Now there's a thought…

According to Chris Fraley from the University of Illinois, there is an ever-increasing body of evidence to suggest that adult, romantic relationships behave in a very similar way to infant-caregiver relationships (Fraley 2010). By infant-caregiver relationships we mean demonstrating one of the following behaviours on a consistent basis: a) following a separation from the caregiver and then reunion the child is initially upset but is soon calm and demonstrates positive wellbeing once again (this is called secure attachment); b) following separation from the caregiver and then reunion the child approaches the caregiver with ambivalence and resistance finding it difficult to settle, remaining ‘on edge’ and remaining upset (this is called defensive attachment); c) following separation from the caregiver and then reunion the child withdraws (this is called avoidant attachment. Incidentally, further testing has shown that while the child shows withdrawal and apparent coolness their attentional capacity is diminished, their heart rate is increased and there is a rise in their stress hormone levels). Whether the child’s behaviour is a, b, or c it is known as attachment-related behaviour.

Using supporting evidence from Fraley & Shaver, 1998, Fraley explains that adults separated from their partners at airports demonstrate behaviours that are attachment-related and that those behaviours are more evident than those associated with non-separating couples. Fraley argues that those attachment-related behaviours show remarkable consistency with the infant-caregiver relationships explained in the previous paragraph.

To that end, I would like to suggest that there are two styles of behaviour on behalf of the caregiver, as well as an adult in a romantic, or indeed any, relationship, that promote secure attachment behaviours with others. They are:

1. Demonstrate that you are available

2. Demonstrate that you are attentive

The overwhelming evidence supports that having secure attachment relationships in childhood (where the child tends to develop resilience, good relationships with others, are happy, well liked and well adjusted) go on to further develop those attributes in adulthood (Feeney, Noller & Callan, 1994). Demonstrating that you are available and attentive appears to support two responses. Firstly, distressed partners are more likely to seek help from their partners and they are also more likely to give support to others (Simpson et al. 1992).  Secondly, insecure individuals generally exhibit exaggerated insecurities in conflict situations with their partner (Simpson et al. 1996).

Why might those responses be the case? I suspect that the fact that someone has made themselves available demonstrates itself by their willingness to listen to the other person, to offer advice if asked for, to provide a ‘sounding board’ for the other person in an environment that is a safe place to express their feelings. After all, you’re much less likely to express your feelings and emotions if you don’t believe that you’re being listened to when you express yourself.

Availability is one thing; attentiveness is another. Attentiveness, as a construct, is receiving considerable – dare I say – attention – in recent times. Mindfulness places considerable importance on giving attention. The word attentive derives from the old French word: attentif from which we then had the word: atendre – to give one’s attention to. Attention costs the giver. The evidence supports how important it is that the giver makes themselves available and attentive to the receiver.

It pains me when I see, sadly repeatedly in the modern world, a parent on the phone while their child walks along. Of course, there will be times when the parent needs to make an urgent call. But one doesn’t need to be listening in on the conversation to reliably establish if the phone call is urgent. There are sufficient body language clues to reliably indicate that the phone call is non-urgent. Invariably, it’s the modern-day scourge of social networking on the mobile that is taking available and attentive behaviours towards the child and the adult away. I’m sure that I’m not the only one who has observed adults ‘on the phone’ while the child or other adult is left to their own devices (however, in this case, not electronic ones).

Further evidence is necessary but surely this is a case of the obvious. The more we reduce our availability and attentiveness towards others, the more damaging the relational impact. As adults, one would hope that we’re mature enough to ‘walk away’ from such toxic relationships and seek to build or further build secure attachments with others. Even better: as adults why not seek to change your own behaviour and make yourself available and attentive to the needs of others? If everyone were to do this what a positive difference that would make. Yet, there are many adults in toxic relationships. There are many adults who are victims of caregivers in the b) and c) categories identified earlier. While the evidence currently is moderately related at best adults who, as children, were on the receiving end of defensive or avoidant attachment continue to be influenced in terms of behaviour, thoughts and feelings in adulthood (Fraley & Shaver, 2000). Conversely, adults in secure, romantic relationships were more likely to identify their experiences as a child as receiving care, affection and acceptance (Feeney & Noller, 1990).

Am I calling then for the removal of mobile devices? Of course not. But I am calling for adults to stop using them out of habit when they’re with their child. I want adults to spend more time attending to their child and less time to the outside world. And they can only do that if they make themselves available to engage in the first place.

What about adults with other adults? I’m calling for adults to stop using their mobile devices out of habit when they’re with other adults and spend more time showing attentiveness to the other adults, whether they are your friends, your family or your partner. Spending time together, with everyone on their devices, it not spending quality time together because the time lacks attentiveness to anyone for large blocks of time; it’s the device that gets the lion’s share. I’ve written before that you can’t attend to more than one thing at a time. It’s neurologically impossible. So, spend more time attending to the people who you are with and less time to the outside world. And you can only do that if you make yourself available in the first place.

How might you make yourself available and attentive today, and every day?


Fraley, C (2010). A Brief Overview of Adult Attachment Theory and Research. University of Illinois


I’m currently studying a MOOC (online) course with Pennsylvania University on resilience. One part of the course this week focused on the film: Pursuit of Happyness starring Will Smith. Will Smith plays the character Chris Gardner. The night before his interview Gardner is locked up in jail and so must attend the interview with no opportunity to change into appropriate interview-wear. The clothes he wears are the clothes he’s worn all night. 

Facing that scenario what might you have done? Gardner attends the interview in his already-worn-all-night clothing. 

Yet, he does not let this phase him. Why? Because doing something about his clothing was out of his control. All too often we seek to change that which cannot be changed. What Gardner does do is address all the things that he can control. For example, he waits quietly in the jail until he’s released. (After all, no amount of frustration is going to release him any earlier). The only modification that Gardner had the time to do is this: tuck his shirt in. So, that’s exactly what he does. And, crucially, doesn’t waste time and energy trying to change any other clothing issues. Why? Simply because he can’t. 

Once Gardner arrives at the interview, he scans the interview room for every snippet of information that he can use to his advantage. When the interviewer comments on his attire Gardner takes control by acknowledging his inappropriate clothing. 

There were plenty of other things that Gardner does to take control. But there were plenty of things too that Gardner doesn’t waste time and energy trying to control either. 

The point is this: we need to stop wasting time and energy on what we can’t do anything about. So, consider this instead: What can you do something about?

I’ll leave you with my latest tweet @stephenlong:

You might not be able to control what you’re wearing but you can control how you look. Tuck your shirt in!” 

Screenshot 2016-02-02 12.33.05
Long term memory is a funny thing. Generally, we think that we have either a very good long term memory or our perception is that it’s more akin to collecting water with a sieve: nothing sticks.

For those who think that they belong to the first category: heed this word of caution that follows.

Science tells us that many people’s long term memory is lousy in terms of accurate recall. How so? Psychiatrist Offer carried out a fascinating investigation. He surveyed a bunch of fourteen year olds in 1962 and asked them a whole load of pretty personal questions involving home life, sexuality, religion, parental discipline and general activities. That in itself is not remarkable but this next point is. He not only kept the results of the survey but then re-surveyed the same people 34 years later in 1996. The purpose was to discover how robust the long term memories were.

The results were interesting. There were significant differences between the adult memories of what happened as an adolescent and what was reported as happened as an adolescent. Accurate long term memory recall was generally no better than chance.

What’s going on that would cause such poor memory recall? The act of learning something is called consolidation. This means that the memory makes its way to long term memory. However, in recalling the memory, the brain must then reconsolidate the memory. Yes, reconsolidate the memory. Many scientists believe that the act of recalling a long term memory converts it to short term (more accurately called working memory) and that this occurs every time the long term memory is retrieved. This means that the working memory must be reconsolidated every time it’s recalled to change it back in to long term memory.

If that wasn’t bad enough, there’s another, even greater problem. In recalling the memory other memories bleed into it, as the brain actively engages in pattern matching the recalled memory with any other memories it thinks are associated with it an any way. The problem is: they may not be. The result? Long term memory is very suspect to influence.

The authors of the study made the significant conclusion that even more care is required in obtaining accurate historical information that was medical or psychological. This point could be applied to law enforcement offers (who seek to make sure witness statements are taken at the earliest opportunity after the crime is committed) and anyone requiring historically accurate information.

By the way, if we extrapolate the point about memory bleed, then the only way to prevent previous long term memories having other memories bleed into them is to not recall the long term memories in the first place! Oh, that’s helpful: not!

You can read more about the study here.

It’s not enough to text or email. It’s not even enough to telephone. It’s face-to-face encounters that show the beneficial impact of reducing depression in the elderly. 

Quoting from the 2015 published research by Teo, A. et al.:

Clinicians should consider encouraging face-to-face social interactions as a preventive strategy for depression.

That offers enormous challenges for those of us separated by considerable distance from our family loved ones. It’s a challenge though that we must find ways of meeting. In a world now so dominant in electronic communication, face-to-face remains the best way to communicate, as a means for maintaining mental wellbeing in the elderly. 

Does it really matter what I think?

The short answer is yes! The brain is ‘plastic’. Not literally plastic of course but neuroscience refers to the brain as ‘plastic’. What does this mean? By ‘plastic’ it means mouldable, changeable, constantly able to change itself. At any age.

This is a remarkable point. For years scientists didn’t believe the brain was plastic at all let alone capable of rewiring itself at any age. Neuroscientists, challenging the concept of Localisation (the belief that learning was localised to specific regions of the brain and that those regions couldn’t be altered), were laughed at, humoured or simply ignored. Please read ‘The Brain That Changes Itself’ by Norman Doidge, MD for many examples.

Brain mapping (the process by which scientists discover which dynamic areas of the brain can be responsible for thought and behaviour) successfully challenged the Localisation scientists,  but it still took many years before neuroplasticity was considered accepted theory.

I’ve studied neuroplasticity (the science of the brain constantly changing itself) reading many books on the subject, as well as writing about it in posts. The fact, as we now understand it, is this: Whatever we think about and do will wire, rewire, strengthen the wiring and weaken the wiring of connections in our brain. There is a well-known saying in the world of neuroscience and is this:

Neurones that fire together, wire together.

What this means is neurones that work together, firing their signals along the neurone axons to other neurones form connections with each other and increase the efficiency of the signal being sent. The result: we can carry out the thought or behaviour with ever greater efficiently.

That’s great. It takes less effort to carry out the process (imagine having to learn to ride a bike every day) and the thought or behaviour becomes more and more automatic.

The problem though is that the brain doesn’t stop to say: “Hang on a minute! Do we really want to be more efficient at this?” The brain strives for efficiency whatever the thought or behaviour. Thus, with the same clinical efficiency, we can learn to think more negatively, behave more inappropriately and adopt more unhealthy habits.

Fortunately, the reverse is also true. We can learn to think more positively, behave more appropriately and adopt healthy habits. It’s just a lot easier to do, think and behave in the ways that we want in the first place than it is to have to unlearn negative thought processes and behaviours first before thinking more positively and behaving more positively. Why? Because the neurones that fired together with negative thinking have become wired together, in some cases very efficiently. It takes a lot of effort to weaken their efficacy (how well they produce their result).

But this is possible. That’s the point in neuroplasticity. It doesn’t have to be that way. The brain can change. But it’s going to take hard work. A lot of hard work. William James (Victorian psychologist) commented that a fold is easy to take hold. By this he meant that once the fold has been made it’s harder for the piece of paper to fold another way. Its tendency to fold along the original fold is strong. But, unlike a piece of paper, the ‘crease in the brain’ can fade and fade and fade and the folds in the brain: the desired wiring, can form and strengthen. Romans 12:2 (a passage in the Bible) says to the effect that we can be continuously transformed by the renewing (rewiring) of our minds.

I find it interesting that St Paul, writing two thousand years ago, explained that the mind can be continuously renewed and Localisation scientists and many others besides held that the brain was fixed until relatively recently in history.

Perhaps I might start calling St Paul the Father of Neuroplasticity!

Have you thoughts and behaviours that you want to change but feel stuck and don’t know how to change for the better? Contact me.

Practise challenging #feelings.How? 


“Hang on a minute!”

Feelings are real but feelings aren’t #facts. Seek evidence to challengewhat may well be negative, automatic assumptions.

What are your assumptions?

Every time your attention is shifted from one task to another, the Rule of Disengagement followed by the Rule of Activation is employed. The Rule of Disengagement requires neurons active for a specific attention task to be disengaged and the Rule of Engagement requires neurons required for the new attention task to be sought and then activated.

This results in a time delay (perhaps as much as a 10th of a second or more) as one rule delivering attention to a task is disengaged before the next rule for giving attention to a different task is activated. The time delay prevents attention multitasking! Further, if you keep switching your attention that can add up to a lot of time. If you’re driving, even a few 10ths of a second can result in a quite considerable distance being travelled. Studies confirm talking on a phone while driving increases road traffic crashes because stopping distances are considerably increased. 
If you have an efficient working memory then task shifting can occur very quickly indeed. Shifting is still not attention, however. The fact remains: attention multitasking is neurologically impossible
You can of course do more than one thing at a time. At this moment in time you are doing more than one thing at the same time, as you read this post, perhaps drinking a coffee while your heart, of course, beats steadily away. You might be monitoring the traffic too if you’re near a busy road like I am. However, doing more than one thing at a time and attending to more than one thing at the same time is not the same thing at all. 

Everyone – even men! – can do more than one thing at the same time. No one – not even women! – can attend to more than one thing at the same time. 
It’s time to put attention multitasking, for either sex, in the False Doctrine Box.

Men can’t multitask – and neither can women – when it comes to paying attention.

(Adapted from the sources: Medina, J. (2009). Brain Rules. Seattle: Pear Press 
Medina, J. (2014). Brain Rules Updated and Expanded. Seattle: Pear Press.)

Regarding what is wisdom here’s something from one of my favourite authors, and philosophers: Mark Twain.

Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is what it takes to sit down and  listen. – W Churchill.

Take time, today just to listen to someone. Avoid all temptations to think how you’re going to respond, let alone say anything in reply. Just listen to what they are saying. If they ask for your advice freely give it. If they don’t you have your answer already for you provided the opportunity for them to simply share.

Listening in this way is one of the hardest skills to do so it is something that we need to practise every day. The more that we truly listen the more we’ll find others will feel safe enough ‘open up’.

Remember though: listen to doesn’t mean agree with; it simply letting go of the need to prove you’re right.


What did you participate in #today and for how long?


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