“Take That Thumb Out of Your Mouth and Respond to That White Mouse—Now Kid”By
I’d like to take a short break from writing my multi-part summary of neurologist Elkhonon Goldberg’s book entitled The New Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes in a Complex World. This will be my last post of the year, so I’ll restart my New Executive Brain summary early next year.
Even though the Foundation is in the first stages of moving our focus away from attachment theory, I still enjoy leafing through the pages of John Bowlby’s trilogy on attachment theory. Invariably I learn something new. I am constantly amazed at how much information Bowlby crammed into his three-volume set. It boggles the mind to think that these three volumes (roughly 1,300 pages in all) represent an intense distillation and synthesis process. Makes me wonder what was left on the proverbial cutting room floor. I find that as I reflect on Bowlby’s work, it saddens me to think that what passes for Bowlbian attachment theory today is a mere shell when compared to all that Bowlby presents to us in his trilogy. Equally sad, present-day reserachers are not taking the time to evaluate their work in the light of these earlier research efforts. As mentioned in my posts of October 21st and November 2nd, 2011, Nicholas Carr, writing in his book The Shallows—What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, does an amazing job presenting information that supports many of the central tenets of Bowlbian attachment theory, but nonetheless never brings Bowlby or his work into the picture. I guess there simply is no time for the history of science anymore. During a brief stint in a psychology Ph.D. program, I was told not to use any articles older than five years. How provincial and how sad.
In this post allow me to present you with an example of the type of wisdom and insight one can gain if one chooses to spend some time with Bowlby’s trilogy on attachment. It’s actually a fascinating example of how the world view used to frame a scientific investigation limits what result that investigation can potentially return. As my Testing and Assessments professor told us in counseling psychology graduate school, “IQ measures in the way IQ was defined.” Building on this idea, scientific investigations discover what the world view used allows. Sometimes the result can be somewhat humorous (as we will see).
At page 120 in volume II—Separation: Anxiety and Anger—Bowlby makes the following statement:
There is still much to be learnt about the extent to which, at different ages, the situation in which a child finds himself in relation to his attachment figure affects the way he responds to stimuli that are potentially fear-arousing. A step towards greater understanding comes from the findings of Morgan & Ricciuti (1969). In their developmental study of fear of strangers they show that, during the first eight months of life, little difference is made to the form or intensity of response by whether an infant is seated on his mother’s lap or on a chair a few feet from her. Thereafter, however, and especially from twelve months of age, proximity to mother becomes a most important variable.
Bowlby goes on to describe Morgan & Ricciuti’s study in some detail. Suffice it to say that Morgan & Ricciuti use an experimental design that is very similar to the one that Mary Ainsworth (Bowlby’s longtime collaborator) would go on to make quite famous, namely, the Strange Situation Assessment (SSA). So, all of this is quite standard when viewed from within the paradigm or world view that Bowlby used, a world view that placed emphasis on ethology or animal studies, mental models, information processing, and organismic systems theory (among others). It’s on page 121 where things get interesting.
On page 121, Bowlby mentions another fear response study, this time one by Bronson (which at the time was in press). Here’s how Bowlby summarizes the results of the Bronson study:
Presence of an infant’s mother within sight, about four feet from him, made little difference to the degree of wariness of the stranger shown by the infant at four and a half or six and a half months. By the age of nine months, however, visual contact with mother was found to reduce wariness. Moreover, at that age it was not uncommon for a baby to crawl over to his mother when the stranger approached.
So, Bowlby pulls together the Morgan & Ricciuti study, and the Morgan study as a way of formulating a compelling story around these results. He now suggests that we should consider this story in the light of other prevailing paradigms. Here’s where the sparks start to fly:
In the light of these findings it is instructive to consider afresh the much-quoted case of Albert on whom Watson & Rayner [John B. Watson being one of the chief architects of behaviorism] reported fifty years ago. In a series of experiments this eleven-month-old infant was conditioned to fear a white rat and, through generalization, a rabbit, a piece of seal fur, and human hair. The unconditioned stimulus was a loud noise made by hitting a long steel bar with a hammer just behind his head. Learning theorists have argued that many cases of phobia are traced to conditioning of this kind.
