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Dowling, S. (1981). From the Literature on Neonatology. Psychoanal Q., 50:290-295.
Psychoanalytic Electronic Publishing: From the Literature on Neonatology

(1981). Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 50:290-295

From the Literature on Neonatology

Scott Dowling, M.D.

It is no longer news that William James was wrong; the neonate is not "a buzzing, blooming confusion." Neither is it true that early infancy is a time of walled-off autistic functioning with only occasional forays into contact with the environment. Beginning with Peter Wolff's (1959), (1966) discoveries regarding infant states and their relationship to infant functioning, each passing year has extended our knowledge of infant capacities and their adaptive significance. The neonate (birth to two months) is now known to be an organized and organizing being, not only responsive to inner rhythms and needs, but also initiating and participating in a perceptual and motoric dialogue with the outer world of things and people. This is not to suggest that we have found infants to be "mature" or that they possess a form of psychological organization which would be familiar to us from child or adult functioning. At best, we know only the lineaments of that organization, but what we know is sufficient to say confidently that its qualitative richness and adaptive value, especially in eliciting attachment responses, far exceeds the presumptions of past theories. In this commentary I will discuss two of the more recent findings which confound traditional views of the infant; they are the related demonstrations of neonatal "imitation" and intermodal matching.

In 1953, René Zazzo, Director of the Laboratory of Infant Psychobiology, Institute des Hautes Études, Paris, stated:

The origins of imitation are still rather mysterious. Eight years ago I observed a fact which I consider almost inexplicable. I noticed in my son, who was then twenty days old, the imitation of putting out the tongue. At first I thought it was a mistake, that it was I who had imitated the child and not the child who had imitated me. I tried this experiment again several times. I took a film of it and later I was able to examine six infants in whom this imitation also appeared between the twentieth and thirtieth day, then disappeared, and reappeared at the age of about three months (Tanner and Inhelder, 1956p. 72).

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This phenomenon is easily replicated by anyone with a few minutes to spare and access to young infants. The infant, while in an alert, inactive state, watches intently as the adult's tongue is protruded. After a few repetitions, many infants will hesitate, then unequivocally repeat the tongue-protrusion gesture. Other mouth or facial gestures do not elicit tongue protrusion.

As with many observations which contradict current scientific wisdom, the significance of Zazzo's observation was not recognized. Credit for bringing this phenomenon to the attention of the scientific community through carefully designed experiments belongs to two psychologists, Andrew Meltzoff and Keith Moore, of Oxford University and the University of Washington respectively, who reported their findings in Science (1977). Their technique was carefully designed to reduce the likelihood of examiner bias. Further, unlike Zazzo's baby, the infants in the Meltzoff-Moore study had to delay their imitation until after the gesture to be imitated had vanished from the perceptual field.

The subjects were 12 infants ranging in age from 16-21 days… They were shown both a mouth-opening and a tongue-protrusion gesture in a repeated-measures design, counterbalanced for order of presentation… Testing began with the insertion of a pacifier into the infant's mouth. Infants were allowed to suck on it for 30 seconds while the experimenter presented a passive face. The pacifier was then removed, and a 150-second baseline period was timed. After the baseline period, the pacifier was reinserted into the infant's mouth, and the first gesture was demonstrated until the experimenter judged that the infant had watched it for 15 seconds. The experimenter then stopped gesturing, resumed a passive face, and only then removed the pacifier. A 150-second response period, during which the experimenter maintained his passive face, was clocked. Immediately thereafter the pacifier was reinserted, and the second gesture was presented in an identical manner… The results demonstrate that neonates imitate both tongue protrusion and mouth opening. As assessed by Wilcoxon matched-pairs signed-ranks tests, significantly more tongue-protrusion responses occurred after that gesture had been presented than during the baseline period (P < .005) or after the mouth-opening gesture (P < .005). Similarly, there were significantly more mouth-opening responses after that gesture had been demonstrated than during the baseline period (P < .05) or after the tongue-protrusion gesture (P < .05) (Meltzoff and Moore, 1977, p. 77).

