Amir Levine, M.D., is a psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and co-author of a popular book, Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find and Keep Love, which has been translated into 14 languages.
Kyle: How do you define attachment?
Amir: In the simplest form, the attachment is the way that our brain evolves to feel safe. It’s almost like having a filter through which we experience the world.
Basically, we are social species and the way we feel safe is through other people. One of the most effective ways of regulating our emotions when we are in distress is to be in proximity to someone that we’re securely attached to.
This also means that one of the most powerful ways of dysregulating our emotions and feeling stressed is through insecure attachment—when we feel that a person that we are close to is not available, or is not there for us.
Each of us behaves in relationships in one of three distinct ways:
- Anxious people tend to worry about their partner’s ability to love them back.
- Avoidant people equate intimacy with a loss of independence and constantly try to minimize closeness.
- Secure people feel comfortable with intimacy and are usually warm and loving.
Attachment is the basis of both suffering and healing. It has to do with feeling safe around other people and needing to choose the right people to be around that can provide us that safety.
If we achieve that, we’ll have much better relationships.
Kyle: I can relate to that. I went through a bunch of health issues after getting out of an anxious-avoidant relationship that you describe in your book, Attached. That sense of not having safety in my relationship and the anxiety that it caused really impacted my health.
Amir: Our brains are so social on so many different levels. Just having other people around us, even walking down the street, gives us a sense of security on a certain level. We all know that. I live in New York. If you’re going to down to the subway and you walk into a completely empty subway car, you feel a little bit uncomfortable.
If there’s a few people on the subway that don’t look weird, then you feel much more at ease. I think there is a selection process, there’s a huge advantage to create what we call Cons Specifics. Having others around is a signal of safety.
You see it throughout the animal kingdom: you see it in birds, you see it in humans, you see it in other animals. That’s on one level. I have to say I always find it interesting. I have done studies on mice that examine how social proximity affect how we experience our environment.
In research, we found that mice experience things differently in the presence or absence of other cage mates. When they’re alone and they have an adverse event happen to them, they register it much more strongly than when they’re in the company of another mouse.
When we gave them a shock and then tested them 24 hours later, they froze. It’s called fear memory. We measured the amount of time that they froze.
When we gave them the same shock in the presence of a cage mate and the cage mate was not being shocked, their freezing time was much less.
Our brain registers the same experience differently in the presence or absence of others. It literally encodes a different memory depending on the social setting we’re in.
We can also identify specific people that are more important than just the general population. We make sure that they’ll be responsible for our welfare and we’ll be responsible for their welfare. It’s where we devote energy and time. Our whole brain is built in such a way that we will prefer them and that we’ll need to be in close proximity to them.
That’s why I go into attachment styles in my book. Not everybody has the same capacity for closeness. People vary in their ability to provide that sense of a secure base. That’s very important.
Kyle: One of my favorite chapters in your book discusses the biological truth of dependency and what you call the dependency paradox, which reminds me of the independent mindset that, “I don’t need relationships.” Can you say more about that?
Amir: It’s interesting you mention that chapter because I co-authored this book with a high school friend of mine, Rachel. For a short time she was in San Francisco, but most of the time she has lived in Israel. The social ties are much stronger in Israel because families are closer together. The same is true in Europe.
The American society is different in terms of how close people are. She felt that the most important thing was to write about attachment styles and the issue of dependency. She saw it as a given, she didn’t even think that it was worth the chapter.
Because for her it was, “What’s new here? Of course, we all need each other.” Here in the United States, it’s not such a given. That’s what I explained to her, and eventually, we decided to include that chapter.
In some ways, the American society is more avoidant. We put such an emphasis on self-reliance and independence and we equate them, but they’re not the same. Because in reality self-reliance is basically, “I can’t trust anyone else, I have to do everything myself.”