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Ethology and attachment theory

Ethology Kin Behaviour

In The Tangled Wing: Biological Restraints on the Human Spirit (2002), Melvin Konner explains that the study of ethology assumes that "many aspects of the behavior of a species are as fixed as its anatomy and are equally attributable to genes." This should not be interpreted to mean, however, that our genes are our destiny. The cues an animal gets from the environment also drive behavior. Ethologists travel far and wide to observe gene-environment interactions.











In "Family Man" (Discover, October 1997) Will Hively writes about Stephen Emlen's study of the white-fronted bee-eater birds of Kenya. (A white-fronted Bee-Eater is pictured above left and links to source, courtesy of Birdfinders Tours.) Emlen explains that whether or not a bee-eater bird helps another bird care for young is "very much predicted on closeness of kinship." Although the bee-eaters appear altruistic at first, Emlen points out more important forces behind their behavior. "We're not talking about the evolution of a gene for altruism. It isn't the behavior per se the gene is regulating." Emlen prefers to think of genes as decision rules. When functioning optimally, genes provide animals with the ability to evaluate environmental context and choose a behavior most likely to result in replicating genes. As Hively points out in the article, in the animal kingdom, genes provide animals with the ability to recognize kin, often using smell to do so. And as Emlen has discovered, bee-eaters are most helpful to their close kin. Their behavior, which Emlen characterizes in such terms as helping, infanticide, sexual conflict, or dispersal, is most often based on their genetic relationship to the birds around them.


As in Emlen's work described above, traditionally, the science of ethology has focused on the study of animal behavior in a natural, wild habitat. Ethologists have paid special attention to instinctual behaviors. In The Boy Who Couldn't Stop Washing: The Experience & Treatment of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (1989), Judith L. Rapoport succinctly writes, "Ethology, founded by Charles Whitman and Oskar Heinroth in the late nineteenth century, and brought to recognition by Konrad Lorenz in the 1930s, is the study and comparison of animal behaviors."

In The Foundations of Ethology, originally published in 1978, Konrad Z. Lorenz (R.W. Kickert, translator) describes the emergence of ethology: "At the turn of the century Charles Otis Whitman and, a few years later, independently of him, Oskar Heinroth discovered the existence of patterns of movement, the similarities and differences of which, from species to species, from genus to genus, even from one large taxonomic group to another are retained with just as much constancy and in exactly the same way as comparable physical characters. In other words, these patterns of movement are just as reliably characteristic of a particular group as are tooth and feather formation and such other proven distinguishing physical attributes used in comparative morphology."

Konrad Lorenz Ethology Lorenz took the study of movement and expanded it to the study of behavior. He is famous for his work with goslings. In Love at GOON Park, Deborah Blum has this to say about Lorenz: "Lorenz was able to show that this first loyalty was given to the 'mother' first seen by the tiny birds. The 'mother' thus could be Lorenz, actually, if he was hovering over the nest when Greylag goslings … first cracked their way out of the egg shells. … If you considered Lorenz's studies seriously, though, you realized they were a reminder that nature fully intends a helpless baby to be well connected to a protector. In the geese, the attachment might seem hard-wired." In the photograph above left, you can see that a brood of young goslings have imprinted Lorenz as their mother (photo links to its source—an entry for Lorenz in a Russian Federation academic encyclopedia).

Blum's observations are in line with discoveries in neuroscience we discuss in Part 2 of CorticalBrain.com relating to CARE system neurocircuitry, which governs nurturance behaviors, and PANIC/LOSS neurocircuitry, which prompts young animals to emit a separation cry to signal their whereabouts to their mother.

In "Becoming Attached" (The Atlantic, Feb. 1990), Robert Karen discusses how Konrad Lorenz's work influenced John Bowlby, a British psychoanalyst, who originated attachment theory. "Lorenz's work on imprinting in newborn goslings, a phenomenon by which the infant birds attach themselves to the first moving object they see," particularly influenced Bowlby, notes Karen. "Captivated by ethological ideas, Bowlby now had a biological basis for his belief that a child needs a reliable ongoing attachment to a primary caregiver and that he suffers grievously, even irreparably, if that attachment is interrupted or lost. He developed the concept of 'internal working models' to describe how the infant's sense of self and other unfolds through interactions with that primary caregiver."

