March 2007

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“The heart-stopping thing about the new-born is that, from minute one, there is somebody there. Anyone who bends over the cot and gazes at it is being gazed back at.”

Elaine Morgan, The Descent of the Child: Human Evolution from a New Perspective, p. 99, (1994).

Currently, a revolution in the study of the human: begin by observing others – and oneself…observing. The ancient trap: to extrapolate from us mature thinkers about human nature, directly to all the wonders about how we are…and how we know.

What was ignored, left out in our attempts to describe and understand? Lots! The facts about the newborn – but, perhaps even more so – the facts of the m/other observing her new-born – and the power of her to remain involved with her new-born, and all of what this entails. Most of this part of the human story has been neglected until very recently: now, developing “Attachment Theory.”

We do not survive unless some one who gazes at the newborn: and sees, interprets what she observes as “somebody” (usually the birth mother – but whoever takes responsibility so many moments especially for the first several years of life and development – thus m/other).

We are not individual bodies, but our body in the world with others’
bodies: being observed, observing others. “Somebody” there!? – means that somebody is “looking back” at us looking. We’re not merely body hanging-out in the world, absorbing the world via our senses.

And what does looking-observing entail? This is not very obvious, even though it is “common” experience: it involves looking at an infant’s face, and noting something about the eyes and the areas about the eyes, being held in some “tension.” This tension is pretty much like the tension of others’ faces that the m/other interacts with.Zero Days Old, photo by Matthew Miller

But her face is also being held in the kinds of tensions which involve “looking at” somebody. The infant is “captivated” by m/ other’s face as well.

How do I know this; or think that I do? Primarily from the work of Rynders and Horrobin – who worked with Down Syndrome children and their m/others. Whatever is “different” about such children (mostly muscular – but remaining poorly described), it is very difficult to see “somebody” there. The muscles which move or shape the face of the infant are apparently missing or non-useful. As Rynders explained to me: he asks the m/others of Down children to “hang-in” with them for a few months – they will be able to move, smile, find some muscles to move their eyes which others can “read” as “somebody there.” And this generally works: the first Down Syndrome child to be able to read by age 2 and ½ was reported in our local paper just a few years ago.

The fact that children are deeply, constantly, engaged with m/others – not much in our thinking about the human…until now. Why not? How could this be? – should help us to begin to be more deeply engaged, critically, in what is human nature!

The most usual description – actually more a metaphor – about the human condition tried to address the questions of how we know, are infinite or “symbolic” in our scope, and led us to posit that we are deeply and basically body and mind: two-part creatures…but pretty much alone in the world with respect to how we know, and are.

Instead, Attachment Theory, deriving much from Pragmatist G.H. Mead, suggests that infant “somebody”, joins or virtually becomes the m/ other who sees somebody there. This will radically alter how we understand how the child develops language and knowledge, as we further study the more actual development and experience of each child (us).

Mead – a “symbolic-interactionist – noted that we are essentially social creatures who “emerge” transformed into our individual self – the I that I am, you are. Attachment Theory goes even “further” – suggesting that the infant “joins” or “becomes” the m/other; does not merely study the world, but gains knowledge by studying m/other.

M/other presents the world and knowledge to her infant: in what I dub the “Question-Response” System: the few questions about the world (Who, what, when, where, how many…), are responded to by “open” sets of responses: essentially infinite in number when combined in syntax.
Thus finite and infinite: don’t need to go outside the human condition to explain how we are and how we know.

As the child develops – becomes abler, stronger, faster, dangerous to itself – the m/other needs and wishes the child to emerge into its “self” – an increasingly less dependent, more its-self, eventually the “I” who each of us sees as our-self.

“Somebody” there: a most powerful moment in the human experience – essentially neglected in the depiction and understanding of human nature. Hopefully this insight will enable us to more fully describe the human as-we-are, rather than how our ancient theories have claimed (still claim) that we are.