policy makers on the brain

moving on from bowlby

Findings from neurobiology research are presented as ‘medical evidence’ by politicians Graham Allen and Iain Duncan Smith to support their proposals for early intervention programmes for children from deprived backgrounds. Before looking in detail at what they have to say about brain development, it might be helpful if I summarise my understanding of the process. It squares with the account cited by Munro here [1]; so I’m assuming I’m on the right track.

Brain development

Brain development is an outcome of the interaction between four factors [2];

• genetic
• epigenetic (the impact of the environment on gene expression)
• environmental (from nutrition to the behaviour of others)
• behavioural (the impact of the child’s own behaviour)

The relative impact of the different factors varies between individuals and at different stages of development.

The number, formation and location of brain cells (neurons) is almost entirely genetically determined, although…

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what’s wrong with attachment theory?

moving on from bowlby

I’ve encountered enough examples of inadequate, chaotic, manipulative and abusive parenting to understand why people working with troubled children might view parents as prime suspects. However, there are many possible causes for children’s unusual behaviour and a focus only on parental behaviour means that other causal factors are likely to be overlooked.

In the next few posts, I want to explore three concepts – Attachment Theory, Fabricated or Induced Illness (FII) and the ‘cycle’ theories of deprivation and abuse – that attribute the cause of children’s abnormal behaviour primarily to parental behaviour. Although these concepts aren’t directly related to autism, parents of children with developmental issues and learning difficulties have reported these ideas being proposed as causes for their children’s behaviour despite evidence to the contrary.

Attachment theory

Attachment theory was an idea developed by John Bowlby, born in 1907, one of the six children of Sir Anthony Bowlby…

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the evidence: NSPCC briefing on home education

logicalincrementalism

When I first read the NSPCC briefing Home education: learning from case reviews I thought the NSPCC had merely got hold of the wrong end of the stick about the legislation relevant to home education. That’s not unusual – many people do just that. But a closer examination showed there was much more to it than a simple misunderstanding.

The briefing claims to consist of ‘learning about child protection pulled from the published versions’ of seven serious case reviews (SCRs) involving children educated at home. But the claims and recommendations made by the briefing aren’t an accurate reflection of what the SCRs tell us – about home education or child protection. The briefing also calls into question the current legislation relevant to home education, but makes no attempt to explain the legislation or the principles on which it’s based. So what ‘learning’ can we ‘pull’ from the NSPCC briefing?

legislation

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help: NSPCC briefing on home education

logicalincrementalism

The NSPCC briefing Home education: learning from case reviews highlights recommendations from seven serious case reviews (SCRs) published between 2008 and 2013 involving home-educated children.

In the previous post I mentioned that the primary purpose of legislation is to protect the liberty of the individual. Historically the primary purpose of national government has been to protect liberty by defending the nation from attack from abroad, and of local government to do so by maintaining law and order.

But you’re unlikely to enjoy your liberty very much if you’re starving, sick or homeless. The massive increase in urban populations following the industrial revolution eventually resulted in the UK government, national and local, turning its attention to people’s quality of life. Over the last century or so national education, health and social care systems have been developed. Currently, education and healthcare are universal services, available to all. Significantly, social care isn’t.

social…

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risk: the NSPCC briefing on home education

logicalincrementalism

This is the fourth in a series of posts prompted by the NSPCC briefing Home education: learning from case reviews. The briefing highlights recommendations from seven serious case reviews (SCRs) published between 2008 and 2013 involving home-educated children. In my view, the briefing’s perspective on home education legislation is based on a misunderstanding of the legal framework that underpins it. I think the briefing also misunderstands how the law tackles risk.

legislation and education

In a democracy, the primary function of legislation is to protect the liberty of individuals. But there’s a tension inherent in that principle because protecting the liberty of one person usually means limiting the liberty of another. So legislators have to weigh up the costs and benefits of legislation to different people. I think this is what Graham Badman was getting at when he opened his 2009 report on elective home education (EHE) with a…

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the recommendations: NSPCC briefing on home education

logicalincrementalism

The NSPCC briefing Home education: learning from case reviews highlights a number of recommendations from seven serious case reviews (SCRs) published between 2008 and 2013 involving home-educated children.

