Signal-Perspectives in Infant Mental Health Articles Revisited: A Paper by Daniel Siegel, The Developing Mind: Toward a Neurobiology of Interpersonal Experience, from The Signal (1998)


By, The Perspectives in Infant Mental Health Editorial team

The Signal and Perspectives in Infant Mental Health Archive, is full of many gems, with papers dating back to 1993 (Perspectives Archive – Perspectives (

The paper featured here is from The Signal (1998), “The Developing Mind: Toward a Neurobiology of Interpersonal Experience”, written by Daniel Siegel.

Dr. Daniel Siegel is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, the founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA, and the Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute. His work has been and continues to be hugely influential, across disciplines. If you are interested to follow up further, here is the link to his website: Dr. Dan Siegel Home Page – Dr. Dan Siegel

If this a new area of learning for you, or if you are looking for a refresher, this paper by Dr Siegel, written over 20 years ago, provides an excellent overview. Also, if this is a new area and you wanted to watch a short video of Dr Siegel introducing the concept of interpersonal neurobiology, here is a link: Interpersonal Neurobiology – Dr. Dan Siegel

Finally, this paper is being republished as part of a dialogue with Perspectives in Infant Mental Health readers regarding an updated paper that will be featured on interpersonal neurobiology and early relationships in our December 2021 issue.

The Developing Mind: Toward a Neurobiology of Interpersonal Experience

By Daniel J. Siegel, M.D.

Editor’s Note: Daniel Siegel is Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA and the Medical Director of the UCLA lnfant and Preschool Service. He is also Director of lnterdisciplinary Studies at the Children’s Mental Health Alliance Foundation in New York.

His forthcoming book, The Developing Mind: Toward a Neurobiology of Interpersonal Experience, will be published by Guilford Press in the spring of 1999.

As we near the end of the 1990s, the “Decade of the Brain,” the field of mental health is in a tremendously exciting period. Recent findings in cognitive neuroscience have revealed some new insights into how mental processes emerge from the activity of the brain. Advances in the science of development, especially longitudinal studies in the field of attachment, shed new light on how early experiences influence such fundamental processes as memory, emotion and the regulation of behavior. The often isolated fields of neurobiology and attachment, have a fascinating set of convergent findings relevant to clinical work with infants and their families. Examination of these and other areas of research can offer us new ways of understanding how the developing mind is shaped by the interaction of interpersonal experience and neurobiological processes in the creation of the human mind.

Clinical programs and therapeutic practice can be greatly enriched by a foundation in an interdisciplinary approach to the developing mind. Though the various fields interested in mind, brain and experience have much to offer, there has been little translation and synthesis available to make these findings readily accessible to a clinical audience. For example, very little in cognitive neuroscience, the study of how mental processes emerge from the mind concerns itself with how social experiences shape development.

Likewise, most research in attachment does not draw directly upon findings from neurobiology. By integrating insights from a variety of domains, including anthropology, developmental psychology, cognitive neuroscience, behavioral genetics, linguistics and other disciplines studying the nature of the mind, we in the field of mental health can greatly enhance our ability to understand how children develop within a matrix of interpersonal experience, Such a perspective can enable us to integrate the most modern findings from neurobiology with a broad understanding of development, experience and human relationships.

The mind develops throughout life as we interact with others in our environment during infancy and beyond. The genetically influenced timing of the emergence of specific brain circuits during the early years of life makes this period a lime of exquisite importance for the influence of interpersonal relationships -with parents and other caregivers- on how the structure and function of the brain will develop and give rise to the organization of the mind. But how do the processes of the mind emerge from the neuronal activity of the brain? How can human relationships influence the activity and development of the brain? What are the mechanisms by which interpersonal experience can actually shape neuronal activity and growth? These questions have led me to become immersed in a pursuit of a “neurobiology of interpersonal experience”: a way of understanding the neurobiological processes by which the mind emerges from the activity of the brain in interaction with other brains – with other minds.

