Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Friday, May 15, 2009

Humans and animals: "Free will", or not?

An intriguing statement appeared in the journal Science a few days ago. Writing about the way humans experience the decision to move and act, Patrick Haggard said the following: "Every day we make actions that seem to depend on our 'free will' rather than on any obvious external stimulus. This capacity not only differentiates humans from other animals, but also gives us the clear sense of controlling our bodies and our lives" (p. 731).

It is difficult to know whether this remarkable statement was or was not intended to be provocative, but it raises many questions.

Certainly human beings have a sense of free will, and many of them will fight fiercely to maintain that they have not only the sense of free will, but free will itself. The achievement of a feeling of autonomy is one of the great motivating forces of several stages of human development, and the feeling of being controlled is one that is often associated with anxiety and shame at an existential level, as if loss of control is equivalent to loss of being. In addition, some religious traditions stress the role of free will for human beings, who in order to achieve salvation must make conscious decisions to love God, obey commandments, submit to authority, and so on. For persons committed to such traditions, the absence of free will implies a universe without meaning or pattern, in which salvation is granted in an arbitrary way like that proposed by Calvin.

When free will is perceived as related to religious belief and to the ultimate fate of souls, animals are generally seen as lacking in both souls and free will-- even in all conscious experience, as the Jansenist system claimed. Thinkers with this perspective equate a soul (the part of personality they consider to survive the death of the body) to be the same as a mind, and therefore to be necessary for experiencing any events, internal or external to the person. If a dog had conscious experience or free will, they argue, it would have a soul, and its soul would have the same potential fates of salvation or damnation as a human being, which would not be an acceptable idea.

It is not clear whether Haggard wants to say that humans are different from animals in that they feel they have free will-- their actions "seem to depend on our 'free will'-- or are different because they actually do have free will. The latter question goes far beyond what scientific evidence can answer and involves the differences between natural and supernatural events. The former question is not as profound, but is not answerable by any methods we presently have. How could we know whether a cat or dog or camel thinks it has free will? Given that human beings who have not given the issue much thought generally believe that they have free will, it seems likely that animals, insofar as they are even capable of posing the question, would also believe this.

Until we can teach an animal to communicate in symbols we can understand, we won't know the answer to the question of animal beliefs or experiences. But if an animal did learn complex communication-- would what they told us also be true of the experiences of non-talking animals? No wonder we tend to pay more attention to brain functions than to the really difficult topics!



Haggard, P. (2009). The sources of human volition. Science, 324, 731-733.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Eye contact? Part 2

"Eye contact", or prolonged mutual gaze, is something adults do when they want to communicate some emotional information. They may stare in order to try to intimidate another person, who looks back in resistance or drops her eyes in submissive response. They may gaze in order to flirt with an attractive companion, who may avoid the gaze, make repeated brief eye contact in a coy way, and perhaps finally permit a long mutual gaze as he or she acknowledges interest. Strangers who want to play with a baby they meet in public may keep on trying to catch the baby's gaze-- but for babies of 8-10 months old or older, this action is alarming, and the more the stranger tries, the more the baby avoids the look or even begins to cry. Lovers walking toward each other in public maintain their mutual gaze, and so do parents and toddlers as they approach each other, but acquaintances only glance at each other periodically, and even when standing together and talking will make and break eye contact frequently.

So, eye contact indicates the nature of a relationship or of the attitude of one person toward another. But, does eye contact actually cause the relationship, as would be suggested by popular beliefs about parents gazing into babies' eyes? Is the attachment of a toddler to a parent based on past experience of eye contact?

When several factors seem to work together, or have mutual effects on each other, it's quite hard to tell which cause determines which outcome. This is especially true when we can only look at natural events rather than doing experimentation. Sometimes, fortunately, natural events provide us with some information that can rule out an explanation.

Considering the connection between eye contact and attachment, it turns out that we do have some natural events that tell us that eye contact is at most one of several causes of attachment. There are some babies for whom a typical experience of eye contact is not possible. There are babies who are born blind or who lose their vision very early in life, and there are sighted babies who have blind parents. In either case, the baby and its parents did not spend time making "eye contact", although up to a few months of age a blind baby may appear to be doing so. Nevertheless, blind babies do develop attachment to their parents, provided they have opportunities for consistent caregiving experiences and social interactions like vocalization or mutual touch.

The fact of attachment without the opportunity for eye contact suggests that the cause and effect connection may be the other way around: that is, toddlers make eye contact with their parents because they are attached to them, not vice-versa.

