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The need for Attachment

Updated: Mar 10, 2019

“Wilson!!” Chuck (Tom Hanks) had cried out in a frantic panic. “Wilson!” he’d wailed, realizing [Wilson] had become dislodged from its resting place on the ocean thrashed, rudimentary raft that was now but a few gangling branches upon which Chuck’s lanky frame laid. And as the weathered volleyball, tagged with the brand name, Wilson, was being carried further and further away, with each blow of wind and pull of current Chuck went from a desperate recovery attempt to being hit with an ocean wave of guilt and grief. Soon thereafter, the complete and utter loss of a will to survive brought Chuck beyond painful despair and into a state of near lifelessness.

In the 2000, Robert Zemeckis film, ‘Cast Away’, “where an ordinary man meets extraordinary conditions”, much is discovered about human existence. How, when all is lost, the end of a journey can become the beginning of a life. It is a dramatic demonstration of the complexity and functions of the human brain and its capabilities. Chuck is a man who survived a cargo airplane crash into the Pacific Ocean to find himself washed up on the shores of a tiny island consisting only of a tropical forest, a small mountain and a few remains of the plane crash which included, ‘Wilson’ the volleyball, and a fully intact, Federal Express package still needing to be delivered.

Relatively speaking, the island was the size of a cell, and Chuck the size of an atom, compared to the vast ocean encompassing them. The chance of being rescued was unfathomable and seemingly impossible. So, it did not take long before a parcel needing delivery and an inanimate object with an existing identity, gave Chuck the purpose and attachment he needed to carry him through the next four years, alone. Along the way, Wilson gained a blood-stained painted face and Chuck gained a life line.

So, what does this mean? Well, before we delve further into that, let’s first look at the recent, Feb 2019, Global News story about an elderly couple in Toronto who died within hours of each other. Farah Nasser, anchor person for Global News, reported a story about an eternal love where a wife died at age 82 and her devoted husband, age 91, died within hours after “from a broken heart”. The family spoke of their parent’s “attachment” and how “they lived for each other and didn’t want to leave each other, even in death.” There have been several such stories told over the years. In fact, it has happened often enough that in the nineteen nineties, scientists termed this phenomenon as the medical condition, “broken heart syndrome.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, broken heart syndrome is a temporary heart condition that's often brought on by stressful situations, such as the death of a loved one.

“In broken heart syndrome, there's a temporary disruption of your heart's normal pumping function in one area of the heart. The remainder of the heart functions normally or with even more forceful contractions. Broken heart syndrome may be caused by the heart's reaction to a surge of stress hormones. As it is often preceded by an intense physical or emotional event, it's thought that a surge of stress hormones, such as adrenaline, might temporarily damage the hearts of some people. The condition may also be called takotsubo cardiomyopathy, apical ballooning syndrome or stress cardiomyopathy.” (

It is not only humans that can suffer from broken heart syndrome or what appears to be results of the same. There are reports of animals (mammals) in captivity as well as studied within the wild, that have been observed to experience the same reactions and, in some cases, the same fate.

The American Heart Association explains how a “broken heart can actually lead to cardiac consequences.” And how, “there are established ties between depression, mental health and heart disease and how an extremely stressful event can have an impact on your heart.” (

Some hospitals and care facilitators, for example, The Lions Gate Hospital Foundation, North Vancouver, B.C., make available, battery operated, robotic life-like pets for elderly patients who reside in palliative care. Residential patients who spend their days alone in their minds, staring beyond the institutional walls as the daily functions of their frail bodies are routinely managed by the ever changing hands of staff. And although the nurses and care aids may be dedicated to helping their patients as much as they can, to the person who has lost almost, if not all resemblance of the life they knew and the body they had, it would appear they have become simply another fragmentation of a passing assembly line of functionality and parts waiting to get to the end of their mark.

However, once these secluded souls are given the opportunity to become attached again; to converse with, to physically touch, to care for and be connected on a full-time basis, to something with an identity outside of what’s left of their own; suddenly life improves. Their mental, emotional and physical states start to recover. Although their perception of the world may still be operational at a relatively average or normal state, enabling the ability to reason that their new bond is not with a ‘real living’ animal; it does not stop the attachment from forming.

I have witnessed this first hand with my elderly father who is not only in this position but recently lost his son who would visit him almost daily. Upon the first interaction my father had with his new robotic pet, his disposition and outlook immediately changed. He shifted from having a grave and solemnly, somewhat forced existence, to a man with a smile and a purpose. Returned, was the lost sparkle in his eye as he interacted with his new, loyal friend named ‘Barclay’. My father, who is unable to walk and struggles to use his arms and hands and needs to rely upon others for all the basic physical functions, has now started to hold a brush to groom his new pet while having ongoing conversations with it. Barclay affectionately sits on dad’s lap and listens, giving regular little blinks, nods and warning barks whenever someone comes near. Within a few minutes of having Barclay, my father adamantly wanted to be lifted out of bed in order to take care of the new puppy.