Grounding ourselves in a neuroscience of relationships, can allow us in the field of infant mental health to approach our work with all of the scientific foundation that this Decade of the Brain has to offer. In the following pages, I will highlight a few of the major ideas of this perspective. More detailed discussions and references can be found in the Developing Mind text.

Mind, Brain and Experience

What is the mind? Though it cannot be seen with or without a microscope, the mind does have an organization to its processes that can be described and studied. Mental processes such as memory, emotion, attention, behavioral regulation and social cognition can be understood by examining the nature of brain activity. Recent technological advances have permitted truly new insights into the nature of the mind. For example, our modern view of the brain and its response to experience has shed some new light on how experience directly affects gene function, neuronal connections and the organization of the mind. While we are at only the barest beginnings of understanding how the mind emerges from the brain, it is nevertheless a crucial area of study of how the mind develops within a complex set of social experiences. One general message from a synthesis of neurobiology and attachment is that it is within the vital human connections of interpersonal relationships that many of the neural connections which create the mind are shaped: Human relationships shape the brain structure from which the mind emerges.

What is the brain? The brain is composed of a massively complex network of interconnected neurons which number about one hundred billion. The projections of these long cells reach out to other neurons at a junction called a synapse. At this meeting point, a neurotransmitter is released which diffuses across the synapse and activates or inhibits the adjacent neuron. If enough activating input is received, then an action potential equivalent to a small electrical current passes down the length of this next neuron to cause the release of neurotransmitter at the “down-stream” synaptic ends.

The important point here is that the activity of neurons occurs in a network of activation – a certain portion of a spider-web like neural network active across time. It is the specific pattern of this spatiotemporal brain activity that determines the nature of the mental processes created at a given time: the timing and the location of neural activation within the brain determine the “information” contained within the neural net patterns. Activity in sensory regions may mediate perception and the specific nature of this firing may signify the different aspects of perceptual information: a visual stimulus, auditory input or tactile sensation, for example. Information carried within perceptual regions often becomes integrated into a larger “cross-modal” perceptual system.

Such an integrating process is an example of how the brain functions as a hierarchical set of layers of relatively distinct component elements whose neuronal activity may become clustered together into a functional whole. The complexity of the brain as an interconnected system is revealed by the fact that an average neuron directly connects with (has synaptic connections to) about ten thousand other neurons! This means that there are trillions of connections and an imponderably large number of combinations of potential neural net activation patterns. It is for this reason that neuroscientists (with the bias of their own human brains, of course) suggest that the brain is the most complex entity in the universe!

The brain as a system is composed of hierarchical layers of component parts that can be examined at a number of levels of analysis: single neurons, neuronal groups, circuits, systems, regions, and hemispheres, At birth the brain is the most undifferentiated of any “organ” in the body. As development unfolds, neural pathways are created as synapses are formed which allow for the creation of these component parts to become differentiated and to carry out such features as attention, perception, memory and emotional regulation.

A huge number of genes encode for the timing and general details of how circuits are to develop early in life: However, the creation, maintenance and elaboration of neural connections may often also require that they be activated in a process called “experience-dependent” development. Experience activates specific neuronal connections and allows for the creation of new synapses and the strengthening of existing ones. In some cases, the lack of use leads to impaired synaptic growth and to a dying away process -called pruning -in which connections are lost and neurons themselves may die.

The differentiation of the ‘brain during the early years of life is thus dependent upon genetic information and the proper experiential stimulation. It is for this reason that the early years of life, the time when the basic circuits of the brain are becoming established that mediate such processes as emotional and behavioral regulation, interpersonal relatedness, language and memory, are the most crucial for the individual to receive the kinds of experience that enable proper development to occur.

But how does experience influence neurons and the genes which encode, in part, their growth and development? Numerous studies demonstrate that genes have two major functions: 1) genes store information in their “template” function, and 2) genes are expressed in their “transcription” function in which they lead to the production of specific proteins which alter cell structure and function. In this manner, the activation of neurons during experience leads to new synapses by the activation of genes that cause the production of the proteins necessary for neuronal growth and synapse formation.