Previously untrained infants, presented with a visual image, retain a representation of that image; they then repeat the action. In repeating the action they are utilizing parts of their bodies (mouth and tongue) which they have never seen and which they would have

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little or no experiential basis for equating with similar body parts of the examiner. They successfully differentiate mouth opening from tongue protrusion.

A general finding of much of the research on neonates is the discovery of congenital mechanisms of preferential response to elements of the environment. Infants prefer to look at configurations representing the human face (Fantz, 1963); they are especially soothed into an alert inactive state by the vestibular sensation of being held at the shoulder (Korner and Thoman, 1970); they respond preferentially to human speech (Eimas, 1971). Macfarlane (1975) finds that six-day-old infants can make an olfactory distinction between their own mother's and another mother's breast pad. The timing and possibly the form of motor responses are also highly differentiated; Condon and Sander's (1974) demonstration of infant movements which follow precisely the syllabification of the human voice is an exceptional example.

It now appears that "imitation" is also a congenital capacity. I use quotation marks here as elsewhere in this commentary to avoid any suggestion that we should equate neonatal "imitation" with imitative behavior of older infants. Zazzo remarks on the discontinuity of neonatal tongue protrusion and the tongue protrusion which can be elicited at three months through a learning process. And this "three-month imitation" must, in turn, be differentiated from the imitation that we, as analysts, know best: that which is based on processes of identification with an external object. Piaget (1945), while he did not recognize the neonatal "imitation," provides a brilliant discussion of the origin of what I have called "three-month imitation" (he terms it "pseudoimitation") and imitation proper (based on processes of identification).

Granting the differences between these various types of repetition of the behavior of an external object, we are nevertheless led to the astonishing conclusion that there is a type of imitation which is a congenital capacity and which is therefore not founded on experience following birth. What mechanisms might we invoke to explain this phenomenon? Two explanations have been suggested.

Neonatal "imitation" may be based on an innate releasing mechanism as described by Lorenz (see Tanner and Inhelder, 1956, pp. 108-131). Meltzoff and Moore (1977p. 77); (1979pp. 217-219) reject this interpretation; Masters (1979p. 215) and Jacobson and Kagan

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(1979pp. 215-217) support it. This explanation views the tongue protrusion and mouth opening of the infant as genetically determined, fixed-action patterns released by specific sign stimuli, much like beak gaping in a young bird in response to the visual stimulus of its mother's facial coloration.

Meltzoff and Moore suggest that neonatal "imitation" is based on congenital intermodal matching, another newly postulated capacity of the neonate. Intermodal matching refers to the capacity to know that two identical objects are similar even when they are perceived through different sensory modalities, such as touch and vision. The familiar view is that sense modalities develop independently of one another and that simultaneous experiencing with separate modalities is required for their coordination or intermodal matching. Eye-hand coordination, with recognition that "the object seen" is the same as "the object touched," is a frequently mentioned example in the first year of life.

Meltzoff and Borton (1979) have recently published the first clearcut example of this phenomenon in neonates; like the "imitation" described above, it concerns the use of the infant's most exquisitely developed and coordinated contact organ, the mouth. In an experimental technique that is meticulous in its effort to reduce examiner bias, the experimenters placed either a round, smooth pacifier or a round pacifier with eight 2 × 3 mm. nubs on its surface in each infant's mouth. The 32 infants (26-33 days old) did not see the pacifiers and had no previous experience with either shape. After 90 seconds in the infant's mouth, the pacifier was removed, and the infant was presented with a round and a "nubby" pacifier for visual inspection. The infants looked preferentially at the pacifier with the same shape as the one they had explored with their mouths (P < .01). The authors state: "We demonstrate that 29-day-old infants can recognise which of two visually perceived shapes matches one they previously explored tactually …" (p. 403).

"Imitation" may be an expression of a similar equivalence, a "supramodal" equivalence of the tactual-propioceptive components of the motor experience of tongue protrusion or mouth opening with the visually perceived gesture.

