The Development of the Unconscious Mind, by Allan N. Schore

Reviewed by Stan Rockwell, PsyD

I have been following the work of Allan Schore for a long time and his theories on emotion focused therapy, attachment, and regulation. He blends neuroscience, biology, psychology and more into a coherent and thought-provoking whole. He also gives a strong voice to advocacy for children.

Schore defines the unconscious as the “essential implicit, spontaneous, rapid, and involuntary processes that act beneath levels of conscious awareness” which take place in the right hemisphere of the brain.  It is also sometimes called hot cognition or system one thinking. Schore outlines the ongoing paradigm shift in psychology from behaviorist to cognitivist to now an emotional focus that includes the body. Some still cling to the mind-body dichotomy and the idea that humans are rational beings. In this sense, western philosophy really missed the boat, but I can understand how that happened. Schore points out that our left brain is the verbal conscious part. We are aware of our thoughts and words. Behaviorists only examine measurable actions. Those focused on cognitive behavioral frames look at how our thoughts can change us. But there is so much more to us than that. We have emotions and feeling long before we have an understanding of speech. The unconscious that affects us and drives us takes shape in the womb and continues throughout our lives.

Another paradigm shift is from one person to two-person (and ultimately more) psychology. Our first relationship is with our mother. Even before birth we are affected by her emotions, what she eats and breathes, and her perceptions that alter her hormonal makeup. Epigenetically we already are becoming and developing in ways that will always be with us. Schore draws from Freud and says that “because of the incorporation of neuroscience and neurophysiology, psychoanalytic theory is now being transformed from a theory of the unconscious mind into a theory of brain/mind/body: unconscious systems operating beneath levels of conscious awareness are inextricably linked into the body.” Our lives are spent in relationships and a system of mutual emotional regulation.

Schore gives an overview of how attachment theory is evolving and the biology of attachment – a function of right brain unconsciously communicating with another’s right brain. He extensively reviews research on exactly what part of the brain activates in different circumstances, for example when a mother and child view videos of each other. Our right brain develops much faster than the left hemisphere particularly from prenatal to about two years of age. The right brain dominance affects everything in our emotional regulation development, even to a bias in cradling a baby in the left arm to enhance right brain to right brain communication.

There is an extensive chapter on the vulnerability of boys in development. Boys are more likely than girls to be at risk for “autism, early onset schizophrenia, ADHD, conduct disorders, and externalizing psychopathologies.” The male brain matures more slowly, and boys are more vulnerable to social and environmental stressors. Even the placenta is different in male and female fetuses and respond differently to stressors. I think I have a better understanding now of why males are the ones who tend to be the violent and aggressive gender. As I read, I wondered how this came to be. What is the evolutionary benefit to having males develop this way? Schore discusses and advocates for early intervention and prevention. He points out more than once that the United States lags behind the rest of the world in parental leave from work to care for newborns. He also discusses the effects of daycare on development. Both boys and girls are vulnerable to environmental toxins especially endocrine disruptors. Bisphenol A (BPA) affects us from conception to death and beyond via epigenetic transgenerational inheritance. Low income people are disproportionately affected.

Schore also talks about love and play and therapy. It is our right brain that assimilates novel situations and interacts with a new environment. Our left brain copes with predictable situations and strategies. Our right amygdala can process a facial threat in under 100 milliseconds. We become consciously aware of that threat about 400 milliseconds later. Our right brain is creative and protective. And our left and right hemispheres may even have different values and be unaware of the difference.

I agree whole heartedly with Schore when he says that “(P)resent-day western culture, even more so than in the past, overemphasizes left brain functions. Our cultural conceptions of both mental and physical health, as well as the aims of all levels of education, continue to stress rational, logical, analytical thinking at the expense of holistic, body-based, relational right brain functions essential to homeostasis and survival. I would add that we see this trend in the current devaluation of spontaneous free play and the overemphasis on controlled, highly structured play.” I remember in my sports psychology studies reading that young children left on their own to develop play and games were cooperative and pretty egalitarian giving all the kids a chance. We develop a sense of fairness early on. It was when the adults got involved that the games became competitive and hierarchical. The sense of fun changed, and I think the focus became more on external rather than internal motivation.

I would recommend this book to everyone with a stake in emotional regulation and development across the life span, which is pretty much everyone. As I read this I thought about how kids are treated in detention centers, in low income areas, and even how kids with a talent are commodified and privileged in this culture as long as they produce. I thought about the long-term effects that spread across everyone and everything. Schore references Darwin’s work on the expression of emotion in man and animals. Our cultural system seems to have commodified everything and made everything fungible, which is a tragedy. Schore says that he has also done research on the effects of trauma in elephants. I would like to read that work.

This work has also changed my observation of my surroundings. I noticed yesterday when I was in a restaurant and a toddler started to get loud, how the parents (in this case mom and dad together) emotionally regulated the child with touch and prosody and a gaze. I also caught myself wondering today as I viewed pictures of a friend’s new grandchild. Grandmother was doing the left cradle that is the typical way, but grandfather was cradling the infant on his right arm. Was it just for the picture angle or the history of attachment of the grandparents’ development?

This immensely thought-provoking work is part of the Norton series on interpersonal neurobiology. Schore also published Right Brain Psychotherapy this year, and I am looking forward to reading it. I was at a workshop years ago when Scott Miller was first working on measuring outcomes for clients in therapy. I remember him saying that some clinicians just seemed to consistently have better client outcomes regardless of the theoretical orientation of the therapist. I wonder if a common factor in those better outcomes might be that those clinicians are more adept at right brain to right brain communication in the creative play and attachment repair of therapy.