The task of SCRs is to examine why a child came to harm, why the harm wasn’t prevented and to make recommendations that should ensure those things don’t happen again. SCRs tend to be detailed and rigorous in their analysis, so I’ve taken the recommendations made in six of the seven serious case reviews (Child 5’s was available only as a brief summary) as a proxy for the factors involved in what happened to the children.

the recommendations

By my reckoning, the six SCRs made a total of 79 core recommendations – although there were additional ones in relation to specific local agencies. Some recommendations were made in more than one review. To get an overall picture of the key factors I…

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what’s wrong with attachment theory?

I’ve encountered enough examples of inadequate, chaotic, manipulative and abusive parenting to understand why people working with troubled children might view parents as prime suspects. However, there are many possible causes for children’s unusual behaviour and a focus only on parental behaviour means that other causal factors are likely to be overlooked.

In the next few posts, I want to explore three concepts – Attachment Theory, Fabricated or Induced Illness (FII) and the ‘cycle’ theories of deprivation and abuse – that attribute the cause of children’s abnormal behaviour primarily to parental behaviour. Although these concepts aren’t directly related to autism, parents of children with developmental issues and learning difficulties have reported these ideas being proposed as causes for their children’s behaviour despite evidence to the contrary.

Attachment theory

Attachment theory was an idea developed by John Bowlby, born in 1907, one of the six children of Sir Anthony Bowlby, surgeon to the King’s household, and his wife Maria. Like many children in well-to-do families of the period, Bowlby was brought up by a nanny and sent to boarding school at the age of seven. He later became a psychologist, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who worked with maladjusted and delinquent children, studied the effects of maternal deprivation and after WWII became a mental health consultant to the World Health Organization. Bowlby’s work led him to the conclusion that ‘to thrive emotionally, children need a close and continuous caregiving relationship’ (Bretherton, 1992). He drew on new research in cybernetics, brain function and on Lorenz’s work on imprinting to develop his theory, and realized that a complete revision of Freudian ideas about child development was required. This he attempted to do in three books published under the title Attachment and Loss: Attachment (1969), Separation (1973) and Loss, Sadness and Depression (1980).

In 1950, a University of Toronto graduate called Mary Ainsworth had joined Bowlby’s research team. Three years later, having moved with her husband to Uganda, she carried out the first of several studies on infant-mother attachment. She then developed an assessment procedure for determining the nature of an infant’s attachment – the Strange Situation – and concluded that infants showed one of four distinct patterns of attachment to their mothers; secure, anxious-resistant insecure, anxious-avoidant insecure and disorganized/disoriented. The patterns of attachment developed with primary caregivers were seen as foundational for social interactions and mental health throughout later life – an insecure or disorganized attachment could lead to later problems.

It’s easy to see how attachment theory could be used to lay the blame for a child’s behavioural issues at the feet of parents, particularly mothers. Bowlby, however, doesn’t appear to have had any intention of blaming parents; his theory is firmly grounded in the idea of behaviour involving an interaction between genes and environment. But that doesn’t seem to be the way attachment theory is presented in texts that inform public policy. Before moving on to these texts I want to examine the ideas behind attachment theory in more detail because, like the concept of autism, it’s a theory constrained by the state of knowledge at the time of its inception.

Background to attachment theory

In the opening chapters of his first volume of the Attachment and Loss series – Attachment – Bowlby explains, systematically and in detail, the theoretical framework for his model. Bowlby brought together concepts from a number of different fields. Here’s a summary of his reasoning:

• Observations have shown that separation from the mother-figure can be extremely traumatic for children. There is evidence that this separation can result in problems with behaviour, personality and mental health in later life – e.g. stealing, depression and schizophrenia.

• Attachment theory is grounded in psychoanalytic theory because ‘despite limitations, psychoanalysis remains the most serviceable and most used of any present-day theory of psychopathology’ (p.xv).

• Data can be obtained by observing behaviour, as well as from introspective reports from participants.

• Freud drew attention to the importance of feedback in homeostatic biological systems; in behaviour, motivation is regulated by homeostasis in the same way.

• Instinctive behaviours can be complex and are the outcome of an interaction between ‘genetic endowment’ and environment – partly innate and partly acquired.

• Behavioural systems are goal-directed (ie they evolve in order to fulfil a specific purpose) – analogous to engineering control systems.