Emde and Robinson (1979) have summarized much of the available data concerning the special characteristics of the neonate (birth to two months) and suggest that we recognize this time period as

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behaviorally and psychologically unique. A wealth of studies present us with the likelihood of a unique pre-ego psychic organization—active, coordinating, differentiating (e.g., mouth opening versus tongue protrusion), generalizing (intermodal perception), and, above all, adaptive in fortifying attachment responses by the infant's caretaker.

There is nothing in these findings to suggest any contradiction of our postulates of primary narcissism (absence of self- or object representations) or of nondifferentiation of the ego in the neonate. Neither does the significance of these findings reside in the behavioral statement that capacities formerly thought to be found exclusively in older infants are demonstrably present in neonates. Their significance resides in the discovery of a pre-ego organization with unique and unforeseen characteristics. We may note that many of these skills are soon lost unless supported by drive impulsion and unless strongly nourished by experiential aliment, just as the well-known but equally astonishing sucking skills of the neonate are soon lost unless supported by the drive impulse of need and provided with the "nourishment" of use. Zazzo remarks on the cessation of neonatal "imitation" after two months and on the re-establishment of learned imitation at three months. What is lost from the early level of psychic organization is gradually reacquired within the framework of the new psychic organization, now with the participation of early, partial ego functions.

These studies are psychoanalytic only if we retain Hartmann's vision of psychoanalysis as a general psychology. They have no immediate or foreseeable application to our practice. Their significance for our theory is uncertain. However, they do remind us that the ontogenesis of the human psyche remains a fresh and fertile field for study and discovery. And who would be rash enough to proclaim that basic research such as this may not some day add a small but important piece to a more adequate psychoanalytic conceptualization of human psychological functioning?


CONDON, W. S. & SANDER, L. W. 1974 Neonate movement is synchronized with adult speech: interactional participation and language acquisition Science 183 99-101

EIMAS, P. D., et al. 1971 Speech perception in infants Science 170 303-306

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EMDE, R. N. & ROBINSON, J. 1979 The first two months: recent research in developmental psychobiology and the changing view of the newborn In Basic Handbook of Child Psychiatry Vol. 1 ed. J. D. Noshpitz. New York: Basic Books, pp. 72-105

FANTZ, R. L. 1963 Pattern vision in newborn infants Science 140 296-297

JACOBSON, S. W. & KAGAN, J. 1979 Interpreting "imitative" responses in early infancy Science 205 215-217

KORNER, A. F. & THOMAN, E. B. 1970 Visual alertness in neonates as evoked by maternal care J. Exper. Child Psychol. 10 67-78

MACFARLANE, A. 1975 Olfaction in the development of social preference in the human neonate In Parent Infant Interaction A Ciba Foundation 33 (New Series). New York: Elsevier, pp. 103-117

MASTERS, J. C. 1979 Interpreting "imitative" responses in early infancy Science 205 215

MELTZOFF, A. N. & BORTON, R. W. 1979 Intermodal matching by human neonates Nature 282 403-404

MELTZOFF, A. N. & MOORE, M. K. 1977 Imitation of facial and manual gestures by human neonates Science 198 75-78

MELTZOFF, A. N. & MOORE, M. K. 1979 Interpreting "imitative" responses in early infancy Science 205 217-219

PIAGET, J. 1945 Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood New York: Norton, 1962

TANNER, J. M. & INHELDER, B., Eds. 1956 Discussions on Child Development. A Consideration of the Biological, Psychological, and Cultural Approaches to the Understanding of Human Development and Behavior Vol. 1 (The Proceedings of the First Meeting of the World Health Organization Study Group on the Psychobiological Development of the Child, Geneva, 1953). New York: Int. Univ. Press.

WOLFF, P. H. 1959 Observations on newborn infants Psychosomat. Med. 21 110-118

WOLFF, P. H. 1966 The Causes, Controls, and Organization of Behavior in the Neonate. Psychol. Issues Monogr.17 New York: Int. Univ. Press.

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Article Citation [Who Cited This?]

Dowling, S. (1981). From the Literature on Neonatology. Psychoanal. Q., 50:290-295

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