The Folio, Volume VI, number 1
An Experientia1 Perspective on the Mother-Infant Relationship: The First Eight Months
Michael P. Coyle, Psy. D.
The knowledge and conceptualization of infants in their first months of life have undergone significant shifts within recent years. Emperica1 research has provided convincing evidence that the early infant possesses capacities for reciproca1 interpersonal interactions on a level that was previously believed unattainable (Brazelton, 1985). Previous formulations of the mother-infant relationship were based on a premise of the ear1y infant being a passive individua1 with few experientia1 capabilities. The infant's experience has been
viewed as a static process within himself with little relation to the
immediate environment. Current theory needs reformulation to account for an
active process within the dyad. Osofsky &: Connor (1979) state, "...there
is a paucity of firm theoretical evidence to guide work in the area of
(p. 519)." In addition, current research and writings are characterized by data and hypothesis which refer primari1y to overt behaviora1 manifestations, inherently failing to tap the issue of subjective experience (Cramer, 1985). There is little agreement as to how the subjective wor1d of the infant is organized
nor is there agreement as to the content of that subjective world (Horner, 1985). Due to factors which will be explored in this chapter, within the first eight months of an infant's life there has been a consistent negation of individua1 and interactiona1 experience. The response to these factors has been to reduce infant's experience to derived inferences of adult experience (Stern, 1985), or to regard human actions as mechanica1 processes (Parker, 1984).
The purpose of this paper is to provide an original theoretica1 perspective which will account more fully for the phenomenological experience of the relationship between mother and infant in the first eight months.
This paper also is an initial step in providing a developmental perspective
to the experiential process.
THE INF ANT AS AN EXPERIENCING BEING
The ear1y months of an infant- have been a mystery for both the developmental
researcher and the dynamic theoretician. This new1y awakened being does not yet
speak our symbols. Their senses are not yet fully attuned to our wave-lengths,
patterns, and thresholds. Their muscles and skeletal frames can- not yet support
their own weight. They cannot communicate or demonstrate their experience in the
same manner we have developed in organizing our own experience. This is an
extremely frustrating experience for a professional community that can be
somewhat rigid in their approach to classification and organizational schemas.
One response to such frustration has been to regard this very young person as an
incomplete, totally encapsulated being with a classification formerly designed
for pathological functioning. Dominant thinking about these early months of life
are symbolized by such terms as "homeostasis" (Greenspan, 1982), and
"normal autism" (Mahler, 1975). The infant is felt to be incapable of emotional experience because there is not a measurable cognitive schema by which they can symbolize in conceptual terms a sense of "self" (Haviland, 1984). Within this perspective, the infant's predominant activity is physiological regulation and interactional capacity is at a minimum, if not negligible. Descriptions of infants are limited to such items as state regulation and organizational capacity to respond to stimuli. Inherent in such assumptions is an inference of half experience, a lack of awareness of the self, and no meaningful connection with others.
In sharp contrast, this author's experience and perceptions of the young infant suggests that he/she is a being fully involved with and reveling in its awareness of its organismic self and the world it finds itself in. Indeed, within an experiential perspective this very young person is in a state of absolute contact with an organic sense of its self along with relation of that self to events and other people. The process is one of total concrete bodily feeling which is available to the infant.
Being with an infant, one observes and senses his/her breathing, seeing, hearing, feeling, experienced stress, startle, tension, relief, calm, and joy.
In my first administrations of the Brazelton, my supervisor stood directly behind me. She would pull on my hair if she detected my moving into an imagined interpersonal boundary which might influence the infant's response patterns to a hierarchy of. presentations. Upon reflection, that boundary was not imaginary, but characteristic of experiential being with an infant. The approach of my supervisor was necessary to properly access the infant's individual capabilities, but my sore scalp was a painful reminder of the acute subjective/objective dichotomy within the field. The pull of the clinician to his and the infant's experientia1 level is so strong that extra efforts are made to objectify observations and to the boundaries of conceptualizations.
The subtle complexities of the infant's relationship with significant others, and the period of rapid growth and change in a11 areas of functioning necessitates from both academic and clinical fields an organizational view with a myriad of cognitive, affective, social, and physiological events functioning within a dense pattern of interrelationships (Osofsky &: Connors, 1979). Unfortunately, as Thomas (1981) indicates, developmental theorists and clinicians, in their attempt to encompass all these aspects, have been virtually straightjacketed by formulations that cannot capture the scope or growth potential of the human experience.
The most influential reason for a11 this can be found in the word "infant" which is derived from "infus" which means not talking (Winnicott, 1965).
The inability of the infant to verbalize experience has led to inferred psychological content by indirect research methodology and inferred dynamic concepts. The negation of experience is based on an assumption of an undifferentiated self (Mahler, 1975), and an inability to reflect on experience as separate from the other person (Haviland, 1984) in the first eight months of life. The eight month of an infant's life is a vastly critical period in a majority of developmental theories due to the onset of "symbol formation" (first words).