Genes do not exist in a vacuum but require experience for their expression. Genes are activated by experience. This view allows us to see how the heated arguments about “nature versus nurture” or “heredity versus experience” do little to further our understanding of the biological reality that experience directly shapes brain structure via the activation of genes.

In the early years of life, the most important form of experience is within interpersonal relationships with parents and other caregivers. Certain interpersonal experiences appear to be common in the majority of attachment relationships in all cultures which have been studied. This common feature has been called “contingent” or “collaborative” communication between caregiver and infant. How does this form of reciprocal, emotionally attuned, interpersonal communication shape the development of the brain? Writers such as Myron Hofer (1994), Allan Schore (1994), Allan Sroufe (1996), Daniel Stern (1985), Colwyn Trevarthen (1994, Aiken and Trevarthen, 1997), and Edward Tronick (1989), have offered a variety of ways of understanding the link between early experience, emotional development and self-regulation.

One way of pursuing possible answers to this basic question about how interpersonal communication shapes neuronal connections is by first defining in a more general manner what the mind is, and then looking toward attachment as a way in which the more mature mind of the caregiver directly interacts with the less mature mind of the infant to facilitate its development.

The Mind: Patterns in the flow of energy and information

A variety of disciplines explore the nature of the mind in its ability to process information -and to regulate the function of the individual in adapting to the environment. These various conceptualizations of mind often share the notion that the mind is more than a physical entity – such as brain activity alone – and yet emerges from and also regulates the “self’ and the physiological processes from which it emerges. The mind is thus often seen as a “process” fundamental to each person.

A dictionary definition of the psyche includes the terms soul, intellect, spirit and mind. In attempting to put these various perspectives into a broader framework, it has been useful to have a working definition that views the mind as emerging from the patterns in the flow of energy and information within the individual and between individuals. In this way, the mind is created by both neurobiological processes within the individual and interpersonal interactions between individuals.

The activity of the brain serves to process information within its energized neural patterns. Information is processed in the brain by means of neural activity which serves to “represent” aspects of the internal or external world. The “mental symbol” or “code” is conceptualized as being embedded within patterns of neural net firing. For example, when we recall a visual image, such as the room we grew up in, the firing of a pattern of neural circuits within our visual system is similar but not identical to the pattern that fired when we were actually there years ago.

Memory, as with other mental processes including ongoing perception, is an actively constructive process that draws on a range of neural systems and is shaped by a wide variety of factors influenced by external and internal factors. Within the brain, the pattern of activation (energy) of distributed neurons acts as a symbol (information) of some experienced event that is constructed by the mind itself.

The brain is capable of creating mental symbols or representations that signify some aspect of the outer or inner world. As we perceive and encode into memory various forms of representations, we can then later reactivate these mental symbols, these neural net profiles, and be able to recall various aspects of past experience. Information is thus represented in the mind by way of the flow of neural activity across various spatially distributed circuits. The way in which these representations cause further effects in the mind – such as contrasting, clustering into categories, extracting general properties – is the essence of information processing. The resultant neural activity becomes a mental symbol itself and creates a cascade of representational processes that are at the heart of the flow of cognition. Most of these processes occur without the involvement of consciousness, a subject we will not even begin to attempt to address in this article!

Colwyn Travarthen (1994) and Don Tucker and colleagues (Tucker el al 1995) have described the ways in which the right and left hemisphere are dominant for the mediation of distinct modes of representational processing. From before birth, the brain reveals an asymmetry in its structure and development. For the infant, the right hemisphere is dominant in its growth during the first three years of life. Recent discoveries over the last several decades have resulted in a number of fascinating notions about the divided brain and mental processes. For the purposes of this article, I will highlight those findings that are particularly relevant to early development and attachment.

The left hemisphere is dominant for the semantic aspects of language, syllogistic reasoning (drawing cause-effect relationships), and linear analysis. The right hemisphere is dominant for nonverbal aspects of language (tone of voice, gestures), facial expression of affect, the perception of emotion, the regulation of the autonomic nervous system, the registration of the state of the body and for social cognition including the process called “theory of mind.”

