An Unsung Hero (July/Aug 2006)

Friday, 01 April 2011 07:58

Openmind July/August 2006  

Colwyn Trevarthen is an unsung hero to recent generations of babies who were born to parents who, from the moment of their birth, talked to them, played with them, and saw them as people in their own right. Colwyn and his colleagues showed that babies are born ready to engage in conversations, discover the world and act on it. This isn’t how babies have traditionally been seen. The Christian Church has always taught that babies were conceived in sin, born bad, and have to have the devil beaten out of them. Nowadays children might not be beaten as frequently as children were in the past, but they are oppressed by a series of competitive exams so onerous that a beating might seem more acceptable. For Freud original sin became the id, and babies were born, in his words, polymorphously sexually perverse. For Jung, babies were inhabited by The Shadow. For Melanie Klein, babies thought of nothing but the good breast and the bad breast, and spent their time being in the depressed or paranoid position. So-called sensible adults saw babies as unpleasant objects producing nothing but yells and smells, and best left with women foolish enough to find them interesting, while doctors theorised that, as babies didn’t feel pain, they didn’t need any pain relief no matter what was done to them. Even the women who found babies interesting were inclined to agree with the psychologist William James that to a baby the world was no more than a buzzing, booming confusion, and that the baby’s first smile when six weeks old was the first sign that the baby had recognized his mother. 

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 Edinburgh University changed for the better the lives of babies and mothers, yet, when Colwyn retired, his laboratory was closed and the research group disbanded. He continues to research and teach, but with difficulty, because the university granted him the title of Emeritus but denied him a room in which he could work. Babies don’t matter to those in power.