Mauricio Cortina, one of our own ICP+P members, has been named the recipient of the Bowlby/Ainsworth 2019 award for his contributions to attachment theory and research, especially in the area of attachment, evolutionary psychology, and intersubjectivity.  This is a highly prestigious award that, over the years, has included luminaries such as Mary Main, Alan Sroufe, Peter Fonagy, Mary Bretherton and many other distinguished attachment researchers.  Over his career, Mauricio has published four books (one in process), eight chapters, and numerous papers and essays, several of them with his friend and collaborator Giovanni Liotti, who passed away last year.  It is beyond the scope of this article to describe all of Mauricio’s accomplishments, his mentoring of South American colleagues, and his leadership at the attachment center in the Washington School of Psychiatry. I have chosen to focus here only on a number of contributions to the attachment field and to clinical practice.  Unlike many other recipients of the award, Mauricio is a clinician-scholar, not a researcher, and has contributed to integrating attachment theory, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and intersubjective concepts with the clinical process.  On the personal level, Mauricio has always been a supportive and encouraging presence in my own quest to deepen my knowledge of attachment theory, and in my work using the AAI to examine patterns of unresolved loss.

Mauricio’s work has contributed to enhancing the range and complexity of Bowlby’s attachment theory, which is based on evolutionary, developmental, and clinical factors.  Like Bowlby, Mauricio has sought to expand attachment theory across disciplines, utilizing evolutionary psychology and neuroscience to expand our knowledge of multi-motivational systems and their impact on human development and communal behaviors.  Mauricio’s motivational theory examines additional motivational systems that inform our human species.  In this work, Mauricio collaborated with his close friend and associate, Giovanni Liotti, and their work both influenced and was inspired by Joe Lichtenberg’s theory of motivational systems, which includes physiological regulation, attachment, sexuality/sensuality, exploration, and aversive motivational systems, later adding caregiving and affiliative motivational systems.  Lichtenberg and colleagues’ expansion of their motivational theory to caregiving and affiliative systems was actually related to Cortina and Liotti’s earlier work.  As well, Mauricio also collaborated with the analyst Mario Marrone on several publications.

Cortina’s motivational systems theory includes three levels. The first is associated with the reptilian brain, and includes systems of physiological regulation, defense of a non-social type (e.g., fight/flight/freeze response), exploration of the environment (not linked to use of attachment as a secure base), and sexual reproduction (not involving pair bonding). The second level is associated with the Mammalian brain, and includes the attachment system, the caregiving system, the competitive/ranking system, the egalitarian/cooperative system, and the sexual-mating system.  The third and most advanced level is associated with the prefrontal cortex and includes the intersubjective meaning system.

In their motivational theory, Liotti and Cortina expand on a more complex attachment/relational system, building on motivational theories previously proposed by Lichtenberg and others, and focusing on conceptualizing altruism, communication, cultural affiliation, the need for validation, and other communal aspects of motivational systems.  They included competitiveness as a primary and intrinsic motivation, based on the desire for power, control, and domination as a prevalent factor in human societies and relationships. This perspective on motivation has immediate clinical application. When attachment-related trauma precludes creating a secure base for exploration in therapy (as the attachment relationship in therapy automatically activates trauma) we have other prosocial motivations for developing intersubjective cooperation and sharing by focusing on other techniques that do not focus on a care-seeking attachment system. Instead we can focus on a variety of somatic and affect-regulating strategies as equals (a twinship relation, in self psychology’s terms) where we can begin to develop trust and modes of interaction that don’t prematurely activate the attachment system.

This insight came from the Liotti-Cortina collaboration that deepened the inquiry into our understanding of the complexity of intersubjectivity, starting from the mother/infant communication system of shared affects, gestures and vocalization, to later exploration of material and interpersonal work, and finally through language and symbolic capacities and imagination.

In findings that are very relevant to our times, Cortina and Liotti highlight the motivational pull towards cooperation emerging from the evolutionary need for physical survival, and later used to facilitate the transmission of information and other types of communication in human societies.  These skills are so urgently needed right now in order to protect our global environment and work cooperatively to heal political and social ruptures in our national and international realms.  In Mauricio’s own words regarding the new book he is working on, The Cooperative Mind: How Prosocial Motivations, Shared Social Norms and Perspective-Taking Abilities Made Us Human, he states

The main thesis of the book is based on multidisciplinary work done in the last 30 years that is radically changing our views of human evolution and human nature. Climate change that took place two plus million years ago (the Ice ages) affected East and South Africa, the cradle of humanity, producing fluctuating weather conditions with severe droughts and monsoons. This forced our hominin ancestors to become highly adaptive species in order to survive in these new environments such as the African Savannah. The main strategy that our ancestor species used to survive was to cooperate in sharing resources and protect each other among small groups of nomadic hunter-gatherers. This put strong selective pressures in developing prosocial instincts, shared norms supporting cooperation, and the ability to “read” the minds of others based on perspective-taking abilities.  Very prolonged childhoods, a system of cooperative care (it takes a village) and long term pair bonding (“monogamy”) were the other key adaptions that supported cooperation. These adaptations and abilities paved the way to develop language and symbolic capacities approximately 1.9 million years later and create cultural environments in which we live.

We share with mammals and some species or birds attachment instincts for protection and care. The new social instincts that developed among our human ancestor species were strong affiliative bonds to groups, our ability to identity with them and use them as a secure base for foraging and exploration. From an evolutionary and motivational point of view, this is what made us human.  For better or worse we are tribal animals. It is much easier to cooperate with people who are “like us” and much harder to cooperate with people who are not perceived as being “like us”. This a key strength and vulnerability of our species.

Aside from the enormous importance of understanding human nature for psychoanalysis and the social sciences, there are two other main reasons for writing this book. Our new understanding of our tribal origins helps us understand why in-group cooperation and solidarity can easily turn into out-group hostility. The result is an “us versus them” mentality that we are witnessing all over the world. Their aim of these movements is to divide us for short term social and political gains. The second message that comes out of this new understanding of human nature is that if we are to survive the catastrophic effects of human-made climate change, we have to move beyond (not renounce) our tribal and national identities, and identify with humanity as a whole to create a common ground for cooperation.  The climate crisis is not only a clear and present danger for our species (and other species as well), it is also providing this opportunity to develop a common ground that can unite us.

In summary, Mauricio Cortina’s work in attachment theory, evolutionary development, and intersubjectivity is always informed by his clinical engagement with patients and, unlike many other attachment researchers, his concepts are rooted in direct practice and in lived clinical knowledge.  By integrating research, theory, and clinical practice he has made a significant contribution to our field.

Written by Shoshana Ringel

Shoshana Ringel is an analyst in private practice in Columbia, MD and is an associate professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. She is also a graduate of ICP+P’s psychoanalytic training program.