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What matters more: nature or nurture?

by Marcos Economides

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In 1968, a retired carpenter and mechanic named Richard Proenneke moved to the remote mountains of Alaska, where he built his own log cabin and decided to forego human interaction for almost 30 years.

After watching “Alone in the Wilderness,” a documentary about his life, I was left with mixed emotions. On the one hand, I couldn’t help but be in awe of his determination and resoluteness; and on the other, I wondered how anyone could ever enjoy that much solitude.

The fact is, by and large, humans are social beings. Whether it’s sharing news with family, catching up with friends, joining clubs and societies, seeking romance, or posting on your favorite social media site, we invest a significant portion of time establishing and nurturing relationships. Scientists and anthropologists have proposed that the relative expansion of the frontal portion of the human brain occurred to accommodate our need for complex social interaction. And this need emerges almost as soon as we’re born.

In the 1960s, a British psychoanalyst named John Bowlby noticed that babies become extremely upset when separated from their caregivers. When left alone, babies often show signs of distress and will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid separation from a parent, such as crying and clinging. Similarly, when the parent returns, babies may actively seek their comfort and express joy when proximity is re-established. This type of behavior is referred to as secure attachment. Bowlby argued that since infants are unable to care for themselves, attachment behaviors of this sort may have been evolutionarily adaptive, with those displaying the strongest attachment having a greater chance of survival.

But not all infants behave the same way. Some become excessively distressed when separated from a caregiver, and after being reunited, show mixed emotions where on the one hand they want to be soothed but on the other, they want to protest against being neglected. This behavior is characterized as anxious-resistant. Yet another group, called avoidant, don’t appear distressed when separated at all and, by focusing their attention elsewhere, try to avoid re-establishing contact.

It’s thought that these individual differences emerge from infant-parent interactions during the first year of life. Parents who generally attend quickly and caringly to their child’s needs will foster secure attachments. Their children are likely to feel safe, loved, and be confident to explore new surroundings and play with others. Conversely, parents who are mostly insensitive to their child’s needs may foster anxious-resistant or avoidant attachment. Their children may feel anxious, reluctant to explore their surroundings, and wary of strangers.   

So why is any of this important? Babies do all kinds of weird things, right? Well, it turns out that adult romantic relationships work in a very similar way to infant-caregiver relationships, with the same kinds of individual differences in attachment style. In other words, the emotional bond that develops between adult romantic partners may stem from the same attachment system that gives rise to the emotional bond between infant and caregiver, and even reflect the style they personally had as a child.

While most adults describe themselves as securely attached to their partner and agree with statements such as “I believe that others will be there for me when I need them”, the adults that had anxious-resistant or avoidant styles as children will likely exhibit those same styles in adult relationships. They might worry that others do not love them completely, and even seek out relationships that confirm such beliefs. They might also be more likely to suffer from low self-esteem, or appear emotionally detached from their partner.  

They are also more likely to appear emotionally detached from close relationships and to suffer from lower self-esteem. Unsurprisingly, those who have a secure attachment style are better at dealing with relationship conflict and report greater relationship satisfaction.

The good news is that like most behaviors, these beliefs can be changed or “overwritten.” Mindfulness can certainly play a role here by promoting greater awareness and allowing us to uncouple our thoughts from our reactions. The Headspace ‘Self-Esteem,’ ‘Anxiety,’ and ‘Relationships’ packs are all great resources. Communication is also key. Don’t be afraid to open up if you’re feeling apprehensive about letting someone get closer to you. You might find that surrendering some of that fear is more fulfilling than you ever imagined. And if all else fails, there’s always the remote mountains of Alaska.

Marcos Economides

Marcos Economides is a cognitive neuroscientist and avid drummer based in London. He completed his PhD in neuroscience at University College London (UCL) in 2014, where he used neuroimaging to study the brain mechanisms supporting decision-making and self-control in humans. He joined Headspace shortly after, where he works on both in-house research and external collaborations to better understand how meditation can influence our collective well-being.