These findings suggest a possible view of secure attachments in which the right hemisphere -dominant in the first three years of the infant’s life -is crucial for the collaborative communication between parent and child. Secure attachments involve contingent communication that can be thought to involve the parent’s sensitivity to the child’s signals and the capacity of the parent to perceive the mind of the child.

Examination of the adult attachment interview findings from Mary Main and others (Main, 1995) also reveals that parents of securely attached children tend to have a coherent autobiographical process. This research interview actually has the most robust predictive power for the security of attachment of child to parent and may reveal some way in which the parent’s mind has come to integrate a number of mental processes that emerge within memory and narrative. This finding raises the important question of how an intra-individual process like the parent’s autobiographical narrativization would relate to the parent’s ability to have contingent communication with a child and the capacity to create a secure attachment.

Interpersonal experience can be seen as involving the flow of energy and information from one mind to another. At the neurobiological level, this involves the sending of signals from one brain to another via interpersonal communication that involves a variety of levels of messages and receiving sensory capacities. In attachment relationships, the infant’s emerging capacities to receive and send energy/information shape the nature of the communication. In secure attachments, for example, the parent is able to perceive the signals of the infant with a fair degree of reliability and respond in a manner that is contingent to the state of the child.

Looking to the notion of minds in attachment has been described by Mary Main (1991) and by Peter Fonagy and Mary Target (1997) and their respective colleagues. From these perspectives, having a metacognitive capacity or reflective function that enables the parent to think about mental states of the self or of the child -such as emotions, thoughts, memories, perceptions, intentions, beliefs and attitudes- may be at the heart of secure attachments.

From the concept of mind proposed here, secure attachments can be seen as the way in which the mind of the parent is able to directly and collaboratively communicate with the mind of the child. As we will see, mental processes such as memory, emotion, representations, states of mind, self-regulation and the integration of a range of mental processes each may be fundamentally influenced by interpersonal experience. These influences are greatest during infancy because of the development of basic brain structures at that time. However, the socially dependent nature of our brains suggests that interpersonal experience may continue to influence neurobiological processes throughout the lifespan.


Recent discoveries in the development and neurobiology of memory have yielded some exciting and relevant insights into the nature of how our minds respond to experience and influence later functioning (Milner, Kandel and Squire, 1998). Two major forms of memory have been described: implicit and explicit. Implicit memory includes a range of processes such as emotional, behavioral, perceptual and possibly somatosensory memory. These forms are present at birth and involve circuitry that does not require focal attention for encoding nor does it include a sense of “I am recalling something” when retrieval occurs.

For example, an infant bitten by a dog may have the emotional memory of fear when seeing a dog in the future but may have no sense that she is “recalling” anything when having this sensation. In this manner, implicit memory is NOT the same as nonconscious memory in that the effects of the recal1 are indeed within conscious awareness but only experienced in the “here and now” and not with the subjective sense of that something is being recalled. These implicit forms of memory are thought to be carried out in areas of the brain that subsume their functions such as the amygdala and other areas of the limbic system (emotional memory), basal ganglia and motor cortex (behavioral memory), and the sensory cortex (perceptual memory). These regions are relatively well developed at birth and capable of responding to experience by alterations in the synaptic connections within their circuitry, the essence of “memory encoding.”

Another important aspect of implicit memory is the ability of the mind to form schema or mental models of experience. These generalizations can be across experiences and across sensory modalities and reflect the brain’s inherent capacity to function as an “anticipation machine”- deriving from ongoing experience an anticipatory model of what may occur in the future. Such mental models are a fundamental part of how attachment experiences are thought to influence the Child’s later relationships as expressed in John Bowlby’s notion of an “internal working model” of attachment (Bowlby, 1969).