Karen explains that subsequently, "Mary Salter Ainsworth's Strange Situation put attachment theory on the map, by providing empirical evidence for a number of conclusions that until then had only been intuited." What Ainsworth demonstrated was that human infants develop particular attachment styles. Securely attached children are usually outgoing, optimistic, and confident they will receive support from parents or other caretakers. Insecurely attached children are timid, do not embrace new situations, and are either clingy or avoidant. In Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions (1998), Jaak Panksepp has this to say about insecurely attached children: "Perhaps they have felt rebuffed so often that they no longer reach out to others. In order to subsist comfortably, they have become cognitively detached from their emotional desires."

Chronic stress and frustration related to attachment — implications for depression and OCD:

If attachment is hard wired in animals including humans, then one must ask what happens if circumstances disrupt attachment? The result can often be described as frustration. And although there are a wide range of etiologies for the onset of depression and obsessive-compulsive symptoms, It is contended here that frustration or chronic stress related to attachment issues can sometimes cause depression and initiate or otherwise kindle existing or latent OCD symptoms. Frustration can activate and potentiate atavistic fixed-action patterns encoded in the animal brain, turning such patterns into dangerous stereotypies. We will discuss fixed-action patterns and stereotypies below.

brain cingulate cortex

So what starts out as OCD can turn into a more dangerous, dissociative disorder, especially when you take one of Panksepp's suppositions into account—that the neurocircuitry in an insecurely attached child's brain can be conditioned over time to detach certain emotional attachment needs originating in the mammalian brain from higher, cortical-based cognitive processes. In Part 3 of CorticalBrain.com we will discuss a concept termed parallel processing that might explain such detachment in more severe cases of OCD.

Martin Teicher and his team conducted the study that produced the image above left (image links to source). In this image, diffusion tensor imaging reveals a tractography analysis of the cingulum bundle fiber pathways. The small yellow area indicates a disruption in the pathways in a subject who experienced parental verbal abuse. this image is flipped horizontally to match the orientation of the photograph above right delineating the position of the anterior cingulate cortex which we discuss in Part 1 of CorticalBrain.com (see The anterior cingulate cortex–emotion, attention, and working memory). John A. Beal, Department of Cellular Biology and Anatomy, Louisiana State University, provides this photo (links to source).

it is pointed out again that Antonio R. Damasio makes in Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (1994). He writes: "it is proposed here that there is a particular region in the human brain where the systems concerned with emotion/feeling, attention, and working memory interact so intimately that they constitute the source for the energy of both external action (movement) and internal action (thought animation, reasoning). This fountainhead region is the anterior cingulate cortex… ."

Teicher made a very interesting observation related to what is called detachment. In the article Cutting Words May Scar Young Brains, regarding the differences seen in brain images of people who have a past history of verbal abuse from parents, Teicher says: "The brain is probably suppressing the development of sensory systems that are providing adverse input." In doing so, It is contended that such individuals learn how to detach intellectual processing from more emotive processing. In doing so, they inadvertently empower the subcortical animal brain's emotional systems to sort of hijack behavior, sometimes resulting is obsessive-compulsive symptoms.

Anterior cingulate cortex

According to her webpage, researcher Mechthild Papoušek has employed behavioral observation, video and audio recordings of parent-infant interactions, and microanalysis to the minute reciprocities of preverbal communication to study attachment issues. In "The Violent Brain," which appeared in Scientific American Mind (Dec. 2006), Strueber, Lueck, and Roth point to Papoušek's work to underscore the importance of attachment. They write:




As Mechthild Papoušek, [formerly] a pediatric psychiatrist at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, has shown, intimate communication between the infant and the primary caregiver begins shortly after birth. The two reinforce each other's behavior, both in the positive and in the negative sense. The infant's qualities determine the interaction just as much as the caregiver's personality and psychological state do. And a problematic early relationship can in time lead to severe developmental disorders, among them lowered impulse control, a lack of empathy and a reduced capacity for resolving conflicts. The result is a vicious cycle.

Fixed-action patterns and OCD:

Wikipedia provides a succinct definition of a fixed-action pattern, explaining that it "is an instinctive behavioral sequence that is indivisible and runs to completion."