The period of life prior to this point is where current inquiry suffers most from what Parker (1984) eloquently refers to as "objectivist illusion". He states that this is the "... tendency to regard human actions as though they are mechanical processes or procedures, and to objectify and reduce a1l human phenomena, including meaning and telos of human action to the product of casual interplay of forces" (p. 233). It is this period of an infant's life in relation to others that this paper explores due to the perceived needs for a phenomenological approach in light of the above tendency and because the implicit characteristics of this period make it amenable to the experiential perspective.
Freud's original conceptualizations were based on inferences derived from verbal reports of adult patients. In contrast, Margaret Mahler, through direct observations of mothers and infants, has written extensively on the early relationship from a psychoanalytic point of view (Mahler, Pine and Bergman, 1975). While much of her work focuses on what is termed the separation-individuation phase following the eight months, she has expanded on Freud's original thoughts about the first months of life. According to Mahler, the neonate period is termed "normal autistic" where there is no reflection on the self experience and cathexis to the environment is at a minimum. Mahler (1985) has since revised her thinking on this period, stating that the young infant "listens to his insidesĒ where the primary energies and attention are focused on homeostatic control of organic functioning. Following this period the infant enters into a symbiotic stage where he/she is thought to exist in a state of undifferentiated fusion with the mother. During this period, which lasts from two to seven months of age, the infant is supposed to experience activities and feelings as if they were part of the mother's activity. Mahler conceptualizes this state as a delusional belief system based primarily on defensive needs to protect oneself from an intrusive environment. In describing this period, Mahler notes characteristic observations of a mutual and reciprocal behavioral pattern where the mother and infant frequently act in unison. Following this period, the infant is felt to undergo a psychological birth, termed hatching, where a differentiated self comes into awareness.
Within these perspectives, processing variables of the subjective felt experience of both mother and infant are frequently negated because conceptualization of the self and other objects are considered to be nonexistent or to reflect a delusional state. Within such a perspective, the subjective experienced feelings of a mother towards her infant become relegated to wish fulfillment or projections. The infant is not felt to exist in a psychological sense or to have any experiencing of another human being. Feelings of the mother that she knows her child or that her child knows her, are labeled "imaginary interaction" (Cramer, 1985), or inferred adult states that do not exist (Parker, 1984). An experiencing being is not felt to exist until later.
The relationship between mother and infant is viewed within an associative learning context where the mother is the primary environmental stimulus for differentiation of internal need states. The infant is viewed as a passive being, whose state is primarily amotivational and who interacts only during tension states.
Research evidence has recently questioned these assumptions and now shows a more interactional and talented infant from birth. The infant is now viewed as an active learner (Lipsitt, 1982), who arrives in the world with perceptions that are highly structured. Emperical research shows a more precocious infant (Kagen, Kearsely and Selando, 1978). Infants at birth turn their heads to human voice repeatedly (Als, 1979; Butterworth &: Costello, 1976). Brazelton (1973) found that the infants face visibly alerts in seeking out the source of the voice. But the discriminatory talents involved in this search have long been known. Eisenberg (1964) observed infants choosing a female pitch over others. Spelke (1979) has shown a highly developed ability in the early infant to categorize and differentiate voice and face stimuli. These findings contradict the conceptualizations which assume that the infant cannot differentiate others in the environment until later. Fogel (1980) has documented separation reactions in infants as young as two months of age. Not only can infants differentiate others at a much earlier age, there is also evidence that they have expectations and behaviorally seek out active interaction with these figures. The naturalistic observations of Brazelton, Koslowski, and Main (1974) and of Tronik, Als, Adomson, Wise and Brazelton (1978) showed the interactive expectations of three-month-old infants by demonstrating the babies' reactions when the mother presented with a still expressionless face instead of an affective entreating look.
Researchers have documented that the infant is born with a wide range of organizational schemas previously unheard of (Stern, 1985). For example, Meltzoff and Moore (1977) showed the neonate capable of imitating facial gestures as early as two week's of age. Meltzoff and Broton (1979) demonstrated that infants discriminate an object (a cube) by sight when the only previous experience they had of the object was through touch. This proved a level of cross sensory usage that learning theory or neurological maturation could not explain. Bornstein 0975) showed that by three monthís of age infants are capable of categorization of colors on a perceptual level. It is also clear that the infant is an interactive being who is highly selective regarding the source and nature of the interaction.
Brazelton 0979)., 1984) has looked at the interaction between infants and their parents starting at three week's of age and continuing through six month's of age. First, he discovered a high level of discrimination between inanimate objects, mothers, fathers, and strangers in the infants initial behaviors and ensuing interactions. Second1y, through careful and minute observations of mother and infant, he documented a cycle of attention and withdrawal behavior on the part of the infant that was mirrored by the mother's behavior. When the infant attends to the mother he moved out towards her with all parts of his body. This signaled a period of intense involvement, marked by reciprocal interaction play between mother and child. As the infant entreated, the mother approached, mimicking physical gestures and verbalizing either the babies sounds or defining the gestures in her own words. This interaction was followed by a withdrawal type behavior by the infant where he would cease activity and keep his mother within the periphery of vision. The mother cycled in a similar manner. When the baby withdrew she would let up in intensity.
