How often do you think about your early experiences with your parents? Perhaps you’re thinking: not all that often. Although you might not think about those formative years, they continue to influence you even in adulthood. Research suggest that your representation of your early experiences with your caregivers (referred to as adult attachment), predicts the quality of your emotional relationship with your child (van IJzendoorn, 1995) and your romantic relationship quality with your significant other (Roisman). How early experiences continue to influence relationships functioning isn’t completely clear. However, some researchers have suggested that adult attachment might influence relationship quality by organizing behavioral, emotional, and cognitive responses to specific emotional cues (e.g., happiness, sadness) within these relationships. A recent study has tested this claim by investigating whether adult attachment predicts cognitive processing of infants’ facial expressions, a salient emotional indicator within parent-child relationships, by incorporating measures of brain activity (specifically ERPs) that are associated with cognitive processing.
Typically in ERP studies, participants are shown a variety of different pictures while wearing physiological sensors on the scalp that record brain electrical activity. Brain activity when viewing the different pictures is them compared across pictures to determine whether cognitive processing of the pictures varies according to the type of picture viewed. For example, in this study, participants viewed pictures of infants and pictures of flowers while their brain activity was monitored. The pictures of infants were further sub-divided into groups of infants with happy, neutral, and sad facial expressions. Adults’ brain activity when viewing flowers and infants’ facial expressions was compared in order to determine whether cognitive processing of these pictures differed across the types of pictures. Additionally, adults completed a measure of adult attachment in order to determine whether differences in adult attachment predicted their cognitive processing of these pictures.
This study found that adult attachment did not predict the cognitive processing of infants’ happy, sad, and neutral facial expressions. However, adult attachment did predict differences in cognitive processing of infants’ facial expressions in general, regardless of the emotional expression, and cognitive processing of flowers. Surprisingly, this study suggests that adult attachment doesn’t organize how we think about infants’ emotional expressions, which has been proposed to account for the link between adult attachment and parent-child relationship quality. Instead, this study suggests that adult attachment organizes how we think of infants in comparison flowers. The authors conclude from this finding that adult attachment is associated with brain functioning.
What is not clear from this study is why adult attachment might be associated with how we think about infants in comparison to flowers (and for that matter, why flowers are relevant to parent-child relationships) and how differences in reasoning about infants versus flowers ultimately organizes behavioral, emotional, and cognitive processes within parent-child relationships. Therefore, the finding that adult attachment is associated with some aspect of brain functioning doesn’t clarify why adult attachment continues to influence parent-child relationships.
Moreover, the attachment measure used in this study was the (not well-validated) Adult Attachment Projective. During this Adult Attachment Projective, adults describe the thoughts and feelings of parents and children, which is inherently similar to thinking about pictures of infants with happy, sad, and neutral facial expression and quite different from viewing flowers. Thus, the fact that an association between adult attachment and differences in cognitive processing of pictures of infants in comparison to pictures of flowers was found in this study may have nothing to do with how adult attachment organizes relationship functioning, but instead simply show a link between verbal and cognitive appraisals of pictures relevant to parent-child interactions. This finding does not help us understand why representations of early experiences with our parents continue to influence the quality of the relationships we develop with our own children.
Incorporating measures of brain activity into studies investigating why our early experiences continue to influence our current relationships may prove useful. However, we should beware of overzealous attempts to include such measures.
Fraedrich, E., Lakatos, K., & Spangler, G. (2010). Brain activity during emotion perception: the role of attachment representation Attachment & Human Development, 12 (3), 231-248 DOI: 10.1080/14616731003759724