As I understand it, at inception, the Freudian psychodynamic model of behaviour was a novel idea; it was developed from first principles derived from contemporary understanding of biological mechanisms. Bowlby’s model wasn’t novel; it was an extension of the psychodynamic model based on new knowledge about those mechanisms. This means that Freud and Bowlby based their theories on the same assumptions:

1. Species-specific patterns of behaviour are biologically ‘provided’ – although they can be affected by the environment.

2. Biologically provided behaviour patterns are normative. That means that in the ‘right’ environment they will unfold naturally, but could be disturbed if something goes ‘wrong’ with either the genetic endowment or the environment.

3. Biologically provided behaviour patterns are goal-directed – they have evolved to fulfil a specific purpose.

4. Behaviour is driven by the need to maintain emotional (feelings) homeostasis.

5. Relationships between parents and children are central to child development.

Attachment theory is clearly a theory of its time, since research in all these areas has since moved on. That doesn’t necessarily invalidate attachment theory, but does suggest there are some problems with it.

What’s wrong with attachment theory?

1. Freud saw social and sexual development as central to human behaviour because of their importance in sexual reproduction – the means by which inherited characteristics (including behavioural drives) are passed on to offspring. This is why a child’s relationship with his or her parents was seen as so important; it could disturb the natural unfolding of social and sexual drives. Subsequent research, by contrast, shows that social and sexual behaviour is influenced by complex array of factors that change over time. Despite revising Freud’s framework, Bowlby still viewed social and emotional factors as central to the development of human personality rather than being two factors amongst many.

2. Much of Bowlby’s research was carried out prior to the structure of DNA being discovered and the consequent development of molecular biology. Subsequent research suggests that rather than behaviour patterns being biologically provided, they emerge from interactions between genetic expression and environment. Similarities between individuals in both genetic material and environment result in species-specific behaviours but differences mean that species-specific behaviour patterns vary between individuals. Oppenheim et al. (2009) noted, for example, secure attachment patterns in autistic children that were different to the one that Ainsworth described.

3. Biological behaviour patterns can only be goal-directed if the genome and the environment remain stable – but they don’t. Genetic make-up is unique to an individual and the environment changes constantly; behaviour patterns emerge from a dynamic interaction between the two. Although there’s no doubt that children do exhibit patterns of behaviour towards their primary caregivers, and it’s likely that those patterns can be seen across different individuals, the patterns are descriptive, rather than normative. Even if the patterns provide a useful way of identifying problems in infant-parent relationships, they show how children interact, not how they should interact.

4. Some biological systems – those that regulate body temperature or the levels of oxygen and water in the body, for example – are maintained via homeostasis because the biochemical reactions necessary for survival can occur only within certain narrow limits. Emotions and behaviour aren’t so constrained and tend to be cyclical rather than stable.

5. There’s no doubt that a child’s relationship with his or her primary caregiver is important. But in focussing on a single relationship, attachment theory by definition marginalises the role of genetic, biological and other environmental factors – including other relationships – in a child’s social and emotional development.

This brings us back to the concept of reification that cropped up in a previous post about Kanner’s model of autism – although I didn’t call it that at the time. Reification literally means ‘making a thing’ – the implication being that a ‘thing’ is made that doesn’t necessarily exist in the real world. There’s no question that ‘attachment’ can be used as a descriptive label for certain kinds of behaviour, just as ‘autism’ can. It doesn’t follow that attachment must be a clear-cut psychological function, nor that autism must be a distinct medical disorder.

When I studied psychology as an undergraduate in the 1970s, attachment theory was already being viewed with some skepticism for the above reasons. I haven’t kept in touch with child development research so I was surprised to find that attachment theory is still alive, well and influencing social policy in the 21st century. That’s the subject of the next post.

References

Bowlby, J (1969). Attachment and Loss vol 1: Attachment. Revised 2nd edition, 1997, Pimlico.
Bretherton, I (1992). The origins of attachment theory:John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, Developmental Psychology, 28, 759-775.
Oppenheim, D., Koren-Karie, N., Dolev, S. and Yirmiya, N. (2009) Maternal insightfulness and resolution of the diagnosis are associated with secure attachment in preschoolers with autism spectrum disorders. Child Development, 80: 519–527

Acknowledgements

I want to thank everyone who sent me links relevant to this and related posts. You know who you are!