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Demos, E.V. (1982). Affect in Early Infancy: Physiology or Psychology?. Psychoanal. Inq., 1(4):533-574.

(1982). Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 1(4):533-574

Affect in Early Infancy: Physiology or Psychology?

E. Virginia Demos, Ed.D.

Summary and Conclusion

We posed at the beginning of this inquiry the question of when it is reasonable to speak of meaningful affective experience in infancy. We reviewed various approaches to the study of affect in infancy, and the current views of the possible functions of affect. We suggested broadening those conceptions to include not only a communicative social function, but also a motivational function that was central in priming the infant to respond to the environment in qualitatively distinct ways. When we turned to the issue of measurement, we had to conclude that one's definition of affect determined the choice of measures used, and that, relatively speaking, we have very little systematic data on affective expressions in early infancy. Wolff's data represent the exception that proves the rule, and after summarizing his findings in detail we concluded that the phenomena were far more complex than is generally assumed, and that the changes that occurred could not be accounted for by maturational factors alone or by simple reinforcement learning concepts. We then confronted the issue of cognition and affect. We explored the modern versions of the James-Lange theory and concluded that while this view might accurately represent a specific case it could not stand as a general theory of affect. Arnold's theory of the necessity for an intuitive cognitive appraisal was then explored, and we concluded that when applied to infant affect, the theory had trouble accounting for noncognitively generated affective expressions and relegated them to a precursor status. This seemed less satisfactory if the age for cognitively evoked affect is lowered to include phenomena in the second week of life, since “precursors” and “true emotions” would both be occurring during the same time period. Tomkins's theory was seen as the only alternative formulation that could deal with infant affect more parsimoniously by postulating a single mechanism that could encompass both physiologically and cognitively or psychologically evoked affect. The theory stresses the autonomy of the affect system as well as its complex interrelatedness with the cognitive and drive systems of the personality, and argues for a qualitative continuity in affective experience from the beginning of life.

The answer to our original question, then, depends on which theory one prefers, since at this point in time we do not have a sufficient body of relevant systematic data that would enable us to rule out either major alternative decisively. This author finds the existing data more congruent with Tomkins's model, since terms such as “precursors” are not adequate to account for known phenomena and there is no model for understanding the transition from “precursor” to “true emotional experience” and the nature of the continuity. Indeed, one of the difficulties in understanding infancy data is the absence of a well-articulated model of development. We saw in the criticisms of Tomkins's theory a tendency to overemphasize the cognitive, learning factors and to caricature the biological substrate as rigid. We need a developmental model which will get us out of the old nature-nurture problem, and which can account for flexible biological givens in dynamic transactions with an environment. Such a model might also help us understand how developmental changes that appear to be gradual and continuous at close range can, at slightly longer time intervals, look more like qualitative shifts. Several researchers have recently advocated a view of the neonate as a complex, organized system, and have spoken of the need for a theory and methodology that will allow us to focus on simultaneous processes as opposed to sequential, linear causation, and to see the continuity in an ever-changing organizational system (Sander, 1975, 1980; Stern, 1980; Stechler, 1981). Bower (1974), for example, has suggested that with increasing age behavior changes less and less, while the complexity of its control processes increases more and more. As such a model is developed, early affective behavior will acquire the significance as an organizing factor of experience that I believe it deserves.

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