A look at whether Infants Feel Emotions like Adults

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"A look at whether Infants Feel Emotions like Adults"
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For decades, it has been believed - by essentially two camps of respected practioners in the fields of psychiatry and psychology - that the infantile brain, and therefore the extremely young psyche, is either incapable of fully formed experience and feelings or that it comes into the world with all its mental apparatus in place merely to be written upon by life.

Many experiments on babies and toddlers have been conducted that test, for example,
for fear of falling, stranger anxiety, face recognition, mother recognition, and many other conceptual constructs that test an individual infant's external reactions. But, I don't know if it will ever be possible (unless an adult researcher can travel back to his own infancy in some kind of pediatric time machine) to truly replicate and fully know what infants think and experience as they evolve into early childhood.

[Even the change into adolescence, bringing with it the profound effects of those sexual hormones bathing the brain, is often baffling to parents and teenagers alike. But at least we can ask adolescents what they are thinking and feeling so we can more cogently put together a coherent sense of the youngster's mental life. Such an understanding, of course, can lead to more appropriately targeted psychotherapeutic or pharmaceutical interventions, or both, when deemed necessary to restore healthy emotional functioning.]

Nevertheless, there are still researchers bent on interpreting, in adultomorphic
representations, what they think they see infants doing. Then they assume these
actions subsume certain infantile intentions along with some random imitative
behaviors. But such assumptions imply a level of reasoning or perceptual
sophistication simply impossible given the, as yet, undifferentiated psychical structure characteristic of infantile mental life.

How do we know of the relatively amorphous, pliable intrapsychic world of infants?
We know of this through psychodynamic work with physically adult patients. By what
they can best explain, in therapy sessions, of what they went through. But it does not follow that a researcher watching today's babies can accurately interpret their thoughts and feelings. Ultimately, only the individual living through the experience can know it and, even then, in adulthood, will usually find it difficult to name it or explain it, if it can be retrieved at all. One has to remember that newborns and older infants don't have words. They are preverbal humans. This is probably why the mind conjures up meanings and explanations, later in life, to account for unnamable experiences and feelings.

Since when does external behavior, anyway, indicate precisely and directly what is
going on internally in anyone? And if all the mental apparatus of an infant were
innately available, as some professionals still think, defensive tactics would already be in place. If that were true, then anything you see an infant doing could as well be defensive as direct behavior derivative of some theoretic cognitive or psychic maturation.

I don't believe the infant brain nor therefore the infant mind, is thus fully formed. That would be impossible. Neurochemicals and other hormones are just beginning to saturate the brain. External life experiences are just on the precipice of making deep impressions on brain structure. Internal life is quite amorphous. Thought processes are preverbal. Infants are primarily sensate beings. They feel. They react. They act. They are, internally, a mass of senses and sensations. Only later, much later, are these capable of differentiation and clarification.

Defense and imitation are automatic. They are biologic imperatives. They assure
SURVIVAL! Realizations about "meanings" and "separateness" only come after the infant feels safe. Disorganization, chaos, anxiety, and depression are the only
possible states until the infant feels secure. An infant just born, into the newly-acquired harsher extra-uterine environment, cannot yet feel safe. It requires a transitional time,physically as well as emotionally, to be close to the mother-nurturer, not wrenched, or amputated abruptly from its prior state.

Still, there are theorists who truly believe any human, of any age and especially infants can spontaneously adapt with equanimity to abrupt change. These same scientists ignore the fact that their very research interventions, their very investigative tactics disqualify them as neutral "observers." I fear their interferences with infants muddy up their methods and therefore their results suffer the same fate...muddled. We shall have to await that futuristic accomplishment when these tiny sensate human creatures can speak for themselves to express what we now call the preverbal state.

In the meantime, I shall continue to rely on the communications of my adolescent and
adult patients for the best acuracy of their historical narratives and their perceptions of their experiences - real, misperceived or fantasied. After all, what psychoanalysts have to work with is the end result of those perceptions - a patient's current thought processes, behaviors and feelings - not necessarily whether such perceptions represent actual happenings, but how they are perceived to have happened.

In the ultimate, what matters for the patient, what makes the patient the kind of person with the kind of difficulties in living he or she is suffering today, are his or her beliefs about what he or she has experienced - not necessarily the experiences themselves. The patient's current thinking and behaviors are
inseparable from those perceptions, permutations and agglomerations of them which the defensive psyche had manufactured in early life to adapt the patient's mental system to new situations it is now unable to respond to spontaneously. As a consequence, it is the task of psychoanalysis to help the patient unravel, as much as possible, what did, might have, or could have happened from what was partially truly perceived, totally misperceived, fantasied or fabricated by an immature or wounded but evolving infant psyche coping with what was ungraspable experience, impression, traumas and inborn needs and wishes.

If, as has been hypothesized by others, intrapsychic differentiation exists at birth, or even in the womb, how can such events be so universally misperceived and be so intricately elaborated in adulthood? And how too, can their felt traumas be so often rigidly intransigent to treatment and interventions in the face of current symptomatic suffering?

If, again as has been proposed by others, the psychical structure were substantially
differentiated early in infantile life, we may well jetison psychoanalysis. However,
the clinical usefulness of psychoanalysis - when conducted by skilled empathic
practitioners - clearly demonstrates that it is lack of clarification during infantile existence that injures the personality. That it is incorrect impressions or conclusions arrived at by an immature, undeveloped mental apparatus that traumatizes our patients most.

Finally, the chief work of psychoanalysis involves intervention into convoluted belief systems and maladaptive behaviors with greater and greater clarification. And with greater and greater confrontation of the patient's long-held, but usually dys-organized memories and often distorted thoughts about those memories.

It is those perceptions of his or her experiences that have to have been altered, added to, deepened, and fantasied about over time; that embedded, encrusted system, that requires unwinding via real-time confrontational shock with past reality, incisively followed by clarification. Then, simultaneously when possible, the use of techniques that provide thorough clarification of current reality by disentangling the real now from the perceived then.

This arduous and, often, painful adult therapeutic process would hardly be necessary
if the infant could receive exogenous and endogenous information whole and
accurately and recognize it as such in the first place.

More about this author: Helen Borel

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