Over the years, there have been many theories about basic human needs, human behaviour and development. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory used to study how human behavior intrinsically contributes in behavioral motivation. This theory, proposed by Abraham Maslow, (1943, 1954) is a key foundation in understanding how drive and motivation are interconnected when discussing human behavior. From the bottom of the hierarchy upwards, the theorized needs are physiological (food, water etc), safety (security), love and belonging, esteem and self-actualization. Maslow’s original model stated that people are motivated to achieve certain needs and that some needs take precedence over others. He theorized that our most basic need is for physical survival (food, water, shelter), the first thing that motivates our behavior. Once that level is fulfilled the next level up is what motivates us. Although the original hierarchy states that a lower level must be completely fulfilled before moving on, the thinking now is that the levels are continuously overlapping each other. (Simply Psychology, Wikipedia)

With this in mind, I ask you to image that you, and your child, spouse, family pet, or even a total stranger, are in an emergency situation such as a burning building. If you had 60 seconds to grab something to take with you, what would it be?

What did you search for first? Your cellphone, a bottle of water, food? Likely not. The attachment and subsequent instinctual need to keep all safe likely took precedence over everything else. Making sure your attachment was not lost and that the others were also going to be secure with you was undoubtedly your primary priority. All else becoming secondary parts to that survival.

Clinical & developmental psychologist, teacher, speaker and bestseller author, Dr. Gordon Neufeld, states, “Separation is the fundamental problem for the limbic brain to solve. Survival for mammals lies in their ability to preserve proximity with others. In other words, babies don’t seek to survive; they seek to be close. And we are all just big babies at heart. That realization is absolutely basic and pivotal to making sense of emotion.” (Neufeld Inst. ‘Staying Close when Apart’ 2015)

Thus, when we go back to the film and what Chuck had lost, we come to appreciate the significance of Wilson and all the resilience created by the brain. It wasn’t just a ball with a name and a painted face sharing those four years with Chuck. Nor was it just a ball that was taken away by the wind and waves. Lost was the close proximity and attachment which helped keep Chuck alive.

While on the desolate island, Chuck also had a small photo of his fiancé, Kelly, that had become washed-out and worn. Much time was spent with us, the audience, watching him simply stare at the faded photo. We also saw him working on a cave-art rendition of the photo as perhaps another reminder and conceivably a back-up image for the eroding photograph. It could also have been a form of art therapy as he went through the creative process.

The parcel he needed to deliver gave him a palpable purpose and an attachment to the life he had. Whilst the images of Kelly and the ability to touch, hold and have conversation with Wilson, a tangible, three-dimensional entity with an identity; an independent companion existing much like a favorite doll would to a child, filled the void and provided the solace and solution Chuck’s limbic brain needed.

Although there are earlier models on attachment, John Bowlby was a leading developer in attachment theory. According to Bowlby, attachment behavior is “any form of behavior that results in a person attaining or maintaining proximity to some other clearly identified individual who is conceived as better able to cope with the world” (Bowlby, 1988). Attachment is necessary for healthy development because it is a primary need that is “ethological,” which means it is natural and innate (Hayslett-McCall & Bernard, 2002). (

Bowlby aimed to develop a theory to show how existing theories on attachment from a psychoanalytic and behavioral lens, were disconnected from reality, ergo, he started to study and be in contact with researchers in the fields of biology and ethology. Predominantly persuasive on Bowlby’s attachment theory was a study conducted by Harlow & Zimmerman in 1959. In this study, monkeys were separated from their mothers and put into cages with “surrogate mothers". One “mother" was made from wire with a feeding bottle added-on, while the other was covered with cloth. Results showed that monkeys chose the cloth mother over the wire mother, even though it was the wire mother who offered food. Previous approaches to attachment suggested the goal of attachment was the fulfillment of needs, primarily feeding. Bowlby claimed attachment to be an intrinsic need for an emotional bond, extending beyond the need to be fed. He believed this to be an evolved need, where a strong emotional bond with one’s mother increases chances of survival. ( Bowlby’s theory was largely based on how developmental and behavioral successful outcomes can be linked to the childhood attachment experience.

When I asked someone if they’d seen the movie, ‘Cast Away’, the response was, “Is that the one where the guy was on a deserted island, went crazy and started talking to himself and a ball?” My response, in part, was to explain that in actuality it was because of his conversations with the ball that he remained able to function and deal with the adversity he faced.

I suggest the film’s creators recognized and understood the premise that physical, mental and emotional survival can be linked with the capacity to build a relationship outside of one’s own existence. That psychological resilience, an ability to cope, is there when the instinct to create an attachment is procured and established. Using mental processes and behavior capabilities dictated by the limbic brain make it possible to protect oneself from a crisis and potential negative effects from stressors.

In conclusion, I would like to add the following statement from medical doctor, renowned speaker and bestselling author, Dr. Gabor Mate: “On the societal level, we must understand that health is not an individual outcome, but arises from social cohesion, community ties, and mutual support. In this alienated culture, where “friends” may be virtual electronic entities rather than human beings, too many suffer from what University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo calls “the lethality of loneliness.” We need a broad attitudinal and practical shift, consciously willed and created, toward a culture based on the fundamental sociality of human beings. We know all too well, from data too persuasive and too somber to be disputed, that emotional isolation kills.” ( 2015)

As a counsellor, the pain and suffering caused by the loss of attachment can be witnessed being manifested in many ways. Coming to comprehend the science behind this model has personally helped me to be better equipped in supporting others, and myself, through the journey.

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