What about autism? One of the most common ideas about autistic children is that they avoid eye contact and therefore fail to learn the ways of emotional communication which typical humans use with each other. It does seem to be the case that autistic toddlers don't show the "joint attention" behavior of shifting the gaze from someone's eyes to an interesting object and back again, nor do they use eye contact to try to get an adult to do something for them. A typically-developing toddler who wants help to open a container will make eye contact with an adult and hold the container out to the person; an autistic toddler does not gaze at the adult's eyes, but reaches for the person's hand and tries to put it on the container. However, recent research suggests that autistic children can actually pay attention to things they are not apparently "looking at", so questions about their gaze may need a lot more work.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Eye contact with babies-- how important is it?

People have believed for centuries that the human gaze had remarkable powers. In the distant past, most people thought that rays came out of the eyes and explored the world, carrying information about objects back to the brain. (Some still believe this-- even college freshmen.)

One of the important abilities attributed to gazing involved the mutual gaze, or "eye contact", where two people look into each other's eyes and feel as if they are communicating powerful emotions. "Eye contact" is often said to play a critical role in interactions between adults and babies, and even to help create emotional attachment in early life. A related idea is that breastfeeding mothers and babies gaze intently into each other's eyes and thus establish an emotional connection.

Let's examine some of these ideas. Do babies see well when very young, and do they spend time in mutual gaze with their caregivers?

Newborn babies have vision, but it still has to develop for quite a while before it's as good as an older child's. Newborns (infants in the first month of life) can only see clearly at certain limited distances. They are well adapted to looking at a face from about 10-18 inches from their eyes, which would be a typical distance if an adult held the baby in his or her arms. Babies are more interested in some things they can look at than in others. They like things that are shiny, that move around, and that have patterns rather than just a blank surface. Of course, this set of characteristics describes human eyes-- they are moist and reflect light, they move as we examine something we're looking at, and they have white, colored, and dark parts, as well as eyelashes and lids that move. So, babies with normal vision do look at eyes when they get a chance. What this means to the baby, we can't tell, but it is very exciting and gratifying for the adult when "eye contact" is made.

A curious thing about young babies' eye contact is that blind babies do it too. How? They listen to the adult voice, then move their gaze so they are "looking" in the right direction. It appears to the adult that the baby is looking at him or her, and the adult may not even realize that the baby can't see.

What about the breastfeeding baby? Does he or she gaze into the mother's eyes while nursing? Actually, no; young babies, especially, usually squeeze their eyes tight shut while they nurse. In any case, because the baby has to turn its face toward the breast to take the nipple, it would have to work hard to be able to look up at the face at the same time. Older babies (8 months or so) may have figured out how to hold the nipple in their mouths while turning to look up at the mother or at someone else in the room, and they may let go the nipple and play or babble to the mother for a little while before nursing again. But an intense mutual gaze during breastfeeding is pretty infrequent. (And remember, breastfeeding mothers are not necessarily gazing at the infant. They may be eating, drinking, talking on the phone, or reading to an older child.)

As babies get a few months older, they can see better, and they also begin to use their eyes in a way that gives signals to an adult. For example, suppose you are playing with a baby and the baby gets tired, or maybe you have just come on a little too strong and been too stimulating. The baby turns the gaze away from your face, gets quiet for a moment, and just withdraws to have a little rest. The averted gaze works to tell a sensitive adult that the baby needs to back off for a bit. Then, rested up, the baby looks back at your eyes, smiles, and shows readiness to play some more. This slightly older baby gazes at the adult sometimes, but has the mature capacity to be able to stop looking. A baby who gazed at its caregiver's eyes a great deal of the time would not be showing the level of development we would expect by 3-6 months of age.

In the second half of the first year, babies begin to show a new use of the gaze for communication. They develop the ability for an important skill called "joint attention." The baby sees something interesting like puppies playing-- watches intently-- then turns to "catch the eye" of an adult, and looks back at the puppies again. Babies will do this several times until they get the adult to look at the puppies. Just like an adult, the older baby can use the gaze to point, as a pointing finger would be used. Also like an adult, the older baby wants to share the fun with a loved person, and wants to look at the puppies together with someone else. At the end of the sequence, the two look at each other and smile. (Notice that the baby does not do this in order to get the adult to do anything other than share the interesting sight. This is not a way to get fed, or picked up, or even carried over to see the puppies.) Again, mutual gaze or "eye contact" is only a part of the communication the adult and baby carry out with their eyes.

*** Readers, if you have found this post in your search for current material about eye contact and autism, please look at my post for Nov. 7, 2013,which discusses the Nature article by Warren Jones and Ami Klin.