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Attachment theory and neuroscience

Attachment theory examines the quality of care an infant or young person receives from their primary care giver and if it is both consistent and sufficient it promotes security by providing the child with a nurture response in times of distress. Where does this sit with neuroscience?

Research on the role of attachment has been made possible by technology such as computerised tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imagining (MRI) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRO). Neurological development happens in the circumstances of our relationship with others, our early caregivers and in our close relationships as adults (Cozolino, 2014; D. J. Siegel, 2012a). This can help understand brain development and the impact of trauma as well as what might help support therapeutic change. Insights gathered from neuroscience can be used in psychotherapy to understand and support emotional healing (A. N. Schore, 2012; D. J. Siegel, 2012b).

So, if the relationship rather than the approach helps support change how does that work?

American psychiatrist Eric Kandel developed the view that the brain is altered during psychotherapy when symptoms are reduced (Kandel, 1998; Kandel et al., 2013). The therapeutic relationship within psychotherapy is similar to the process the brain develops in early life (right brain to right brain emotional process, (A. N. Schore, 2009), in effective psychotherapy this helps individuals promote and develop their ability to manage emotion.


Cozolino, L. J. (2014). The neuroscience of human relationships: Attachment and the developing social brain (2nd ed.). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Kandel, E. R. (1998). A new intellectual framework for psychiatry. American Journal of Psychiatry, 155(4), 457–469.

Kandel, E. R., Markram, H., Matthews, P. M., Yuste, R., & Koch, C. (2013). Neuroscience thinks big (and collaboratively). National Reviews Neuroscience, 14(9), 659–664.

Schore, A. N. (2009). Right-brain affect regulation. In D. Fosha, D. Siegel, & M. Solomon

(Eds.), The healing power of emotion: Affective neuroscience, development & clinical practice

(pp. 112–144). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Schore, A. N. (2012). The science of the art of psychotherapy. New York, NY: W. W. Norton &


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