The Inner Working Model: A Story of Two Babies

“From the moment we are born to our last breath we crave human connection. Love is what keeps the body and mind healthy and strong” A general theory of love (2001). 

I will never forget how exciting it was to learn about the fascinating complexities of the brain as an undergrad psychology student. My interest in neuroscience lined up with my desire to study child development, and my focus narrowed to the study of the neurobiology of infant attachment.

Outside of the medical and mental health field, people can be surprised by the idea that the development of the brain is impacted by the quality of emotional care we receive as infants.

Biological programming for love

John Bowlby outlined in his evolutionary theory of attachment how infants are biologically programmed to form attachments because they would not survive without the love of their caregivers.

A baby is hardwired to reach for mom, especially when afraid, sick, or facing an uncertain situation. This is a survival instinct. But for better or for worse, the relationship with mom does more than keep the baby physically safe, warm and fed. It also shapes the child’s emotional and psychological health.

A baby’s nervous system is biologically immature and just as dependant upon its caregiver as it’s physical body.

What does this mean? It means that when a baby is afraid, sad or angry, her nervous system escalates to a high level of distress and she cannot calm herself. This is why she needs to be held, rocked, cuddled and cooed too. Babies and children look to their caregivers to bring their heightened state of arousal back to homeostasis (calm balance). It may be helpful to think of the nervous system as an open-looped system. It is not closed and self-contained. It is a system that requires another nervous system to bring it back into balance.

Without the aid of a caregiver to create balance, the baby cannot organize her feelings. If left in a state of ongoing and chronic distress, her brain will be exposed to a detrimental internal biological situation.

To explain, let’s look at the hypothetical story of two infants: Mary and Jane

Mary and Jane

Mary and Jane are born into different families. Mary’s family is what most people would consider average. The family is not perfect, but proper care is provided and mom and dad get along pretty well. Arguments happen but any conflict in the house is resolved relatively quickly and does not get out of control. Mary’s parents are responsive and attend to her needs.

Jane, on the other hand, is born into a family facing several challenges. There is s significant amount of conflict and abuse between her parents. Jane’s mother uses alcohol on weekends to have fun and let go of the tension of the week. Jane’s dad doesn’t drink but he has a very bad temper. Often on weekends, big fights happen and Jane is a witness to physical violence.

It is difficult for Jane’s mother to respond because she is already dealing with so much. Jane’s mother also believes that babies don’t remember anything anyway, so she doesn’t worry too much about what Jane sees or how upset she gets. Jane is often left on her own to cry when her parents are fighting. Often she cries until she exhausts herself and falls asleep.  

The development of self

Let's go back to the first baby, Mary, whose mother is available and responsive. Mary is not often frightened, but when she is afraid, she is picked up and soothed. This does not mean Mary never cries, never feels frightened or never becomes distressed. What it means is that more often than not, she experiences what some researchers call “good enough” caregiving. She is not left to scream continuously, she feels safe and over time she learns that her environment is predictable.
Mary’s body and nervous system are learning something. I am safe. I am loved. Comfort always follows distress.

Mary’s experiences of comfort and safety are remembered in her body. She begins to develop what John Bowlby called the Inner Working Model. The inner working model is a cognitive framework of mental representations concerning the understanding of the world, the self and others. The internal working model becomes apparent in the child's personality and affects their understanding of the world. In the context of this article, we are looking at the child’s understanding of relating.

Mary’s interaction with the world is based on a certain knowledge and expectation. I am safe, I am loved. If I need help, I will get it.

In contrast, Jane is exposed to extremely stressful situations. Her parents fight catastrophically. Jane is left alone in her crib for hours while her parents take a break. When Jane screams and cries, she is often yelled at or ignored completely. Jane’s father has a very bad temper and for reasons beyond her comprehension, he sometimes squeezes her arms so hard he leaves bruises.

Jane learns about her world. I am not safe. I am not loved, When I need help, it is nowhere to be found.

Early trauma and the stress response

As Mary and Jane mature into adolescence and adulthood, they have two very different nervous systems, personalities, and expectations. Mary is calm and self-assured; she has good relationships. Mary experiences stress and worries like everyone else, but her emotions are manageable. If things get too bad for her, she reaches out for help and often gets it.

Jane, on the other hand, feels very vulnerable. She has difficulty trusting people and she doesn’t really understand what they want from her. She has trouble sleeping, when she gets upset, which is often, she stays upset for a long time.

Jane’s relationships do not last and s she gets older, she becomes more and more depressed and starts drinking. She knows she needs help but doesn’t know where to find it. She is alone in the world.

To read more about the story of two babies, please see my article on The Healing Power of Connection


Author’s note:

Many of these ideas came from the book A general theory of love, written by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon. A highly recommended read for anyone wanting to understand the science behind human emotions, and the power of connection.



Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and Loss: Attachment.-1969.-(RUidnr.: M102591232). Basic books
Lewis, T., Amini, F., & Lannon, R. (2001). A general theory of love. Vintage.

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