When I refer to the pathogen, I am talking about a characteristic set of damaged information structures in the brain networks of the attachment system; the love-and-bonding system of the brain.
When the pathogenic agent (a particular set of damaged information structures) is contained within an attachment system, it acts in characteristic ways.
The Group Mind
A highly characteristic feature of this pathogen (this particular set of damaged information structures in the attachment system), is the social motivation to form the group-mind of the collective experience. In the early literature on “parental alienation,” this group-mind feature of the pathogen led to associations to brain-washing and to the pathology of cult formation.
The pathogen surrounding narcissistic pathology creates a group-mind phenomenon that has cult-like characteristics, and this group-mind quality has actually generated a cultural label; Flying Monkeys.
From Wikipedia. “Flying monkeys is a phrase used in popular psychology mainly in the context of narcissistic abuse. They are people who act on behalf of a narcissist to a third party, usually for an abusive purpose. The phrase has also been used to refer to people who act on behalf of a psychopath for a similar purpose. Abuse by proxy (or proxy abuse) is a closely related concept. Flying monkeys are distinct from enablers. Enablers just allow or cover for the narcissist’s (abuser’s) own bad behavior.”
The professional-scientific construct for the formation of a shared psychological state is called “intersubjectivity,” and the psychology of the shared-mind process is mediated by a set of brain cells called “mirror neurons” that are designed to register the intent of other people (PBS Nova: Mirror Neurons).
If you want to learn more about the intersubjective (shared-mind) brain system, Daniel Stern (1985/2004) provides the structural-neurological core for intersubjectivity (drawing on the collateral work of Tronick, Trevarthan, Beebe, and Shore). Stern describes the central role of empathy (attunement) and empathic failures (misattunement) within the intersubjective system of a shared psychological state. The scientific literature in this area has also been described in an accessible way by Daniel Siegel (1999), and Louis Cozolino’s (2006) book in the area of the social brain is also worth the read in this “shared-mind” domain. Fonagy’s work in this area is truly remarkable.
Stern, D.N. (1985). The interpersonal world of the infant: A view from psychoanalysis and developmental psychology. New York: Basic Books.
Stern, D. (2004). The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Siegel, D.J. (1999). The developing mind: Toward a neurobiology of interpersonal experience. NewYork: Guilford.
Cozolino, L. (2006): The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain. WW Norton & Company, New York.
Fonagy, P., Luyten, P., and Strathearn, L. (2011). Borderline personality disorder, mentalization, and the neurobiology of attachment. Infant Mental Health Journal, 32, 47-69.
Fonagy P. & Target M. (2005). Bridging the transmission gap: An end to an important mystery in attachment research? Attachment and Human Development, 7, 333-343.
In my work with clients, I call this brain system of the shared-mind the “psychological connection” system. This intersubjective brain system is the brain system that allows us to feel what the actors feel in the movies just as if we were having the experience ourselves.
The intersubjectivity brain system – the brain system governing “psychological connection” – has received extensive scientific study because it is incredibly important in early childhood mental health for a variety of reasons, including its role in language acquisition, it’s role in autism-spectrum pathology, and its foundational role in identity development and self-structure formation.
From Stern: “Our nervous systems are constructed to be captured by the nervous systems of others. Our intentions are modified or born in a shifting dialogue with the felt intentions of others. Our feelings are shaped by the intentions, thoughts, and feelings of others. And our thoughts are cocreated in dialogue, even when it is only with ourselves. In short, our mental life is correlated. This continuous cocreative dialogue with other minds is what I am calling the intersubjective matrix.” (Stern, 2004, p. 76)
From Stern: “The intersubjective system can be considered separate from and complementary to the attachment motivational system.” (p. 100)
From Stern: “Intersubjectivity is a condition of humanness. I will suggest that it is also an innate, primary system of motivation, essential for species survival, and has a status like sex or attachment. “(p. 97)
From Stern: “The discovery of mirror neurons has been crucial. Mirror neurons provide possible neurobiological mechanisms for understanding the following phenomena: reading other people’s states of mind, especially intentions; resonating with another’s emotion; experiencing what someone else is experiencing; and capturing an observed action so that one can imitate it — in short, empathizing with another and establishing intersubjective contact.” (Stern, 2004; p. 78)
The group-mind formation of the AB-PA pathogen represents the continuous over-activation of the shared-mind intersubjective system of the brain (a psychological connection system of the brain that is “complementary to the attachment motivational system”).