By the end of the first year of life, infants begin to have a sense of the sequence of experienced events marking the beginning of explicit memory (Bauer, 1996). Explicit memory is what is commonly considered as “recollecting.” It requires focal attention for its encoding that appears to activate a region of the brain called the medial temporal lobe, including the hippocampus. The postnatal neurogenesis of parts of the hippocampus may explain the delayed onset of explicit memory until after the first years of life.

When explicit memory is retrieved, it has the subjective sense of “something being recalled.” Explicit memory includes two major forms: Semantic (factual) and episodic (autobiographical). This latter form of memory has the unique features of a sense of self and time. Recent brain imaging studies suggest that episodic memory is mediated by a number of regions including an area of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex. Ernst Tulving and colleagues (Wheeler, Stuss and Tulving, 1997) use the phrase, “autonoetic consciousness” to refer to the ability of the mind to know the self and to carry out “mental time travel” -seeing the self in the past, present, and possible future. The development of the orbitofrontal regions during the first years of life may help us to understand the onset of this autonoetic capacity during the toddler and preschool years.

There is a tremendously exciting convergence of findings regarding the orbitofrontal region which suggest a number of highly relevant processes subsumed by this coordinating area of the brain. Located in the prefrontal cortex, just behind the eyes, and sitting between the “limbic system” and the associational regions of the neocortex, this convergence area receives input from and sends neural pathways to a wide array of perceptual, regulatory and abstract representational regions of the brain. In this manner, the orbitofrontal cortex serves to integrate information from widely distributed systems and also to regulate the activity of processes ranging from memory representations to the physiological status of the body, such as heart-rate and respiration.

The orbitofrontal cortex: 1) is dependent upon attachment experience for its growth and it mediates emotionally “attuned communication” (Schore 1994, 1996); 2) mediates autonoetic consciousness (Wheeler, Stuss and Tulving, 1997); 3) monitors the state of the body and regulates the autonomic nervous system as well as being a primary circuit of stimulus appraisal which evaluates “meaning” of events (Damasio, 1994); and 4) it appears to be an important region subsuming social cognition and “theory of mind” processing (Baron-Cohen, 1995).

Interestingly, it appears that it is the orbitofrontal cortex on the right side of the brain that is dominant for most of these processes. These findings may help us to understand the possible mechanisms underlying how contingent emotional communication between infant and caregiver within attachment relationships has such profound influences on a range of domains including autobiographical memory and narrative, physiological regulation, and interpersonal relatedness. Each of these basic aspects of the developing mind are mediated by the same self-regulating, experience-dependent circuits that have their initial differentiation during the early years of life!


The contingent communication between infant and caregiver is often considered as a manifestation of the parent’s sensitivity to the child’s emotional signals and a form of affective attunement between the members of the pair. How can we understand the ways in which this communication with and about emotion has such a profound influence on the development of such a wide range of functions? Researchers have addressed the topic of emotion by looking at the level of psychological function, attachment theory and more recently at neurobiological substrates of emotional development.

My own approach is to examine the fundamental role of emotion by drawing on various levels of analysis -from neuronal processes to interpersonal relationships- in viewing the individual mind as a system and the relationship between individuals as a way in which two minds come to function as a dyadic system. This “interpersonal neurobiology” perspective allows us to move back and forth between neuronal activity and mental function and between individual and dyadic processes.

Though there are a wide range of details about how researchers attempt to define emotion, many authors point to a number of common features (Sroufe, 1996, Garber and Dodge, 1991). Emotion is often considered as a way in which the mind appraises the meaning of a stimulus, is a response to engagement with the world, and prepares the self for action. Emotion is also seen as having a number of levels of manifestation, including subjective, cognitive, physiological and behavioral components.

A fascinating recursive finding has been noted by a number of authors in terms of the regulation of emotion: Emotion is both regulated and is regulatory. In other words, the process of emotion serves to regulate other mental processes and is itself regulated by mental processes. This view supports the more recently held perspective that there are no discernible boundaries between our “thoughts” and “feelings.”