As with previous theories, Brazelton focused on physiological maturation and conceptualized the interaction within a stimulus response learning paradigm. Subjective experience is not dealt with per se, as the interaction is viewed as a precursor to later affective development. There are, however, two important distinctions that separate Brazeltonís conceptualization from previous ones. First, he has proposed a theory of process movement that is both individual and interactional. Second1y, he has included the adult caretaker as an integral participant in the process of the experienced cycles.
Stern (1985) concludes that the infant is aware of a self from birth and is able to differentiate himself from others. He also proposes that the inteaction between mother and child has an interpersonal base and not a physiological one. Mother and infant appear in their mutual rather than reciprocal actions, to share a state of being.
The experiential Perspectives
Experience is defined by Gendlin as a process of concrete ongoing events which constitute the subjective reality of being with oneself and in interaction with others (see Gendlin, 1962, 1964). Specifically, experience is a felt process of sensed bodily events. It is important to emphasize the word "process" because it represents a' dramatic shift from the majority of theories. Experiencing is not conceptualized in terms of constructs or conceptual units such as an ego
or a cognitive schema. Experiencing is not a "thing" which is formed or evolved through the accumulation of past events, but refers directly to the individual's sense of process of interaction between a bodily felt sense and the symbolization of that felt sense through either words, attention or events.
A felt sense is not an emotion or a thought experience; it is organic, bodily. The felt sense is not a peripheral physical sensation, but one which arises from the central organs of our bodies.
The felt sense of something contains many implicit meanings. But these meanings are not always explicitly known to the individual. There is a feeling of what "that" is, but the felt sense is incomplete until a symbolization process takes place which gives explicit meaning to the experience. When there is an interaction between the felt sense and events, there is a completion or carrying forward of the experience. Carrying forward is not a cognitive process of labeling an emotion. There is a felt physical shift in functioning, an immediate release of bodily tension and an unfolding awareness of all that was contained in the felt sense. This marks a completion of the experiencing process.
By completion, however, Gendlin did not imply a terminal process of resolution. When a felt sense is carried forward, the resulting experiencing always involves reconstituted aspects of experience which are now able to come into process. There are now new implicit meanings which become available to be symbolically experienced. Thus Gendlin has implied a hierarchical nature of the experiencing process. One level of experience must be symbolized before other aspects of experience can be felt.
The theoretical foundation for the process of reconstitution of experience is not uncommon in developmental theory. Within this conceptualization lies the gradients of developmental process which were mentioned in the first chapter. Indeed, as we shift from an adult perspective and move into an exploration of the infant's experiential world, discussion of trus principle will become clearer.
The Infant's Experience as a Subjective Self-Process
Gendlin's (1970, 1973) theory of experiential processing can lend a process framework to the subjective experiencing of the infant on an interactive basis. The immediate question arises, whether the infant's bodily sensing constitutes an interactional process of experiencing. The previous theories argued that before a relationship can be spoken of in a psychological sense, there must exist some conceptualization of a self process. Even contemporary theorists (i.e.,
Stern), who have proposed a more affectively rich relatedness capacity in early life, base their arguments on evidence of a reflective sense of self. While these arguments have been premised primarily on cognitive grounds, it is proposed here that a self process is implicitly functioning from the interaction of the infant's subjective bodily sensing in interaction with his own regulatory functioning. It is further proposed that this interactional process serves as a precursor and primary framework for later experiential functioning. Based within our rudimentary organic functioning, the infants first relational process to his self is, in a sense, a blueprint for all experiential processing.
Gendlin defines the self process within the context of an individual respond-ing to himself and carrying forward his own experience. Experientially, the self process is the interaction of the felt sense with oneís own behavior which constitutes the symbolization of that felt sense. Gendlin frequently cited bodily life process as an analogy to the experiential process. Viewing this analogy on a more meta level, one can conceptualize the infant's early experiential process as an interaction of bodily felt sense within central organic functioning being symbolized and carried forward by a developing neurological feedback system.
To illustrate this process we can return to Brazeltonís observations of the infant's attention and withdrawal cycles and how this relates to his physiological regulation. Disruptive regulatory periods were marked by periods of high activity. With the developing central nervous system acting as an organizational body, homeostasis was achieved, marked by a withdrawn, but content posture. An internal feedback system acknowledges the achievement and drives the system to a more advanced level of disruption and organization. Conceptualized experientially, the disruptive periods represent a period of direct focusing on bodily felt tensions.
This exprienced bodily sense of himself is completed and carried forward through the event of neurological organization. The resultant period of homeostasis represents the bodily shift in functioning that occurs when there is a completion of the bodily experiencing. We can see here how the symbolization process which interacts with the felt sense is not restricted to the highly advanced use of verbal symbols. Firstly, the infant's attention to his feelings at that time. An event which symbolizes the felt sense is the active neurological organization of the physiological system. Implicit within the bodily felt sense of disruption is the organization of systems to alleviate tensions and achieve homeostasis. The attentional and organizing process makes the implicit explicitly known to the infant. Individual differences in this process are discernable from birth. The Brazelton Neonatal Behavioral Assessment (1973) scale essentially examines the infant's capability to recover from disruptive environmental stimuli and achieve a state of balance. Infants who are able to attend to the process of sensing the bodily process achieve a level of organization quickly. Response to external stimuli is manifested by crying, increased muscle and limb movement and darkening skin
color. Organization occurs relatively rapidly however, as the infant returns to a previously held consoled state. Other infants who cannot attend as readily tend to experience the physical disruption of their functioning. These infants are structure bound in their experiencing of themselves because attentional and organizational aspects are not in process. These infants usually require an extraordinary amount of external input (consoling, rocking, cuddling) to aid them in attending. As we will see shortly, external input is necessary for all infants to complete and carry forward experiential process.
