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Burlingham, D. (1964). Hearing and its Role in the Development of the Blind. Psychoanal. St. Child, 19:95-112.
(1964). Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 19:95-112
Aspects of Normal and Pathological Development
Hearing and its Role in the Development of the Blind
The mother who can respond only as far as her own perceptual world allows has little conception of what a blind child can do and experience. She does not encourage where it would be necessary, and expects too little in the directions where he functions well. To interrupt
a blind child's apparent passivity may mean interrupting an active achivement, namely, listening. The continual shaking of noisy toys and the endless play of the wireless are not what the infant needs. Curiosity is most likely alive, but remains unnoticed. Since it is not shared with the mother, it does not lead further but results in repetitive actions, rhythmic movements (blindisms), or in boredom, at best in a lonely experience. All this leads to a slowing down of development in certain spheres; in the most favorable cases what we find is uneven and unharmonious development.
There are a few articles and papers that I would like to mention, because I have found them stimulating and helpful while working on this paper.
First, in an article on "Visual Behavior of Newborn Infants," George W. Greenman (1963) notes that body movements cease when the infant is attentive (looking); that one of the earliest ways in which an infant can communicate with his mother is by looking at her; that it serves the infant "psychologically by giving more pleasure to the nurturing person and thus increases the quality and frequency of his stimulation." As an important help in diagnosis, Greenman suggests that lack of visual response in the newborn would show that something is wrong with the child, not necessarily sight.
In 1953, Peter Hobart Knapp published an article on "The Ear, Listening and Hearing." Although this paper has nothing to do with blindness, Knapp remarks on the little attention given to the ear. After a discussion on the ear as a substitute for the genital, he goes to functions of the ear: that hearing is largely unnoticed but is emotionally charged; that the ear has a remarkable capacity to pick out sound patterns against chaotic background noise; that the "act of listening … contributes to superego and ego functions and to instinctual gratification. It remains subordinate to the main sensory representative of reality, vision, but extends its bounds." He stresses that auditory stimuli come in constant flow; that the sense of hearing is acute and selective; and he mentions the ability not to listen so as to prevent being overwhelmed by noise.
In an article on the deaf, Robert L. Sheroff (1959) mentions the
lack of information concerning either the normal or pathological development of the deaf child in the psychiatric literature. This paper contains a plea to allow mothers to communicate with their deaf children by means of signs, a communication which is prohibited by some schools for the deaf so as to force the children to speak. Sharoff contends that the child's development is retarded in consequence because of lack of communication between mother and child. He also quotes from Ruesch and Kees (1956) who write concerning a hearing child. "In the first year of life expression necessarily must occur through non-verbal means. The child literally speaks with his whole body … An impoverishment of communication and characterdevelopment can be observed in those children, who grow up in surroundings, where the verbal was emphasized too early and when messages expressed in non-verbal terms were left unanswered."
In 1961, Evelyn Omwake and Albert J. Solnit presented a detailed report of the treatment of a blind child. In a discussion of this paper, George S. Klein (1962) makes the following points: that blindness isolates the child from his environment and makes for a drastic reduction in opportunities for manipulation and stimulation; "that unless certain forms of stimulation-with-learning take place at certain as yet unknown critical periods of a child's life, it is likely that very intractable consequences for adulthood will result"; that the child has a great need of loving behavior from the mother to give him affective experience.
From what I have extracted from these papers it is clear that many people are occupied with the same problems that I have discussed here and have come to the same conclusions; they also stress the same need for more information about the first years of life of both the deaf and blind.
I would like to mention one more paper which has a bearing on the handling of blind children and seems to me important because of the ideas contained in it. This paper, "Education as Related to Perceptual Experience: Normal Developmental Learning and the Education of the Child Born Blind" (1962) by Warren M. Brodey, was written primarily for the purpose of interesting people in the Pilot School for Blind Children in Washington. The effort in this school seems to be not only to stimulate the potential sensory ability of each blind child but to try and help the teachers as well as the
mothers to become aware of what blindness really means, that is, to experience blindness as far as it is possible for a seeing person. Brodey suggests, for example, that the teachers should spend several of the school hours blindfolded and try in this way to identify with the blind. Of course it is impossible for a seeing person to go very far in actually experiencing blindness, but the attempt to do it adds a faint knowledge of some of the sense experiences and concepts of the blind, the importance of listening, the difficulties the blind child meets daily, and the skill and cleverness he needs to assemble, coordinate, and use the information collected by the other senses.
This, to my mind, is an idea well worth following. If by this means more detailed information is gathered concerning the inner life of the blind, better communication between mother and child can be established from early on and the blind child's isolation can be lessened.
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