I’m smiling because Bowlby finds the whole mess rather silly, although Bowlby always maintains a proper British attitude. Allow me to let Bowlby describe to you the various reasons why the above makes no sense when viewed from within his paradigm or world view. Quotes are from a study by Marks (1969) in which the results of the Watson & Rayner study are questioned.
First, Albert had been ‘reared almost from birth in a hospital environment’ and was selected for the experiment because he seemed so ‘stolid and unemotional’ [which, today, we know is the false stoicism of insecure attachment]. Second, the conditioning took place with Albert placed on top of a small table, and with no familiar figure towards whom he could turn. Some of his responses, nevertheless, were those used by a child in turning to a mother figure: for example, raising his arms as if to be picked up and, later, burying his head in the mattress. In addition, Albert was very apt when upset to suck his thumb. To the experimenters this proved most inconvenient, since ‘the moment the hand reached the mouth he became impervious to the stimuli producing fear. Again and again … we had to remove the thumb from his mouth before the conditioned response could be obtained.’ From these observations the experimenters themselves reached a very significant conclusion: ‘the organism … apparently from birth, when under the influence of love stimuli, is blocked to all others.
Bowlby sums up thus:
[B]ecause by twelve months a child’s cognitive equipment has developed sufficiently for him to be well able to take account of objects and situations briefly absent, he has become able so to organize his behavior that he moves simultaneously both away from one type of situation and towards another type.
Using Jean Piaget’s work as a background, Bowlby points out that by twelve months a child’s cognitive equipment has developed so that s/he can build a model of safety (usually a model of mother’s safety) and keep that model of safety in mind at least for short periods of time. At this point, children begin making “fear” and “fear of fear” comparisons. In essence, there’s the fear that is assessed in Watsonian or Skinnerian conditioning experiments, and then there’s the fear of an attachment figure not being available when the first form of fear is triggered. So, when Watson & Rayner were forced to continually remove Albert’s thumb from his mouth, they were trying to keep Albert within their so-called “real fear” paradigm. But Albert (poor soul) tried valiantly to balance real fear with “attachment fear” (for lack of a better term). In effect the experimental design of Watson & Rayner (and the cause and effect world view that holds it) could not accommodate or filtered out attachment fear. In essence, Watson & Rayner conveyed the following message to Albert: “Take that thumb out of your mouth and respond to that white mouse—now kid” (with apologies to Arlo Guthrie). Hopefully a light or two should be going off in your head right now. Consider this quote by Elkhonon Goldberg that was a part of my December 14th, 2011, post:
In a nutshell, veridical decisions deal with “finding the truth,” and adaptive, actor-centered decisions involve choosing “what is good for me.” Most “executive leadership” decisions are priority based, made in ambiguous environments, and adaptive, rather than veridical, in nature. The cognitive processes involved in resolving ambiguous situations through priorities are very different from those involved in solving strictly deterministic [e.g., S-R or stimulus and response] situations. Ironically, cognitive ambiguity and priority-based decision making have been all but ignored in cognitive neuropsychology. … [T]he lack of satisfactory scientific methods [that a systems paradigm would bring] does not change the fact that priority-based, adaptive decision-making in ambiguous situations is central to our lives, and that the frontal lobes are partcularly important in such decison making. So rather than brushing the problem aside as “unworthy,” the appropriate scientific methods must be found.
Ahhh haa! See? I would suggest that Goldberg is talking about the comparison between real fear and the fear of fear. If you’ll recall from my earlier post, Goldberg tells us about the life of the mid-brain, with its focus on cause and effect, and the life of the upper-brain with its focus on such things as mental models, planning, anticipation, mental time travel, etc. If I can reframe Watson & Rayner’s “take that thumb out of your mouth” reaction, it might take the form of, “Albert, stop leaving the mid-brain of cause and effect by trying to go into the upper-brain of adaptive, actor-centered decisions.” Yes, I would say that Bowlby’s theory of attachment is centrally about how we set up a functional and productive relationship between the mid-brain and the upper-brain. And, yes, the mother (if all goes well) models this marriage. As Dr. Marchman told us during a workshop on EF (executive function), kids use the brains of adults as surrogate frontal lobes (where EF primarily takes place). We can see how well this brain marriage is going by looking at how attachment relationships are going. This really is at the heart of such attachment assessments as the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) and the aforementioned Strange Situation Assessment (SSA).
