed, Terry has the ability to charm and seduce. He knows how to put on sincerity and empathy when it comes to obtaining the sex he wants. He plays his smooth-talker cards and woos the woman with the body he desires. Ultimately, though, the sex is sought as a reflection of his ability to achieve, and the woman who provides the sex meets his narcissistic need to be successful in all areas to which he sets his mind. That he will later decide to have Alison killed reveals the true nature of his “love” for any of these romantic pursuits.

Furthermore, if the intimate relationship for Terry is not a genuinely emotional bond of mutual trust and respect, then the sex itself is not something he is emotionally engaged in – it is but a performance. Terry’s passion and intensity in the relationship is not directed towards her as a prized lover, but it is directed towards himself as a triumphing, accomplished performer. It is a show of his “success” at getting a woman respond positively to him. As Alexander Lowen explains in his book Narcissism about one of his clients, “Being emotionally dead, Erich derived little bodily pleasure from the sexual act. His satisfaction stemmed from the woman’s response… his lovemaking was more a servicing of the woman than an expression of passion.” (pp. 3-4)

However faithfully Underbelly portrays Terry Clark as a ruthless criminal, cold-blooded murderer and grandiose lover, it points us to the reality of the deep emotional disturbance which makes him a tragically fascinating case study from recent Australian history. Many books have now been written about the roots of psychological disturbances, but I would like to refer to one by John Bowlby, a psychoanalysist and attachment theorist, which I happen to be reading at the moment. The book is particularly remarkable since it was written with so much clarity on the topic and yet was written so long ago. Child Care and the Growth of Love is a summary of a World Helath Organisation report prepared by Bowlby in 1951 and details the psychological impact of deprivation in childhood and the importance of love from the primary carer (usually the mother). Written in the context of hospitalisation and institutionalisation of abandoned or unwell children, Bowlby revealed that an absence of motherly love in the critical period of a child’s first years of life will frequently result in depression, excessive demanding, superficial socialising, sexual promiscuity, lying, stealing and aggression, as an adult.

In one example Bowlby described the child who has withdrawn himself emotionally from others, due to the previous intensity of pain of having had his heart broken by the loss of loving relationships (mother, nurses, carers). He wrote (p.63):

To withdraw from human contact is to avoid further frustration and to avoid the intense depression which human beings experience as a result of hating the person whom they most dearly love and need. Withdrawal is thus felt to be the better of two bad alternatives… But experience shows that once a person has taken refuge in the relative painlessness of withdrawal he is reluctant to change course and to risk the turmoil of feeling and misery which attempting relationships brings with it. As a result he loses his capcity to make affectionate relationships and to identify himself with loved people… Thenceforth he becomes a lone wolf, pursuing his ends irrespective of others. But his desire for love, repressed though it is, persists, resulting in behaviour such as promiscuous sex relations and the stealing of other people’s possessions. Feelings of revenge also smolder on, leading to other anti-social acts, sometimes of a very violent character.

Tragically, though such knowledge has been circulating for so many years and though we have more resources and support, we still seem to be unable to escape the cycle of neglect-pain-repression-coldness that continues on throughout the generations. Indeed, until we can find the healing that comes from warm acceptance and unconditional tender love that God wants us to give to and receive from each other, this cycle of pain will go on. Sadly, there will be more Terry Clarks.

So we long for mercy now, and for the healed, whole, resurrection-life to come when Christ returns.