A network of neurons that fire in response to a very specific stimulus produce fixed-action patterns. The neural network is known as the innate releasing mechanism. The network responds when an animal perceives a sign stimulus or releaser in its environment. This is put into neurological terms: In response to a specific stimulus, a specific network of neurons fire in a certain pattern to produce a certain behavior called a fixed-action pattern. To induce movement, such a neural network projects over several target stations and probably involves a variety of neurochemicals. But when movement is involved, the transmission of dopamine through the corpus striata complex (basal ganglia) is most certainly involved [see The corpus striata (basal ganglia) complex].

Judith L. Rapoport points out in The Boy who Couldn't Stop Washing how hormones can serve as a stimulus for fixed-action patterns. She writes: "Nesting can be started by hormonal change in a pregnant mouse (progesterone is released during pregnancy), and nesting can be started in a non-pregnant mouse by the injection of progesterone."

Fixed Action Pattern

Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson provide the following excellent example of fixed-action patterns in Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior (2005). "A normal rooster does a little courtship dance before trying to mate with a hen. The dance is hardwired into the rooster's brain; it is instinctual behavior, or what animal ethologists call a fixed action pattern. All normal roosters do it." The authors go on to say: "The dance triggers a fixed action pattern in the hen's brain, and she crouches down into a sexually receptive position so the rooster can mount her. She doesn't crouch down unless she sees the dance. That's the way her brain is wired."

In The Trouble With Testosterone and Other Essays on the Biology of the Human Predicament (1997), Robert M. Sapolsky writes: "We all know one familiar example of a fixed action pattern, the involuntary circling of a dog on its blanket before being able to settle down for the night. For a human, OCD is like a dog circling, but a dog, exhausted and bewildered, who can never, ever stop." Later, Sapolsky adds: "The brains of OCD sufferers show enhanced oxygen and glucose utilization in pathways related to motoric patterns—seemingly, there is a neurological itch, a metabolic drive in those brain regions toward fueling the arranging and washing and repetitive gesturing." It should be noted here, for those of you unfamiliar with canines, that the dog circles around to clear the bedding area—which for its forebearers was tall grass or undergrowth—to make sure not to bed down on another critter, especially a snake.

In The Boy Who Couldn't Stop Washing, Rapoport notes that the "squirrel's ritual of food storage is also what an ethologist would call a 'fixed action pattern.' Squirrels with extra food, even those in cages, will look for places to 'hide' those extra nuts, and go through covering and tamping down movements." Rapoport reports the following experience with a patient caught-up in a fixed-action pattern.

David, age twelve, was filmed plucking lint off his underwear. Meticulously, slowly, he studied each section of the cloth and assembled a midget pyramid of white thread. David always sets about his plucking in the same way. And he always does a perfect job of it, his fingers moving in fine pincer movements. David's undershirt, like several of its predecessors, is about to fall apart. He has, in a sense, picked it "clean."

Under David's bed is his entire lint collection, the result of three years of thread-pulling. …

David's "squirreling" habits, and the habits of most of our compulsive patients, remind me of many aspects of animal behavior. Their perfectly executed, meticulously deliberate collections look like the nest-building of birds, the hoarding of squirrels.

Rapoport asserts that the source of such compulsive behavior has "to be located somewhere in the brain." She points out that ethologists see this type of behavior often in the animal world. Rapoport writes: "In ethology and its offspring, neuro-ethology, a beginning for understanding the fixed patterns It is seen in our washers (read groomers), ritualizers (read ritual displays), and collectors (read as nesters and hoarders). Neuro-ethologists study the role of the brain in developing these behaviors and in keeping them intact."

Innate Brain Patterns

Some people who suffer from obsessive-compulsive symptoms focus on organizing their environment, symmetry, compiling information, or as Rapoport points out, collecting. Sometimes these tendencies can be helpful, especially if one chooses a compatible profession. Some similarity is found between these kinds of focused human behaviors and the behaviors of seed-eating birds since they function in a meticulously organized fashion in order to survive. Panksepp writes: "Seed-eating birds often cache supplies of food far and wide and use remarkable spatial memories in retrieving their hidden tidbits. Indeed, birds that actively hide seeds for later use have larger hippocampi, the brain areas that specialize in processing spatial information, than those that do not."


Next-> Displacement, stereotypies, frustration, and perseveration—understanding ADHD, OCD, PTSD, and Tourette syndrome

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