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Mittelmann, B. (1954). Motility in Infants, Children, and Adults—Patterning and Psychodynamics. Psychoanal. St. Child, 9:142-177.

(1954). Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 9:142-177

Motility in Infants, Children, and Adults—Patterning and Psychodynamics

Bela Mittelmann, M.D.


1. There is a motor urge ("drive") in the same sense as there are oral, etc., urges ("drives"). This urge is present at all age periods but is the dominant urge at the beginning of the second year of life and remains dominant for several years.

2. The period of most rapid development of motor functions (posture, locomotion, manipulation) coincides with dominance of the motor urge. In this sense we may speak of a motor phase of ego and libido development (organization).

3. During this period, motility is the dominant, or one of the dominant, means of reality testing and of integration. The period is further characterized psychologically by imitative (motor) identification and increase in evaluation of the self (self-asertion, self-esteem), independence, aggression, fear of motor retribution, and readiness for self-injury in guilt or rejection.

4. Motility, while an urge in its own right, is also significantly connected with nearly every other motivational striving, both of physiological (oral, excretory, genital) and more general emotional nature (love, dependency, etc.), and particularly self-preservation.

5. The attempt at new motor performances is often attended by frustration

and perplexity and, particularly in connection with locomotion, by anxiety (fear of uncontrolled falling); adequate solution of the motor problem is attended by joy and leads to repetition. The adult's support of the child in his anxiety and his participation in his joy lead to a positive circular interpersonal reaction. On the other hand, the young child's clashes with the environment (parents, siblings, and surrogates) frequently center around the child's motor activity and lead to the first flare-up of complementary neurotic reactions. Thus there is a reciprocal relationship between the motor activity of the organism and its environment on the interpersonal as well as on the inanimate object level. In connection with the latter, the objects impose their qualities on motility in the process of reality testing.

6. During the first year of life, the motor patterns during emotional reactions are often generalized and rhythmic, and show developmental and individual alterations. At later age periods, in acute situations of stress or under pathological conditions there may be a revival of (regression to) earlier generalized motor patterns. The same is true in regard to vigorous patterns of (autoerotic) activity, e.g., rocking. Institutionalized infants and blind infants and children show a strong tendency toward continually recurrent rhythmic motor patterns.

7. Sustained restriction of motility during the motor phase of development may lead to severe anxiety reactions and later to compensatory overactivity. Acute anxiety from other sources may lead to increase in motor activity, e.g., running for safety, or to inactivation or failure of motor function. Infantile depression may lead to hypotonia, retardation, and waxy flexibility as seen in adult schizophrenics. In sustained conflict situations, motor behavior may show the phenomena of compromise formation, substitution, reaction formation, and of alternate doing and undoing. The playful use of motility may serve the purpose of conciliation following aggression or of mastering anxiety. In all individuals, healthy or sick, motility plays a significant psychodynamic role as revealed in their observable motor behavior, in their past history, and in their dreams.

8. The anxious behavior of the mobile infant is the prototype of later agoraphobic behavior. The motor aspect of hysterical identification may find its prototype in imitative identification. The anxious or excretory behavior of some children, with incomplete consciousness during the night and amnesia for the incident next morning, may be the prototype of adolescent or adult somnambulism. The compulsive neurotic's repetitiveness, as well as his tendency to solve conflicts through motor activity, the acting out of many psychopaths, and the psychomotor excitement of

manics show parallels with the motor phase of infantile development. The motor manifestations of some schizophrenics show a revival of infantile motor patterns, symbolic action, and a motor expression of the tendency to withdraw from the world. In terms of the psychoanalytic genetic theory, the syndromes mentioned contain varying degrees of fixation at or regression to the motor level of development as part of total reactions of defense, compensatory devices and substitute gratification.

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