Emotion influences and is influenced by a wide range of mental processes. Another way of stating this is that emotion, thought, perception, memory and action are inextricably interwoven. This linkage is exemplified by the idea that perception is the brain’s preparation for action: There is no perception without the potential for action upon incoming stimuli. Thus, regions mediating “perception” are directly influenced by those which respond, internally and behaviorally, to perceptual representations.

Likewise, modern views of the brain circuitry subsuming emotional processes support the view that all layers of the brain are influenced by the “limbic” regions. In fact, recent views of the neurobiology of emotion suggest that the limbic region -which includes the orbitofrontal cortex, anterior cingulate and amygdala- has no clearly definable boundaries. This suggests that the integration of a wide array of functionally segregated processes, such as perception, abstract thought and motor action, may be a fundamental role of the brain. Such an integrative process may be at the core of what emotion does and indeed what emotion is.

The brain as a system can be seen to function as a set of differentiated neuronal groups and circuits that can be clustered into a functionally integrated set of activations. Edelman (1992) has described the importance of such a cluster of interacting parts as having a “value” system that can reinforce or “select” certain stimuli and neuronal responses as valued preferentially over others. A range of neuromodulatory systems, including the limbic regions, can be proposed to meet the criteria for a value system of the brain. Such a value system must have extensive innervation to far-reaching areas of the brain, have the effect of enhancing the excitability and activation of neurons, and influence their plasticity (the capacity to strengthen and form new neuronal connections). In this manner, the limbic system may be conceptualized as a primary source of “value” for the brain.

What we can now say about the neuronal functions directly related to emotion is that there is believed to be an interdependence of several important domains of mental processes: stimulus appraisal (the evaluation of meaning), neural circuit activation, social communication, bodily state and autonomic regulation each appear to be mediated by a closely linked system of neural circuits. The significance of this finding is that it explains how communication within attachment relationships is the primary experience that regulates and organizes the development of those circuits in the brain that mediate self-regulation and social relatedness.

Early in life, when the infant’s brain is developing the circuitry responsible for these domains, attachment relationships help the experience-dependent growth of crucial neuro-modulatory regions responsible for emotional regulation (Schore, 1994). The infant has the capacity for interactive regulation as welI as an emerging capacity for self-regulation. Repeated experiences in which interactions with the caregiver help to alleviate distress and amplify positive emotional states serve to organize the growth of the circuits that allow for more mature and complex levels of self-regulation as the child matures.

Later in life, when these circuits are fairly well established, interpersonal relationships may continue to be important in the healthy reliance upon interactive regulation of adulthood. In this manner, resilience may be based on healthy early experience but is a capacity -not a final product- that provides the individual with the internal resources to continue to draw on a balance of self-regulation and on interactive regulation within interpersonal relationships for continued functioning and adaptation throughout the lifespan.

Sharing emotional states is a direct route by which one mind becomes connected to another. The brain’s evaluation of the meaning of events -the information-is linked to the activation of neural circuits- the energy. Our internal experience of emotion becomes in essence the “music of the mind” – the rhythmic flow of energy and information through our neural circuitry. Our interpersonal sharing of emotion, seen within attuned communications of secure attachments, is the way in which the flow of energy and information occurs -often nonverbally- between two individuals’ minds.

Within neural circuits, the systems that mediate the perception of social communication -especially the nonverbal messages within facial expressions, gestures and tone of voice- are closely linked to those that appraise the meaning of stimuli and regulate the activation of the autonomic nervous system. Thus, information and energy flow are directly regulated by the regions that carry out and perceive interpersonal communication! It is with this new awareness that we can see the mechanisms underlying the long held belief in how powerful human relationships are in organizing our continually emerging minds.

States of mind and self-regulation

The capacity of the mind to self-organize can be explored by examining the nonlinear dynamics of complex systems, or complexity theory. Modern applications of this systems view to the human mind have yielded some powerful ideas for understanding development. ln essence, these applications suggest a number of relevant concepts: self-organization, the movement toward increasingly complex states of activation, and the regulation of the state of activation of a system by both internal and external factors called “constraints.”

