An Unsung Hero (July/Aug 2006)Friday, 01 April 2011 07:58
Openmind July/August 2006
Some mothers did notice that their baby seemed to be born knowing the sound of their mother’s voice. Colwyn showed that this was actually so. Developmental psychologists like Colwyn made some astounding discoveries. Babies come into the world ready to make sense of what is going on around them. They can track a moving object, distinguish human movement from the movement of objects, prefer the sound of the human voice to that of a machine, and prefer to look at a face, even a cartoon of a face, to looking at an object. As soon as babies see a face, they want to engage that face in conversation.
It was these conversations between baby and mother that interested Colwyn. He set up a situation where the mother and baby were face to face with cameras filming each simultaneously. Thus the ebb and flow of the conversation, not just the sounds but the gestures and facial expressions could be recorded and the conversation mapped. It was clear that babies are born knowing how a conversation works. Babies initiated a conversation as often as their mother did. Babies understood the form of a conversation, a beginning, development, climax and conclusion, a form which relates as much to music as it does to language. Babies can show in their gestures their appreciation of the rhythmic qualities of language. In conversations with their baby depressed mothers behave very differently from non-depressed mothers. Depression runs in families, not via genes, but via conversations.
The detailed photographs of babies in conversation with their mothers show that babies experience many more emotions than pain and pleasure. The pictures show babies interpreting everything they experience. This is what human beings do. We breathe and we interpret. Babies cannot put their interpretations into words but they can express them in emotions that are there to be read on their faces. They interpret the world, and, when they get it right, they beam with pride. When they get it wrong, they quiver and withdraw in shame.
Babies show that they are agents, acting upon the world. This model of a human being who interprets, decides, and acts is one which is anathema to most psychiatrists and psychologists, and to some therapists. They prefer the model of a human being as a puppet manipulated on the strings of genes, or mental disorders, or traits, or factors, or abstractions like ‘the unconscious’. The puppet model allows professionals to take pride in being ‘the expert’, and to enjoy the political power that position brings. Hence they have to resist any scientist who demonstrates what we all know, even though we sometimes deny it. We might say that it was our genes or our stars that made us do such and such, but we know that that that isn’t how we experience ourselves.
Colwyn’s research group at