Once this state of homeostasis is explicitly known to the infant, a
reconstitution of experience occurs where new levels of experiential
organization are implicitly available to the infant. In Brazelton's
conceptualization this is seen in the internal feedback system which tells the
infant, "You've done it, now go on". Gendlin's theorem of
reconstitution of experience shows that once implicitly functioning aspects of
experience are made explicit, new aspects of experience are available for
processing. This hierarchy of experiential process implies that before an aspect
of experience can be carried
forward, there must be other aspects of experience that are explicitly known preceding the processing. This hierarchical developmental process is similar to Erikson's (1968) stages of development and Piaget's (1954) concepts of' assimilation and accommodation. Erikson saw each developmental period having a task to complete which was indicative of each individuals relation to his self and his environment. Completion of each task period allowed for progression to the
next. Piaget saw the development of a cognitive schema as allowing for new and fresh ways to approach other encounters, resulting in increased learning and manipulative competencies. For both theorists, each new task mastered allowed for higher levels of organization and competency because of the child's ability to now experience a new and fresh exposure to elements within himself and in the environment which were not available in the previous manner of functioning. So too, in the infant there is an increasing level of experiential capacity. As the infant gains more control and regulation, attention states increase in length and number, indicating an increasing amount of experiential processing. This will be more clearly illustrated in the examination of the mother-infant relationship.
In conclusion, the above process indicates an active and dynamic self process occurring within the subjective experience of the infant. That this process has been defined in the context of the infant's physiological regulatory system does not negate a subjective feeling process. Our feelings are rooted within bodily sensing of ourselves. This sensing is more evident in the first month of an infant's life than in any other period. The state of the newborn infant re- presents a basic framework for the experiential process. Through the attention to bodily sensing we define and carry forward the experience of ourselves and the world around us. Implicit in the infant's subjective experience of the bodily felt sense is the process of interaction with that sense, making it an explicitly known aspect of self. The infant is born with this processing capability. The experiencing of the felt sense does not develop, but rather defines the subjective nature of being human. The infant is no less a feeling human being at birth than at fifty years old. A speculative extension of this position, and topic for future examination is the proposal that this processing of subjective felt experience is an innate capacity that is not developed through cognitive or neurological growth, but is present in the genetic formation of the human infant in utero. The quality of our bodily sensing and the basic nature of the experiential process is evident from the start of life. What develops is not oneís ability to feel, but rather the differentiation and abstract functioning of the
symbolization process which interacts with the felt sense. These ideas will become clearer as we now move to an exploration of the experiential interaction of the infant with his environment.
The input of the caretaker in the self process
With the foundation of an innate subjective experiential process within the individual infant explored, our direction now focuses on the relation of that process with the infantís immediate environment. In this section it will be shown that the empathic relating of a primary caretaker (mother) is a necessary factor for completion of the subjective experiential process.
I have defined the process of the subjective feeling of self within the con- text of the infantís physiological functioning. This was done to emphasize the bodily nature of our feeling states and to illustrate the innate experiential capability of a self process in the human infant. But in doing so, do we return to the former view of the infant as a passive, noninteractional being who is solely defined by physiological regulation? The answer to this is an emphatic no! The bodily feeling process always involves the environment. (Gendlin, 1984). Contained within the feeling experience is the implication of a future feeling state. Being cold implies being warm. Feeling hungry implies being satiated. Carrying forward and making the implicit explicit necessitates an environmental input object which is part of that experience. Thus, to carry forward the feeling of being cold (being warm an implied content in the feeling); clothes, blankets, and physical closeness are necessary. To bring about satiation, food is necessary. Viewing this postulate in concrete physical terms, we can see that the dependent infant requires an extra component within the environment to carry forward his processing: a caretaker.
The infant does not function as a physiological being in isolation. The infant is an immature organism whose complex systems demand a great deal of environmental input to maintain balance (Boukydis, 1983). The infant needs to be fed, clothed, and changed to facilitate regulation and maturation. But fulfilment of physical needs is not the only necessity of the presence of a caretaker. Indeed, as we move beyond the first two months of life there is a shift from the primarily internal physiological state to a more interpersonal one.