For our discussion of infant development, the relevant point is that one can view the relatively undifferentiated brain of the child as using the more specialized brain of the parent as an “external constraint” to organize its own functioning. The parent’s mind acts to both alter the present state of the child’s mind and to help form the neural circuits which will enable the child’s brain to regulate itself in increasingly sophisticated ways as the child matures. Interaction between parent and child thus serves to help self-organization both in the interactive moment and in creating self-organizational neural capacities for the future.

The organization of attachment relationships may reveal characteristic ways in which the state of mind of the parent becomes linked to that of the child. For example, a securely attached child-parent relationship may have an ease in the creation of what can be called “dyadic states” in which the minds of two individuals become “joined” and function as a single adaptive and flexible system. Such a system can be seen as both highly integrated and highly differentiated in a manner that creates maximal complexity of the system’s flow of states across time. This feature of complexity theory has profound implications at a number of levels.

One implication is that integration occurs when there is a functional coupling of differentiated components. In the case of secure attachments, this coupling can be seen to allow for a balance in the patterns of regularity and novelty within the flow of states of the pair that enables the achievement of maximal complexity. Such a balance is observed as “attuned” or contingent communication and from this complexity view can be said to allow the system to achieve the most flexibility and stability.

Avoidantly attached children and their parents may be seen to have interactions as isolated individuals who never enter such adaptive and flexible complex dyadic states. Highly differentiated but poorly integrated as a functional dyadic system, these pairs may lack the sense of joy and connection present in the experience of the securely attached child and parent’s interactions.

In contrast, ambivalently attached children experience the intrusive and inconsistent behavior of their parents which may lead to an excessively hypervigilant “matching” of child to parental states. Such a condition leads to excessive coupling (Beebe and Lachman, 1994) and poor differentiation that we can propose may severely limit the complexity and hence adaptive and flexible nature of the states achieved by these dyads.

For the disorganized attachments, a child may have experienced abrupt shifts in state on the part of the parent that can result in fear and disorientation in the child’s mind as described by Mary Main and Erik Hesse (1990). The hypervigilant stance seen clinically in these children may also reveal highly coupled communication with poor differentiation that may be seen as minimizing the level of complexity achievable by the dyad. The parent seems unable to perceive distress in the child and is thus unable to provide interactive regulatory experiences that would enable the child to use the parent to enter more tolerable levels of arousal. Repeated experiences within disorganized attachments have been shown to be associated with the process of dissociation in which mental processes fail to become integrated into a coherent whole (Main and Morgan, 1996, Ogawa et al, 1997).

Adult attachment narratives of the parents of disorganizedly attached children reveal the unique finding of narrative discontinuity and disorientation during the interview that are considered to be signs of unresolved trauma or grief. These findings suggest that the “unresolved state of mind” of the parent has a profound effect on the capacity of that adult to not only provide a coherent autobiographical narrative but to offer the coherent parenting that organized attachments require.


The interweaving of findings from attachment research, complexity theory and neurobiology yield some intriguing possibilities. One idea is that the mind functions as a system that develops the ability to self-organize utilizing the modulation of both internal and external constraints. Internal mechanisms include neuro-modulatory processes that enable the mind to regulate its states of activation, representational processes and behavioral responses. Such a well-developed capacity for neuromodulation would be mediated by circuits capable of integrating a range of neural processes, from abstract representations to bodily states.

As we’ve discussed, these circuits may confer “value” to stimuli and are functionally connected to the systems that mediate interpersonal communication. Attachment can be understood as the way in which the child’s mind comes to organize itself as a system both within itself and as a part of the larger system of human relationships. We each carry forward elements of these early organizing experiences in our neurally mediated capacities for emotional regulation, interpersonal relationships, and autobiographical narrative processes.

