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Wednesday, May 11, 2011


Freud’s understanding of the workings of the mind of the infant and young child was arrived at backwards, as it were, by tracing back to their sources in early childhood the phenomena he encountered in adult patients. At no time, to the best of my knowledge, did he treat children or engage in systematic observation of the development of mental processes in children. Many neurologists and psychologists have done so, of course, including, most famously, his daughter Anna Freud, as well as the great Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. [Narrative aside: My sister went to Swarthmore College, where she met a very bright fellow student, who told the following wonderful story. He was taking a psychology class, in which they read some of Anna Freud’s reports of her treatment of children, in which, of course, all the names were changed to protect the privacy of the patients. While reading one case study, he suddenly realized that she was talking about him! He had in fact been to see a psychologist when a child, and it was none other than Anna Freud.] Remember that we are talking about late nineteenth century Vienna, a world in which bourgeois fathers, no matter how besotted with their children, spent little or no time in the nursery, and rarely if ever changed a diaper, fed a baby a bottle, or even changed a baby’s clothes. Things that we modern fathers and mothers have observed and wondered at were terra incognita to the middle class parent. Needless to say, it hardly would have occurred to Freud that his best scientific sources of information about newborn infants were wet nurses!

Nevertheless, Freud attempted to reverse the logical order of exposition and formulate an account of the early development of the mind. This effort was necessarily speculative in nature, since at no point did he corroborate it by direct observation of infants or small children. But the model he constructed, if I may put it that way, fit so well with his observations of adult patients that he came to repose a great deal of confidence in it. The story starts something like this:

The newborn infant, neurologically speaking, is a bundle of sensory organs and innate drives or sources of energy, but without anything that we would recognize as concepts or an organized understanding of itself and the world. It gets hungry, cold, and wet, it experiences pleasure when fed or held, it feels pain from intestinal gas. The infant, at the outset, has no usable notion of itself as a distinct being, nor any correlate notion of the external world as separate and set over against itself. It does have a variety of instincts, such as the brachiating, rooting, and sucking instincts. [For those of you who are not up on your primate biology, the brachiating instinct works as follows: if you turn the head of a newborn infant to one side, it automatically puts up the opposite arm with curled fingers. It is reaching for a branch to hold onto. It is brachiating. The next time you encounter a born-again-fundamentalist-new-earth-creationist couple who happen to be the proud parents of a newborn infant, you might coo at the baby, gently turn its head to one side, and ask them where they think it got that instinct from that is useless in humans but might well be a life saver for a monkey.]

The infant is put to the breast and sucks, which if finds pleasurable [also nourishing, but at this point of course, it has no notion of that.] The next time it is hungry, it conjures up the sensory memory of the breast. [You can see how speculative this account is. Today, we would undertake to study directly which precise area of the brain becomes neurologically active, as a way of inferring that the infant is calling up the image of the breast.] This ability to call up sensory images of past pleasurable experiences is a powerful one, and the mind never loses it. But – to continue our story – the calling up of the sensory image, or fantasizing, does not produce the satisfying sensations either in the lips or in the mouth and alimentary tract. This is frustrating, and in response to the failure of the image to satisfy, the baby starts to cry. In a well-ordered world – one which will, we can hope, lead after many, many more twists and turns and challenges, to the eventual development of a happy, well-integrated, emotionally healthy adult – the mother [or wet nurse – we are still in late nineteenth century Vienna, remember] hears the cry, picks up the baby, ascertains that the cry means hunger, and not gas or wetness, and puts the baby to the breast, thus finally, and after what is, for the baby, an intolerable delay, producing satisfying sensations in the lips, the mouth, and the alimentary canal. [Whew. That is a lot of words for the simplest event in a baby’s life, but stay with me, it gets even more complicated.]

This event, repeated countless times even in the very first months of a baby’s life, generates a profoundly ambivalent response from the baby. [What I am now going to explain is both incredibly important to Freud’s understanding of human personality and the human condition, and also unavoidably, ungetoverably speculative. Make of that what you will. I find it persuasive, since it fits with and confirms so many things I know from observation or personal experience about what it is to be a human being, but obviously that is a subjective response, and you are free to construe what follows as nonsense.] On the one hand, it is painful and deeply disappointing to the baby to conjure up the fantasized image of the breast and have it fail to provide the pleasurable sensations that the baby expects. On the other hand, it is enormously empowering for the baby to learn that it can, by crying, in effect command the satisfaction of its desires.

Now, think about this for a moment, and stay with me even if, at first, you find what I am saying wildly implausible. All of us have deeply rooted fantasies of omnipotence, of being able to command the world to be what we want it to be merely by imagining what we want it to be. That, after all, is our central conception of God. “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” [Genesis, Chapter 1, verse 3.] “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and Word was God.” [John, Chapter 1, verse 1]. This is what it is to be God. Say it, and it is. Indeed, think it, and it is. According to Spinoza, in the Ethics, everything that is in the mind of God exists, for to God, to conceive of a thing and to create it are one and the same. [That is what intellectual intuition is.] This frustrated wish, resulting from the failure of the mere image to produce the desired satisfaction, lies at the root of all the transformations, sublimations, and elaborations of the fantasy of omnipotence that generate religion, and also, at least in part, great art.

The flip side of the disappointment is the acquisition of genuine power, the ability to make the world give you what you want. As time goes on, the baby develops a more and more complex understanding of the limits and extent of its body, together with a richer, more useful, more nuanced grasp of its powers. The baby develops the physical ability to grasp objects, even to put them [along with its thumb, of course] in its mouth. [For my younger readers, who have not yet embarked on the great adventure of parenthood, this is called “finding the thumb,” and it is a big step forward in the development of the tiny infant.]

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