The alert waking state of the infant has increased to make up a major portion of the day. Cycles and rhythms in behavior and sleep patterns are becoming more regular. Mothers at this time characteristically begin to view their child with stable mature-like states. The mother begins a process of coming into a knowing of her child, of sensing who he is. Is this beginning knowing the result of just meeting an infants physiological needs? In the above statements we have initially defined the caretaker as an environmental object who completes process by providing and facilitating an implied future event; her function being to care for the child's physical needs. But we have many examples in the clinical
literature of the status of infants who receive physical caretaking, but in lacking a consistent, affectively nurturant relationship, show marked delays in all areas of functioning. Examples of this situation come from the studies of Spitz 0949) and Provence (1962), describing the developmental stagnation of institutionalized infants. They were described characteristically as withdrawn and depressed. They did not respond to voice or face, nor would they mold or
cuddle. Huddled fetal positions were frequent. Physiological functioning slowed. Some infants would stop eating and if fed in another manner (Ôntravenous), there was a slow and retarded growth pattern. Noninstitutionalized, nonorganic failure to thrive infants (height and weight below the fifth percentile and relatedness behavior showing gross delays not due to a diagnosed disease process or congenital abnormality), frequently progress within normal limits in the first few months. Their processing of internal experience appears to be fluid and there is attention to bodily sensing. But following the shift from internal homeostasis to a more interpersonal sphere there is a drop in development and eating patterns that are inconsistent at best. The relationship between mothers and these infants is marked by the lack of reciprocal play and interaction patterns. The infants are difficult to console when stressed and the mothers have a difficult time i reading cues for the child's needs. Absent is the knowing of the child and a subsequent understanding of what the child is experiencing of himself appears diffuse and confused. The behavioral manifestations of state
and need are extremely subtle and hard to read. Both partners appear adrift and disconnected in their own functioning and particularly, in the context of being with each other. What is illustrated within these examples is the premise that it is not the dependency/caretaking nature which defines the relationship and facilitates emotional and physical growth in the infant. Infants who are fed, clothed, and changed do not necessarily thrive. There are also marked disruptions in development where consistent physical maternal care is available, but is accompanied by a lack of awareness and responding within the relationship. In both cases, the infant is structure bound in experiential capacity. There is a cessation of processing, resulting in a lack of development and growth. The infant is unable to move forward in his self process or in interaction with his environment due to his inability to carry forward implicitly functioning experience. It is clear that the focus in these cases is not the physiological satisfaction of needs, but the interpersonal sphere of the subjective relating between mother and infant.
To summarize up to this point, the infant is a presymbolic being whose self process interaction with the felt sense is very limited. Independent interaction is limited to the process defined previously, where attention to bodily experience brings forth implied organization and maturation of systemic functioning. Within this attention process and pattern of growth, the experiential process is known to the infant. The shifting in physiological states from disruption to homeostasis defines for the infant the felt movement occurring when he subjectively attends and relates to his own organic felt sense. The process itself is an implicit meaning in the infants feeling state that is make explicit by his bodily attending. With.. the feeling of process made explicit comes the infant's awareness of being a feeling human being. The infant is aware of process from the beginning, but is an immature being who lacks the capabilities to symbolize and carry forward experience beyond what internal regulatory farces allow. Even on a physiological need level there is a great deal of environmental input necessary to provide the implied future state. We have seen, in the discussion of the failure to thrive infant, that beyond a brief period of early life where the meeting of basic physiological needs is sufficient to complete process, subjective and empathic relating is necessary for the infant to continue to grow. There must be an element in the subjective relating of the mother to her child which facilitates the processing of experience. The preverbal infant is unable to symbolize felt experience on an abstract level. Immaturity prohibits the infant from behaviorally completing bodily process. The mother, through bodily and verbal reflection of feelings, nurturant acts, and attention focus, carries forward and completes the infants subjective feeling process.
Mother and Infant in Experiential Relation to each other
The capacity of the infant to relate and attend to the felt sense has been discussed. Because of the immaturity of the physiological system, there is a diffuse and ill defined quality of that sensing. The mother's ability to symbolize the felt sense of the infant functions on several levels; from a shared bodily expression of preverbal experience with the infant to articulation with abstract symbols. As we shall see shortly, the symbolization of the infant's experience is not a one-sided process where the mother defines the experience and transmits that knowledge to the child. Rather, the process is defined in the emphatic knowing of each other. It is within the awareness of the felt sense of the other that shifts in experiential process occur.
Boukydis (1983), in his discussion of relational empathy between a parent and infant, places emphasis on the bodily reflection of feeling. There are many aspects of the behaving towards an infant which can symbolize experience.
Through nurturing acts and physical posturing of the mother (which conveys an empathic awareness of experiential sensing), a negotiation of balance within the bodily energy systems of the baby can be achieved. If we apply this principle to the previously discussed felt self processing of the infant, the interactional components and how they relate to the experiential process become clear.
In observed interactions between mothers and infants there are rhythms and cycles in their attention to each other and themselves. As the infant alerts and energizes the mother, she responds with reciprocal play and similar body movements. Soon, the movements of the infant subsides, marked by a withdrawn period before the alert cycle ensues again. The mother empathically adopts the cycle and thereby, reflects the child's experience. As the infant's activity increases, the mother's interaction with the baby increases. As the activity wanes, so the mother allows this through her own quieting. Earlier, this cycle was conceptualized as attention to bodily sensing followed by a shift, in experience. Within the interaction the cycle defines the relating, and the mother's empathic flow with the child reflects the bodily felt processing in that moment. Within the cycle, the mother is not reflecting or symbolizing felt experience on a concrete level, but is symbolizing the process of experiencing which is implicit in the infantís rhythms. When the infant withdraws the mother does not disengage, but retains a silent focus and allows the infant to experience himself. This is much like an adult sitting with another as the felt sense arises and becomes known. There is a shift and new levels of implicit experience come into process. We see this in the infant as he stars momentarily with himself, experiencing the felt sense of his subjective self.
A shift in process occurs and the infant alerts while the mother is waiting to return the engagement. The mother's emphatic responsiveness to this flow of felt sensing fuels the process and the child's attending, play, and interaction increases. This signifies new levels of experiential processing coming into play. Disruption in this process is most evident with an overstimulating mother who does not allow periods of felt sensing. In a seemingly defensive posture, the infant continually averts in an anxious manner, always keeping his mother in a visual periphery. Movements within the cycle are shortened and erratic. In this interaction, intrusiveness defines the cycle, not the processing.
In the first few months of life this cycle of interrelating is subtle in its complexity and depth of experience. The infant's movements lack sharp focus and rhythms do not have a stable flow. Much of the mothers responses appear to provide boundaries and containment for disruptions that can escalate because of immaturity in the organization level of the infant. Holding, rocking, and cuddling provides the infant with rhythms and attentional focus on his bodily energy. Even in playful or quiet interactions where the infant is not observed to be experiencing any tensions, the mother keeps the baby in close physical contact. Mother and child mold to each other to form a unified boundary of bodily space. As physical space increases between the two, there is still continued contact, comfort and containment. This is particularly noticeable in the mother's holding of the arms, legs, and head when she faces the infant. in a prone position. As the baby swings his arms or kicks his legs the mother gently holds them and either brings them closer to the body or moves them in a more rhythmic and organized fashion.
Within the comforting and consoling responses of the mother there are also the active reflections of feeling states in the infant. Mothers can differentiate very early the qualities and characteristics of her infant's cries and movements. This differentiation allows the mother to localize physiological tensions within specific areas. Thus, the mother knows whether the infant needs comforting or nutrition in achieving balance. Her physical interaction with the child defines the experience and provides the necessary component in completing the process.
The mother also verbally symbolizes the felt experience of the infant. Infants from birth are sensitive to and respond to adult speech patterns (Condon and Sandler, 1974). Trunk movements of the neonate are synchronized to the pace and intensity of the words they hear. As the baby shifts his body and playfully wiggles, the mother's voice in inflection, tone and content matches the babies movements. The infants bodily responsiveness indicates that from the start the infant is interacting felt experience with spoken symbol. This may support Gendlin's proposal that the felt sense is in fact not preconceptual, and that language is an implicit meaning within the process of experiencing (Gendlin, 1985). We have seen how the bodily behaving of the mother reflects and completes the rhythmic experiential process of the infant. So too, the mother's soft and comforting voice can either reflect processing or provide necessary rhythms and balance for achieving balance and enabling self organic sensing. The reciprocal exchange between mother and infant that we have used to illustrate experiential processing in the dyad has been frequently referred to as a conversational exchange. In a conversation with another being we are articulating symbolically what we know; of the experience of ourself and the other. With infants, this is done primarily on a physically interactive level, reflecting the purity of its physiological base. But the infant is a verbal being also, voicing primarily distress at first, then cooing and babbling. While not abstract symbolizations, they do reflect and express the infant's state of self experiencing. In the early months the mother primarily reflects the pace, intensity level, pitch and tone of the infant. As the infants verbal capabilities grow, the mother is more often mimicking the actual sound formations. Within these early verbal exchanges lies the genesis and early differentiation of the process interaction between felt experience and verbal symbolization. Most important in these verbal exchanges is the felt awareness of each other as they engage eact other on this level. The voice of both mother and infant is intrically tied to the bodies awareness of the felt sense.
Before moving forward on the developmental scale and drawing further conclusions, it would he helpful to summarize here what has been discussed about the individual and 'relatedness experience in early life. To this point, the emphasis has been on the early months of an infant's life where physiological adjustment and bodily felt rhythms dominate experience. The mother, through nurturing acts, bodily interacting and verbalizations completes and carries forward the infant's experience. Through her relating there is an empathic reflection of the state of experiential processing. The focus of the relating is on the processing aspects of experience evident in the infant cycles of disruption and bodily sensing. Implicit in the infants subjective experience of the bodily felt sense is the process of interaction with that sense, making it an explicitly known aspect of self and allowing new manners of experience in bodily awareness and functioning to be available for processing. The framework for this process is innately and biologically known to the infant through interaction of the felt sense with his developing neurologicaI system. Through the autonomous achievement of homeostasis, the experiential process is known to the infant. But due to the immaturity of the physiologicaI system and the inability to provide environmental input which is implicit in the experience, the mother's concrete and subjective relating to the infant is necessary to further the process of developing experience. By empathically relating to the infant's disruptions, bodily sensing, and shifts in experience, a symbolization of the bodily felt sense occurs, allowing completion and awareness in explicitly feeling states. The mother's relating symbolizes a process which is already implicit in the infant's functioning. In the early months, close physical contact and the achievement of balance and rhythms in the cycle mark the relationship. The context of mother being with child is one where processing is allowed to occur by focused attention on bodily sensing.
The Experiential Gestalt vs. Symbiosis
In these early months where organic sensing is manifestly dominant, we can
now see how the experiential processing of subjective feeling states is a
unified process within the interaction. The mother is not a stimulus agent to
infant responds. Rather, it is the being with each other which brings forth the awareness of the felt sense. Without the relating, the implicit remains as potential experience. It is difficult not to conceptualize the relationship within a traditional self-other manner. We have seen this framework in the analytic concept of symbiosis where the unified sense of the infant being with the mother is viewed as a delusional stage of self development. Viewed experientially, the relationship is a gestalt which transcends individual functioning and exists with its own flow and processing characteristics. It is within the relating that the bodily felt sensing comes into process and farms subjective experiencing. One cannot separate the symbolization of feelings and the implicit felt sense into separate components. The symbolization of the felt sense is, in fact, an implicit aspect of the actual feeling state. Thus, a mother's relating is an implicit meaning in the infants bodily sensing which becomes explicit through the interaction. This bonding of experiential process is unique to the parent-child relationship. Because of the purity in bodily felt sensing, it is in these early months of life where it is most evident in its process. As developmental progress occurs in the infant, so too there is progression within the processing and relating.
Autonomy and Awareness of Relational Process
By three to four months of age there is a manifest shift in the interaction cycle as the infant appears to adopt more control over the engagement and rhythmic nature of the process. There is a greeting response now when the mother appears. The baby cooes, gestures, rotates and wiggles trunk and limbs. The baby then stops and keeps alert attention as if waiting for the parent to respond. He takes great delight in parental responses and in turn responds with more activity. The infants apparent display and anticipation is as if he is saying, "Here's what I am, this is what I can do, what is your sense of me?" What we see here in the infant's development is his becoming more adept in his attention to process. He is still in a high state of dependence on his mother for completion of experience but he is more active in engaging the symbolization of his experience. Through the combined forces of maturation of physiological functioning and competencies in subjective experiential processing, a more autonomous interaction with the felt sense is developing.
By now, the physiological system and major life cycles (sleeping, waking, eating, and elimination), are becoming more stable. As systems mature, higher levels of motor coordination allow for discoveries and competencies to be more self
directed. The infant can now reach and grab objects of interest, the earliest of which are own body parts. He is better able to position himself (sitting), is developing more control over body movements, and is soon able to ambulate
(crawling). All this represents a major shift in processing capacity as the infant is now able to seek out and obtain environmental input that was before only available through the mother. As developmental progression occurs in cognitive and motor functioning, so too there is a progression in subjective experiential processing. As the body develops, the sensing of bodily sensations which defines the subjective experience develops. Earlier bodily behaving of the mother towards the infant focused on providing physical boundaries and rhythms to carry forward processing. As infants mature, their own bodily behaving assumes part of this process. Still presymbolic beings, experience of themselves and the environment is still dominated by organic sensations. This is seen by the predominance of oral and tactile stimulation by which objects are explored.
In a hierarchial and cummulative fashion, new processing aspects are coming into explicit functioning as evidenced by a richer differentiation of feeling states. A wider repertoire of emotional responses are manifest and displayed on a socially contingent level. It is no wonder that at this time the parent subjectively experiences the infant as a unique person with mature personality characteristics. Becoming more adept at processing of subjective experience, interaction with the felt sense of the self is now, more manifest in the infant's behavioral mannerisms and responses to social events in the environment. Much of this behaving is focused on seeking out and engaging the mother.
Discussed earlier was the concept that the mother's relating is implicit in
the infant 's subjective sense of process of self. Through the relating, not
only does the internalized experiential processing become explicitly functioning,
but also the known presence of the mother and her relation to the process self.
Developing states such as wariness of others now occurs as the infant is
accutely aware of a cessation of subjective processing in the absence of the
mother's relating. That is to say, the infantís early differentiation of
primary caretakers is directly related to their unusual attention to subjective
As the infant becomes more adept and carries forward feeling aspects of his felt sense, the mother's relation to that experiencing becomes explicitly known to him. Thus, the developing acute awareness of the mother's absence
(wariness, stranger anxiety) may be redefined from earlier conceptualization based on dysnomic anxiety states or maturing cognitive constructs. Experientially, the infant's subjective feeling state of self is contained within the locus of relatedness process with the mother. The infant's experience in the physical absence of the mother may represent a lack of focus and disruption of knowing himself and the environment. First, there is regression and disorganization as he stops previous engaged behavior (playing, exploring) and muscle and limb movement increases. In the absence of physical or proximal relatedness, process is disrupted and there is either a lack of focus or a return to earlier stages of behaving. Crying, reaching out, searching and averting from strangers follows. As proposed by ethologica! theory, the infants actions are focused on retaining closeness with the mother. Clearly, the infant is seeking out that which provides focus and completion of his experiential self.