“Integration” can be proposed to be a central self-organizing mechanism that links these many disparate aspects of internal and interpersonal processes. Integration can be defined as the functional coupling of distinct and differentiated elements into a coherent process or “functional whole.” This concept has been used by a wide range of researchers including those studying group behavior (“inter-individual integration”), development across the lifespan (“individual integration”), and brain functioning (”neural integration”). Within a coherently integrated process, adaptive and flexible states are achieved as individual components remain highly differentiated AND become functionally united.

Such states may also be seen as moving toward conditions that maximize complexity. Coherent narratives and flexible self-regulation may reflect such an integrative process within the individual mind. Interpersonal integration can be seen when the mind of one person has the free and collaborative exchange of energy and information with another mind. Such adaptive and flexible states flow between regularity and predictability on the one hand, and novelty and spontaneity on the other, to yield a maximal degree of complexity in their functional coupling. Such dyadic states may be seen within the interactions of securely attached children and their parents.

The “mind” – defined as the flow of energy and information – can thus be conceptualized as an inherently integrating system. This “system” may be viewed from a wide range of levels of analysis, from groups of neurons to dyads, families, and even communities. Such a view may allow us to synthesize our understanding of the neurobiology of the individual brain with insights into the interpersonal functioning of people within dyads and larger social groups.

Another application of the concept of integration can be seen in unresolved trauma or grief. Unresolved states may be conceptualized as an ongoing impediment of the mind to achieve coherent integration. Lack of resolution thus implies a blockage in the flow of information and energy within the mind and may also manifest itself as an impairment in the capacity to achieve a coherent transfer of energy and information between minds. This may help us to understand the finding that the most robust predictor of disorganized attachment is a parent’s unresolved state of mind as revealed in the adult attachment narrative.

One example of this failure to achieve integration is in the various forms of dissociation that may accompany lack of resolution. For example, unresolved states may involve the intrusion of elements of implicit memory, such as emotions, behaviors and perceptions, in the absence of an explicit memory counterpart for aspects past traumatic experiences (Siegel, 1996). Such “disassociations” of mental processes may be at the core of clinical “dissociation” and an outcome of both trauma and earlier histories of disorganized attachments. A parent with lack of resolution is at risk of having the sudden and inexplicable intrusion of these traumatic implicit elements and the concomitant rapid shift in internal states which may dramatically impair the parent’s ability to perceive, tolerate and respond contingently to the child’s signals. In this manner, we can see that impaired internal integration may lead to impaired interpersonal integration.

A further application of the concept of integration can be seen in an analysis of the nature of our life-stories. The structure of the narrative process itself may reveal the central role of integration in states of mental health and emotional resilience. Within the brain, the neural integration of the processes dominant in the left hemisphere with those dominant in the right can be proposed to produce a “bihemispheric” integration which enables many functions to occur, ranging from perceptual processes to motor coordination.

Another process that can be proposed to depend upon bilateral integration is that of narrativization. The left hemisphere has what has been called an “interpreter” searching for cause-effect relationships in a linear, logical mode of cognition. The right hemisphere is thought to mediate autonoetic consciousness and the retrieval of autobiographical memory. Also dominant on the right side of the brain is the social cognition or theory of mind module of information processing. Coherent narratives can thus be proposed to be a product of the integration of left and right hemisphere processes: the drive to explain cause-effect relationships (left) and the capacity to understand the minds of others and of the self within autonoetic consciousness (right). In this manner, we can propose that coherent narratives reflect the mind’s ability to integrate its processes across time and across the representational processes of both hemispheres.

Could this central process of the mind’s capacity for integration, both internal and interpersonal, be the link between narrative and parent-child relationships? Is such a capacity at the heart of secure attachments? Finding ways to facilitate an integrative process within and between individuals may enable us to help others grow and develop. Utilizing these interpersonal neurobiological ideas about the developing mind perhaps can help us to begin to unravel the mechanisms of what for so many in the field of infant mental health has been an intuitive idea: That relationships have the power to nurture and to heal the mind.

Link to original article: Signal 1998, Vol 6, No 3-4


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Siegel, Daniel J., M.D.
Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine
Founding Co-Director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA
Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute