The Separation Challenge-Attachment Solution Hypothesis

Scientists are reductionists by trade. Here is how neuroscientist Christof Koch describes the splitting, reductionistic function of science in his recent book on consciousness: “The history of any scientific concept—energy, atom, gene, cancer, memory—is one of increased differentiation and sophistication until it can be explained in a quantitative and mechanistic manner at a lower, more elemental level” (Koch, 2012).

But scientists are also human, undergoing individual development themselves in the process of becoming. This means that they are subject to the key separation challenges that mark the life cycle of every living thing in species-specific form. And with every human separation challenge—be it the separation-individuation challenge of toddlerhood, the maturation challenge of adolescence, the illness challenge that most often afflicts us in later adulthood, or even more starkly the survival challenge of the battlefield—we are evolutionarily biased and hardwired as conscious mammals to search for and lock onto a solution that will offer us the best shot we have at a secure base to which we can attach ourselves (Bowlby, 1982) (Hardwired to Connect, 2003).

This predicts that scientists, be they mathematician-physicists or naturalists, will eventually feel an imperative to take their split-up, drilled-down knowledge and re-assemble it all into a synthetic schema that will stand as their attachment solution to the mystery of life. We find multiple examples, such as What is Life (1944) by Erwin Shrodinger, Mystery of the Mind (1975) by Wilder Penfield, the recent The Social Conquest of Earth (2012) by E.O. Wilson, and one of my favorites—Vital Dust (1995) by Christian de Duve. I tell my psychosomatic medicine fellows, as we take the brain apart piece by piece, that sometime in their late 50s they too will feel an almost biological urge to synthesize all they have learned from kindergarten on up. I think this imperative is tied in with the way our brains are outfitted to find attachment solutions to separation challenges.

The mind-body question in consciousness studies is perhaps the best surrogate humans have to approach the real issue at hand—I evolved to remain attached but suspect that I will be separated forever. Reading Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist by Christof Koch (2012) and Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul by Giulio Tononi (2012), I was struck not only by the erudition of the authors, but also by the commonality of their quest, using the consciousness mystery as their vehicle, to find attachment solutions to their own personal separation challenges. The Renaissance literary style they choose to express their scientific insights suggests the personal nature of their attempts at synthesis. And it does not surprise me that they arrive at an answer Tononi has called the Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness, which is, in essence, a reflection of the need for both segregation (separation) and overall integration (attachment) in neural systems that evolve the capacity for the phenomenal experience of consciousness.

I suspect this is all connected with the Big History movement. Big History is a narrative account of the universe’s 13.7 billion year history, the 4.5 billion year evolution of Earth, the 6 million year arc of our species and the 10,000-year story of human civilization (Grassie, 2011). In a way, Big History is an emerging community synthesis of personal syntheses comprised of the explanatory schemas thought leaders in a variety of disciplines have felt the imperative to express. Big History, it seems to me, is an example of a new systems level in the complexification of intellectual history, one in which new insights have the potential to emerge out of the attachment of separate visions.

Why does this theme of separation and attachment reverberate in so many intellectual quarters? Secure base attachment offers us a survival advantage and is therefore, as Bowlby contends, our environment of evolutionary adaptedness (Bowlby, 1982). As such, it provides us with essential physiological and allostatic advantages that promote our solace, happiness, and health and enhance our capacity to individuate in community. And it may hold the key to understanding the “attachment solution” of consciousness, if indeed consciousness is information integration in the face of differentiated data as Tononi and Koch contend. The selective advantage of attachment as a solution to the separation challenges encountered in evolutionary history has important ramifications for medicine and for society as a whole. This is the premise of my own recent attempt at synthesis, Compassion and Healing in Medicine and Society. On the Nature and Uses of Attachment Solutions for Separation Challenges (Fricchione, 2011).

Faced with trying to make sense of often distressing but always privileged accompaniment of many seriously ill patients during my career in psychosomatic medicine, I embarked over 20 years ago on a expedition into the brain evolutionary story. The most common question from these patients often boils down to this: “What is meaningful in the true … and what is true in the meaningful?” I had a hunch we can draw close to the answer to this question by deepening our understanding of how and why the brain evolved and, from there, the implications for how we develop psychologically and socially and for how we should consequently be compassionately caring for the sick and weakest among us.

In short, brains are really organs evolutionarily specialized to help their particular organism do the best possible job of accomplishing what every living organism needs to do, i.e., to make optimal avoidance-approach decisions. Whether one is an amoeba or an astronaut, one needs to sense incoming data, analyze it, and effect a motor response. In this sense, all living things are sensory-motor analyzer-effectors (Cairns-Smith, 1996). An amoeba has the apparatus to approach and attach to a sugar in its vicinity. An astronaut has the brain to manipulate the machinery that will attach a spacecraft to a space station.

The story of brain evolution follows the development, through natural selection, of structures that increasingly advance the capacity of organisms to successfully avoid separation threats and approach attachment desiderata. Through reverse engineering, we can arrive at a pretty good idea of how a process of separation challenges and attachment solutions might lead over evolutionary time to a mammalian organism like us, with a content survival strategy of parental and social attachment, and with the neurological capacity for grand attachment solutions, such as language and consciousness and human community. Indeed, we now know that the brain is wired with multiple segregated yet integrated basal ganglia thalamocortical, sensory-motor analyzer-effecter circuits that may confer the kind of neural complexity and integrated information attachment solution responsible for consciousness and its preferred evolutionary outcome of secure base social attachment (Alexander et al, 1990) (Tononi, 2008) (Fricchione, 2011). With this new knowledge in tow, we can rethink how caregivers should reinvent healthcare and how society’s leaders might help our increasingly global community find attachment solutions to our separation challenges.

Here, I think, we find a way to answer the question of what is true in the meaningful and meaningful in the true. The universe and the “mind” or consciousness to which it has given birth have a common, core dialectic at work. It was at work during pre-biotic evolution and continues to sculpt the biosphere (Nowak et al, 1995) (Fricchione, 2011). If a dialectic is a process involving the inseparable interconnectedness (synthesis) of two opposing (thesis and antithesis) forces, events, or thoughts, then at the core of all dialectical processes are the basic concepts of separation and attachment (Fricchione, 2011). Therefore, if we take the primary thesis and antithesis to be attachment and separation, respectively, then synthesis involves their inseparable interconnectedness—in essence, a higher synthesis of attachment. And when we conceptualize the contingent challenges employed by natural selection as separation threats, it becomes probable that attachment solution traits will confer survival advantage and be rewarded with a selection bias. Thus, we have the convergent evolution of parental nurturance and social attachment capacitated in the brains of both mammals and birds.

Teilhard introduced the concept of complexification in evolution, with our mysterious human consciousness emerging from organic unity. He underscored the clear “radical dynamic incompatibility” inherent in the success of our evolutionary attachment strategy, which gave rise to consciousness and the subsequent role of consciousness in presenting us with the conundrum of the ultimate separation situation:

We are at what is nothing less than a new form of biological existence characterized, amongst other peculiarities, by the following properties. (a) The decisive emergence in individual life of factors of internal arrangement (invention) above the factors of external arrangement (utilization of the play of chance). (b) The equally decisive appearance between elements of true forces of attraction and repulsion (sympathy and antipathy), replacing the pseudo-attractions and pseudo-repulsions of pre-life or even of the lower forms of life, which we seem to be able to refer back to simple reactions to the curves of space-time in the one case, and of the biosphere in the other. (c) Lastly, the awakening in the consciousness of each particular element (consequent upon its new and revolutionary aptitude for foreseeing the future) of a demand for “unlimited survival” . . . (the radical dynamic incompatibility of a certain prospect of total death with the continuation of an evolution that has become reflective). These various properties confer on the zoological group possessing them a superiority that is . . . functional and vital . . . provided that we make up our minds to apply relentlessly and to the bitter end the experimental law of Complexity-Consciousness to the global evolution of the entire group. (Teilhard de Chardin 1965, pp. 302-3)

Much of modern complexity theory derives from the work of the Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine. Because we live life in an open, dissipative system with the sun as a source of well-nigh unlimited free-flux energy density, we have systems far from equilibrium, at the edge of chaos, allowing for bifurcatory phenomena, self-organization, complexification, and the passage of time:

Evolution in a non-trivial sense requires a continued interaction between the “microscopic” and the “macroscopic” level. This aspect is obvious on the ecological and sociological levels where individuals and macroscopic features (such as institutions … ) are engaged in a complex dialectical process. However, we are still far from a precise formulation of this idea on a biological level. Whatever this may be, thermodynamic macroscopic concepts, as well as the idea of evolution, of anisotropy of time, appear on all levels: from the elementary particles up to the level of cosmology. This is not due to some arbitrary choice to follow a new intellectual fashion; rather it is imposed on us by new experimental knowledge.” (Prigogine 1983, p. 40)

I would contend that the “complex dialectical process” Prigogine writes of is the separation challenge-attachment solution dialectic. This same dialectical process gives structure to Teilhard’s “experimental law of Complexity-Consciousness” and may offer us a way forward toward a “consilience of inductions.” (Wilson, 1998).

Inductions are reasonings, which arise from specific examples that lend themselves to general propositions. Seemingly separate facts can be empirically understood as attached and induce in our minds a pattern, proposition, or theory. Big History can be seen as an example of this process par excellence. This is because in every discipline, humans use propositions based on inductions known about a “source” system to determine things about another yet to be known “target” system. As a result, patterns of attachment between systems take shape in the form of scientific models and humanistic metaphors (Holland, 1998) (Fricchione, 2011). If the analogized inductions hold up upon testing, the probability emerges that the previously separated target system of our interest may indeed be attached to the source system we already know. This analogical reasoning process allows us to make progress by expanding knowledge within disciplines, while also allowing us to move bi-directionally between levels of knowledge and across disciplines.

Thus, this analogical reasoning strategy offers us hope for a future consilience of inductions (Fricchione, 2011, p. 358). This multidisciplinary consilience will be a reflection of the hierarchical structure of the complexified universe. And this consilient understanding of the universal infrastructure should eventually be the binding that holds the book of Big History together. As E.O. Wilson wrote in relation to what he once called “Deep History”: “the world will somehow come clearer and we will grasp the true strangeness of the universe. And the strangeness will all prove to be connected and make sense.” (Wilson, 1998, p. 12) This is the very long-term promise that Big History offers.

The natural truth of separation challenge and attachment solution—which we are now uncovering through our scientific attempts to find source-to-target attachment solutions to our lack of unified knowledge across the disciplines—has over the ages percolated up into what we have found most meaningful, transformed into our theology, our philosophy, our poetry and art.

Because it is at the core of what is both true and meaningful, attachment is what we sob about when we lose it and what we joyously smile about when we experience it. Because we have evolved as social beings, our attachment drives have a tendency to create in-groups and out-groups. The future of Big History will turn on whether we find creative attachment solution ways to expand the in-group to include our entire species, and whether in the process we recognize our interconnectedness and attendant need to be biophilic with a reverence for life. (Barsam, 2008) After all, all living things are kindred spirits born with us in organic unity in the brood of a separation challenge-attachment solution universe.


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Reader Comments

Very timely and important subject, imo. Thank you. Reductionism is a useful tool but it is not the last word on reality many scientists and naturalists seem to think it is... It is as much a veil as a vehicle for insight into the mysteries of the universe and ourselves. And when we look at how we are taught and all the tools of almost all our formal academic disciplines....we again see reductionism as the foundation....I was considering this as I was listening to a Vedanta speaker lecture on the etymology of the word, "Mantra" came about. She was trying to explain precisely what mantra meant by breaking the word up into root words and those words had roots as well and so on...

I realized that, in this analysis, the more precise we attempted to get, the farther we deviated from our meaning goal and drifted off into analysis ad infinitum.

Quantum physicists saw this coming and the Einstein - Bohr debates marked the end of the old guard and the beginning of a whole new set of questions which cannot be addressed the way Einstein wanted...reductionism had reached the end of the road.

Big History is scraping with this problem too. They want to appeal to complexity but the thinking is boxed in reductionism....of course. We have not found a way out. We are trained reductionists...only Zen mind and fringe holographic mind new age stuff seem to address the problem.

Cognitive Psychologists should be all over this....

Thanks for a great read. I will look up those books you recommended.

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