So, I’m now going to say something rather radical: attachment relationships can reveal to use the inner workings of the brain and brain organization. As a well-known attachment researcher said to a group once (and I paraphrase), “I can’t believe we have to run brain scans to look at attachment functioning.” And this raises a provocative question: “Why do we have to run brain scans to look at attachment functioning?” Good question. Here’s how Elkhonon Goldberg frames an answer:
These [neuroscience] advances fall short of expectations…. We are witnessing the advent of astonishingly powerful neuorimaging tools that have truly revolutionized our field. Yet the fundamental breakthroughs, which everyone hoped would be ushered in by the arrival of these tools, have by and large failed to materialize so far. The functional neuroimaging research has confirmed much of what had already been known (or presumed to be known) on the basis of brain lesion studies and has added precision to much of this knowledge. This is a good thing. But so far functional neuroimaging has not provided the expected quantum leap in our understanding of brain mechanisms of cognition. … In order for the state-of-the-art tools of functional neuroimaging to live up to their potential and deliver on their promise, these tools and other methods must be coupled with equally compelling cognitive paradigms; such paradigms have yet to materialize.
I must vehemently disagree with Goldberg here: those “compelling cognitive paradigms” and “appropriate scientific methods” that Goldberg laments have yet to materialize have in fact been around since the 1930s and 40s in the form of Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s organismic systems theory, the very same organizing paradigm that Bowlby used. Sadly, Bertalanffy’s compelling cognitive paradigm and accompanying scientific methods has never caught on (as I talk about in detail in Bowlby’s Battle). So, we’re left with the reduced paradigm of Watson & Rayner, the same one that tells us to “take that thumb out of our mouths and respond to the real fear.” We run brain scan studies because the equipment costs millions and we have to justify the exorbitant cost. Plus, brain scan studies are, well, sexy. But, in truth, they provide us with little ROI (return on investment) informationally speaking. And we cannot even properly interpret the data because we embrace reductionism while eschewing organismic systems theory. You could just as well run a good brain lesion study, or, for that matter, a good Bowlbian attachment study. And, yes, our Foundation has funded a number of brain-scan based attachment studies. So, again, why don’t we just run simple brain lesion or Bowlbian attachment studies? Consider this quote by primatologist Dario Maestripieri, which I consider to be rather prophetic: “[T]he success of neuroscience led to the optimistic view that many important questions about behavior would eventually be answered by studies of brain anatomy and function, thus rendering [naturalistic] behavioral research less necessary.” Ethology is out; brain studies are in. We have bought the neuroimaging ideology hook, line, and sinker. Allow me to close with these quotes by Goldberg:
It can be argued that the importance of theoretical models is greater in neuroscience than in most other areas of scientific inquiry because the systems of interest are more complex and less linear and have a greater richness of emergent properties, given the complex patterns of interactivity that characterize the brain [my emphasis].
A bit further along Goldberg points out the rather absurd nature that surrounds neurology and neuroimaging today:
[A]n oxymoronic situation prevails in the [neurology] field whereby [we find] twenty-first century neuroimaging tools … often coupled with the [cause and effect] cognitive Zeitgeist of around the second half of the twentieth century.
Simply, Bowlby (and many others) tried to usher in Bertalanffy’s organismic systems paradigm, a paradigm, in my opionion, that has the potential to allow scientific inquiry into those areas characterized by complex, less linear systems that have a greater richness of emergent properties (paraphrasing Goldberg from above). But, alas, the organismic systems revolution failed, and, as a result, we persist in framing twenty-first century technology using an antiquated world view from the twentieth century. As Bowlby regularly pointed out in his work, once world views are set up, they are very difficult to change. It’s a bit ironic that Bowlby’s theory predicts its own demise.
Happy Holidays and have a safe New Years!
— From the Foundation board and staff
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