We see the malignancy of shared-mind pathology in the group-mind of the Nazis in the 1930s, in the group-mind extremism of al-Qaeda, and in the pathological group-mind of racist ideology. We see a more benign version of this group-mind feature in sports fans and social fads. What turns a benign socially bonded group-mind into a pathological expression of anger and vengeance? A: Trauma. If there is a specific set of damaged information structures in the attachment system, this set of damaged information structures will hijack the brain’s shared-mind system of intersubjectivity and turn it toward the regulation of the trauma-pain; loneliness and psychological isolation.
In two-person relationships and families, the pathological shared-mind is called “enmeshment” (Minuchin). When the pathogen forms a larger group-mind, the pathological shared-mind is called a cult. In extremely malevolent strains, the pathogen’s cult becomes the extremist pathological anger of the Nazis and al-Qaeda.
In the pathology of “parental alienation” (AB-PA), the trauma pathogen in the attachment networks is hijacking the intersubjective system of the brain (the shared-mind psychological connection system of the brain) and is creating a pathology of group-mind in the child’s relationship with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. The child psychologically disappears in the shared-mind with the allied narcissistic/(borderline) parent.
The intersubjective system is also linked to identity formation and identity stability.
From Stern: “A second felt need for intersubjective orientation is to define, maintain, or reestablish self identity and self cohesion – to make contact with ourselves. We need the eyes of others to make contact with ourselves. We need the eyes of others to form and hold ourselves together.” (Stern, 2004, p. 107)
From Stern: “Without some continual input from an intersubjective matrix, human identity dissolves or veers off in odd ways.” (Stern, 2004)
The pathology of AB-PA is a distortion to the child’s identity formation. The pathological “eyes of the other” contained in the parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent cause identity disorientation and confusion in the child. Into this identity confusion and disorientation are inserted the feelings, needs, motivations, and desires of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. The child’s identity is taken over by the allied parent. The child’s self-authenticity is lost as the identity of the parent becomes the identity of the child in the shared group-mind of the intersubjective system.
Notice what happens when we return to using the standard and established constructs and principles of professional psychology to describe the pathology. A child’s rejection of a parent is an attachment-related pathology (a pathology in the love and bonding system of the brain). We then gain access to all of the scientific research on the attachment system.
The attachment system is a “complementary” brain system to the intersubjective brain system of the shared-mind (mediated by a set of brain cells called mirror neurons – PBS Nova: Mirror Neurons). The pathogen in the attachment networks has captured the “complementary” intersubjective system and distorted it into an over-activated state of continual psychological fusion.
We acquire access to all of the scientific research on intersubjectivity and the shared-mind (Stern, Tronick, Trevarthan, Siegel, Shore, Fonagy).
From Tronick: “When mutual regulation is particularly successful, that is when the age-appropriate forms of meaning (e.g., affects, relational intentions, representations) from one individual’s state of consciousness are coordinated with the meanings of another’s state of consciousness — I have hypothesized that a dyadic state of consciousness emerges.” (Tronick, 2003, p. 475)
Once we apply the scientifically established constructs and principles of professional psychology to the attachment-related family pathology of a child rejecting a normal-range parent surrounding divorce (“parental alienation”; AB-PA), a truly immense bounty of amazing insights are revealed about how trauma impacts these brain systems – across generations.
Once we return to using standard and established constructs and principles to describe the pathology, a wealth of scientific information becomes available.
Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857
Tronick, E.Z. (2003). Of course all relationships are unique: How co-creative processes generate unique mother-infant and patient-therapist relationships and change other relationships. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 23, 473-491.