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Silverman, D.K. (1998). The Relevance of Infant Observation. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 46(1):265-270.

(1998). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 46(1):265-270

The Relevance of Infant Observation

Doris K. Silverman

I wish to express my appreciation to the editors of JAPA, who have reinvigorated the Journal with interesting and controversial ideas. Peter Wolff's target paper, “The Irrelevance of Infant Research for Psychoanalysis” (JAPA 44/2) is clearly in this category. It can lead only to greater refinement in the empirical arena and thus ultimately inform psychoanalytic views.

Wolff highlights a number of important defects in certain theoretical ideas derived from infant research. For instance, he notes, analytic thinkers are too ready to make quick leaps from research data about infants to the clinical setting (for a similar critique, see Silverman 1995). Some of the commentaries argue that Wolff's definition of psychoanalysis precludes the relevance of infant research, an assessment with which Wolff concurs. Nevertheless, Wolff bolsters his position on the irrelevance of such research by raising and pursuing the issue of discontinuity in development. He maintains that discontinuity is a key feature in development and that anticipating that features of infant behavior will be retained in the same manner over time does not make sense.

Discontinuity in development is difficult to grasp. Sameroff (1976) suggested that the “continuity hypothesis” may be based on our view of physical development. Because there is no apparent metamorphosis in humans, development appears to be continuous. However, Sameroff argued that even our physical development is not continuous, and Emde, Gaenbauer, and Harmon (1976) have shown that neurological and neuroanatomical studies of brain development from birth on support a discontinuity hypothesis. It seems, therefore, that it makes good sense to think along similar lines for most developmental processes. In fact, summarizing the infant research available through the seventies, I noted (Silverman 1981) that “developmental researchers [who] sought to find variables from infancy that predicted later behavior … met with little success. When the first year of life was studied, hardly a variable had demonstrable predictive power. Such behaviors as degree of activity, responsiveness, irritability, amount of smiling or crying, developmental quotients, attention to events, various motor achievements (e.g., age of sitting, walking, or talking) … [did not] predict later functioning” (p. 62).

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