Subtle elements of this awareness of process are evident from birth. Cognitive studies cited in Chapter 2 show that at birth sensory elements already show initial differentiation of the mother from others in the interpersonal world.
As the infant grows, that which is innate and implicit within the feeling process becomes explicit:.
These developments do not signify a break in the experiential bond between
mother and infant. First movements in autonomous experiencing are diffuse and
ill defined. The infant is still a presymbolic being whose increased avenues for
experienced potential both within himself and in interaction with the
environment require increased input sole1y from the developing complexity of the
processing. The increase in bodily behaving which enables the infant to carry
forward processing can be viewed as a transitional period. At first the mother's
bodily behaving and input provided a total context for experiencing. The infant
begins to assume part of the process through their own physical maturation. The
delayed responses and contingent awareness of the infant towards the mother now
signifies an interaction on a more abstract level. Able to carry forward
experience through his own gesturing, the infant now looks to the mother for a
more symbolic representation of the experienced self.
This is not to say that the former level of relating is abandoned. Distinct elements of this relationship remain throughout infancy and possibly throughout their respective lifespans. We do however, see a transition from a totally physically defined manner of relating to a more symbolic mode. As the infant controls physical movement and ambulates, there is more physical distance between the pair and verbal direction by the mother increases. The infant's verbalizations take on a more communicative mode in expression of state and need. A balance between physiological and symbolic completion of process is apparent and developing. As the infant's physical system matures, the mother adopts a more symbolic manner of relating. As the infant's physiological system reaches a symbolic (yet still in development) completion there is a shift to internalized symbolic representation.
By symbolic completion I refer to the fact that most areas of adult physical and ambulatory functioning are either present or represented. Self directed locomotion develops from rolling over to crawling to standing to finally the ability to walk. Manipulation, exploration, and transferring with hands is now evident. Coinciding with their developments are the use of abstract language use (words) and their association with familiar objects and people. It is no coincidence that an infant's first words come at approximately the same time that he began to walk. Prior to this point, close physical relatedness with the mother provided completion of the bodily felt sense through her attention to bodily rhythm and the containment and supplement of immature physiological systems. However, the infant is now adept at processing and many of these elements are becoming self directed. The importance and dynamics of the mother-infant relationship remain the same. But, physical separation and autonomous functioning in the infant dictates a more abstract mode of relatedness.
A brief discussion on Empathy
Implicit and assumed in the discussion thus far has been the mother's empathic knowing of the infant's experience: More indirectly referred to is an infant's awareness and responsivity to the mother's experiential state. This knowing of each other is illustrated in the interaction between mother and infant where there is an observed synchrony of body movements, states and verbalizations. It is from these observations that such concepts such as
mirroring and symbiosis have been derived. As mother and infant engage there is a symphony of choreographed movement which is duplicated in each other's experience. There does not appear to be an element of responding to a partner's input but rather a shared state of experiencing within that moment. Within the same moment, the mother's torso turns with the same direction, and relative intensity of the infants. Gaze with gaze, yawn with yawn. Faces
have the same tone and look of contentment and inner reflection in a quiet moment of bodily contact. They appear to share a state of a joint felt sensing of each other.
Empathy is a concept which has frequently been defined by the mother- infant relationship. Past theorists and clinicians such as Freud (1961), Sullivan (1967), and Fromm-Reichman (1950) viewed empathy, as a peculiar linkage between a mother and neonate. They felt that physiological sensing linked the pair in a psychological umbilical cord where there is direct assess to the inner selves. Applying this concept to the discussed framework of interactional experiential processing we can further our understanding of empathic relatedness.
The felt sense of the infant has been defined primarily within the context of the mother and infant relating to one another. This process interaction is evident from birth and it is proposed that the genesis and formation of the interaction sphere is the result of the physiological symbiosis between mother and infant during pregnancy. As the developing fetus grows and differentiates, there is a direct linkage with the mother's physiological system. Viewing the feeling process as based on the organic sense of ourselves, pregnancy is a period where mother and infant are in direct concrete relation to each other's process. From this perspective, mother and infant do not learn or come to know each other following birth. There is already a rich experiential background to their knowing each other from the intrauterine experience. If we define empathy as an experience of another's subjective world, then the foundation for this lies not in the relatedness immediately following birth, but in the relationship prior to birth. Following birth, there is an extension and adaptation, of the relationship necessitated by the resulting physical separation. As -in the prenatal experience, however, the empathic relatedness to each other is defined by the physiological sensing of one another. Feeding is maintained through direct physical contact with the breast or symbolically with the nipple of a bottle. Organization and growth of rhythms and cycles are facilitated by close physical interactions. In utero this relationship was represented in a passive flow of unified functioning. Following birth, the empathic relationship takes on an active interaction. While in one sense, the interaction represents an abstract symbolic mode of intrauterine connection, the organic felt sense of ourselves and others is still primary in the first year of life.
This paper represents section of a Clinical Research Project submitted
to the faculty of the Illinois School of Professional Psychology
for the degree of Doctor of Psychology in Clinical Psychology (1986)-
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