March 22, 2021 1 Comment

Attachment Anxiety and Peri-personal Space in the Human Brain

Zahra Nasiriavanaki

Department of Psychiatry, Massachusetts General Hospital, Charlestown, MA, USA; Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA.

What are attachment styles?

Attachment behaviors are interpersonal relationship patterns that are intended to increase an individual’s sense of safety and promote survival. There are 3 types of insecure adult attachment styles: (1) “anxious preoccupied”, (2) “dismissive avoidant” and (3) “fearful avoidant”.

According to this classification, “Dismissive avoidant” attachment is associated with an emphasis on self-reliance and emotional distance from others. “Fearful avoidant” attachment is linked to a fear of rejection and abandonment. And “anxious preoccupied” or anxious attachment is characterised by a lack of confidence in the sustainability of relationships and a strong desire for closeness and need for reassurance.

Behaviourally, higher levels of anxious attachment go with higher arousal responses and attentional vigilance to threatening social information.

Some scientists think that brain regions involved in representing the actions, experiences and mental states of others should contribute to an individual’s capacity for empathy and attachment to others. Previous studies point to medial and lateral frontal and parietal cortices, and the insula and anterior cingulate cortex as the suspects. Consistent with this idea, it has been observed that anxious attachment goes with greater activation of regions involved in threat evaluation, such as the amygdala, insula and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, in response to negatively valanced social cues and social exclusion.

Brain and Personal Space

Another sensorimotor system in the human brain that may play role in social behavior and attachment is the parietofrontal (PF) cortical network. This brain area is involved in monitoring the space near the body, which is technically called peri-personal space (PPS). This brain network responds when stimuli are inside or entering our PPS. Based on observations of defensive motor responses evoked by stimulating neurons in these regions, we can infer that PPS network plays a key role in generating responses to threats in the local environment.  This network, some scientists believe, also plays a role in defending against or avoiding collisions or intrusions into the space near the body.

Attachment and Personal Space

Our need for self-protection is balanced by an opposing drive for affiliation with others. We (especially in US) do not like strangers to come too close to us but equally, we (everywhere in the world) start to worry if our loved ones keep distant from us. This balance, between maintaining and overcoming distance with others during day-to-day social life, particularly when others are within our peri-personal space (PPS), is an important part of a person’s attachment style. Thus, managing the delicate tuning between social proximity and self-protection, including in its concrete physical expressions, may be one important attachment-related function supported by the brain’s PPS network.

Consistent with this idea is the observation that in individuals with neuropsychiatric disorders associated with insecure attachment we see impairments in regulation of physical social distance. Thus, variation in the ability to maintain context-appropriate physical distances from others may reflect dimensions of adult attachment.

Our study: attachment and space in the brain

We tested the hypothesis that responsivity of the human brain’s PPS network is linked to variation in adult attachment. We already knew that two nodes of the PPS network (the dorsal parietal cortex and ventral premotor cortex) respond to images of human faces that appear to approach versus withdraw from us (see Fig. 1). Thus, we predicted that the magnitude of brain responses in the PPS network to approaching (vs. withdrawing) faces is related to variation in self-reported adult attachment styles.

Figure 1. Approaching and receding faces and cars were used to assess social and non-social entry to peri-personal space

We found that the brain areas in the PPS network (bilateral superior parietal, superior frontal and medial parietal cortex, see Fig 2 for where they are in the brain) did respond to face stimuli that appeared to approach the body, intruding into personal space. As said earlier, this was not new and we knew this would happen from previous studies.

Figure 2. The line graphs show that the network of brain areas highlighted here respond when faces approach (vs withdraw) from us. These bar graphs show that these areas are more active when the faces are inside our peripersonal space.

Most importantly for our purpose, we found that a self- reported “anxious preoccupied” attachment style was associated with the magnitude of responses of this PPS network to social (faces), but not to non-social (cars) stimuli.

Figure 3. The higher people scored as “anxious preoccupied” type, the stronger their brain responded to faces that came towards the participant.

Interestingly The other attachment styles that we studied, and symptoms of psychopathology, did not show any relationship with responsivity of this network.

Reference: Nasiriavanaki, Z., T. Barbour, A. H. Farabaugh, M. Fava, A. J. Holmes, R. B. H. Tootell and D. J. Holt (2021). “Anxious attachment is associated with heightened responsivity of a parietofrontal cortical network that monitors peri-personal space.” NeuroImage: Clinical: 102585. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nicl.2021.102585

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