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Spitz, R.A. (1964). The Derailment of Dialogue—Stimulus Overload, Action Cycles, and the Completion Gradient. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 12:752-775.

(1964). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 12:752-775

The Derailment of Dialogue—Stimulus Overload, Action Cycles, and the Completion Gradient

René A. Spitz, M.D.


Systematic inquiries into the origin of certain emotional disturbances of infants show that consistent maternal care is vital for the child's normal physical, psychic, and social development, indeed, for his survival. The most elementary precondition for consistent maternal care is the physical presence of the mother or her substitute.

It has, however, become increasingly apparent that children's development can also be stunted, and that they suffer damage of varying extent by the attention of, and close contact with, a mother

who dispenses what seems to be the "wrong kind of mothering."

A model of the mother-baby interaction is proposed to explicate the dynamics of the "wrong kind of mothering" and its consequences: my proposition is that the mutual exchanges between mother and baby consist in a give and take of action and reaction between the two partners, which requires from each of them both active and passive responses. These responses form series and chains, the single links of which consist in what I call "action cycles, " each completed in itself and at the same time anticipating the next link. I designated these seriated response exchanges as the "precursor of dialogue, " as a primal dialogue.

The dialogue acts as a vector of the baby's development, influencing its direction and stimulating it to adaptive efforts and psychic growth. It follows that inappropriate mothering (quantitatively as well as qualitatively) results in what is referred to at this time as the "derailment" of the primal dialogue.

Controlled experiments with animals, findings of experimental psychology, and, lastly, clinical findings illustrate the mechanics of the derailed dialogue and its sequelae.

In the cases under review a surfeit of stimulation, a psychic overloading, resulted in the derailment of dialogue. Overloading prevents its subject from completing actions or responses initiated by him. Long-lasting overload results in the cumulation of "incompleted action cycles." The sequelae of this cumulation are profound changes in the behavior of the individual. These changes are manifested in a departure from the norms of individual and social behavior patterns that are maladaptive for the individual and asyntonic with his society, that is, asocial.

The derailment of the dialogue is triggered, perhaps even caused, by the nature of the social setting. One setting, overpopulation, is extensively discussed in connection with an animal experiment, and the implications for the human community are examined.

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