Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

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

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Symbiosis, Intersubjectivity, and Early Relationships

When people concerned about adoption discuss relationships between babies and mothers, they sometimes refer to a period of symbiosis, in which the identities or “selves” of mother and child are somehow fused, so the baby cannot tell the self from the mother effectively. As I’ve pointed out before, this idea is derived from the work of Margaret Mahler and other psychoanalytically-oriented thinkers, who considered this symbiotic period to last from about the second month to the seventh month or so. It’s important to note that Mahler herself did not think the symbiotic period included the first weeks of life or that the events of that period would have any effect on babies who were separated early from their birth mothers and adopted into different families.

Daniel Stern, in The Interpersonal World of the Infant, refers to symbiosis and discusses the concept in detail, but points out that modern research on early development has revealed a number of phenomena that contradict the possibility of early symbiosis as “fusion”. I want to review a number of facts that suggest that babies have an early concept of “self” versus “other” that makes a sense of fusion unlikely for the baby (although mothers may feel that their “selves” include their babies). This sense has been referred to as “primary intersubjectivity”.

One thing that suggests that young babies already “know” (or act as if they know) the difference between the self and another is that shortly after birth they will imitate the facial expressions of others, opening their mouths, even sticking out their tongues (Meltzoff, A., & Moore, A. [1989]. Imitation in newborn infants: Exploring the range of gestures imitated and the underlying mechanisms. Developmental Psychology, 25, 954-962). It is difficult to imagine that a baby would imitate itself (which brings to mind some infinite progression of mirrors), so the great majority of developmental psychologists today would interpret imitation as some primitive awareness that there are other people “out there”. Incidentally, this newborn imitation is not confined to the mother’s facial expressions as we might expect if the birth mother already had overwhelming importance for the infant.

Another point contradicting the possibility of “fusion” and symbiosis is the infant’s response to the so-called “still-face” situation. In this situation, an adult (the mother or someone else) faces a baby, but does not make eye contact and maintains a blank and unresponsive demeanor (this is not easy to do when the baby is signaling that it wants attention, by the way). From a few months of age, babies are distressed by this and become disorganized in their behavior, whimpering, averting the gaze, looking at their hands, even hiccupping. Babies who are in the developmental period where symbiosis had been thought to occur change their behavior in response to the still-face rather than accepting the unresponsiveness as a part of the “fused selves”.

At the same time, though, mothers or other primary caregivers continue to act as if they feel fused with their young babies. They interpret baby sounds, looks, and gestures as if they (the mothers) know the babies’ intentions. They talk to the baby about his or her needs and feelings. When talking to other adults, they may “speak for the baby”, voicing what they feel to be the babies’ opinions and answering questions or comments made to the baby by other adults. Sometimes they begin their baby remarks by saying “Say” in a lower voice, then switching to a high voice for the words the baby is supposed to mean to say (“Yes, I’m sleepy, Grandma”). As so often occurs, the mothers’ feelings and behavior are parallel to and supportive of the babies’ actions, but are by no means the same.

It’s notable that mothers’ sense of fusion fosters good infant development at the same time that it is not actually in line with reality. The mother who interprets her infant’s signals fairly accurately is encouraging the development of communication, followed by speech and eventually by other cognitive abilities. If she felt “unfused”, was convinced that the baby did not intend to communicate or that she could not understand, and did not try to respond, the mother would not do such a good job and the baby’s development might well be slowed. Problems are likely to occur when the mother is too depressed, tired, or sick to be responsive, or when there are too many young children to care for at once (as in low-quality group care for infants).

Even infants of a few months notice differences in adult emotional facial expressions, but they don’t respond with concern for the worried or frightened adult. By 8 or 9 months, they are interested in the meaning the adult’s emotions have for the child (is there something to be afraid of?). But it’s not until 12 months or so that they begin to have “theory of mind”-- the assumption that other people have their own separate feelings and knowledge, and that those adult facial expressions indicate feelings inside the adult. Without theory of mind, infants can hardly feel a sense of intimacy, much less symbiotic emotional fusion, with adults.

It’s a problem to assume that mothers’ and babies’ feelings about each other are mutual, with each a mirror of the other. We can’t make good guesses about infant abilities just from knowing how adults function. Research on infant abilities tells us that no matter what mothers may feel, babies don’t experience symbiosis. However much adoption reform is needed, it would not be wise to make reforms based on the assumption that mothers and young infants are in symbiotic relationships.


  1. It wouldn't be wise to assume they're not either.There is much we do not know.

  2. But a decision will need to be made one way or the other, won't it? And what would be the point of deciding they are symbiotic, in the face of all the existing evidence?

  3. Campbell and Adelaide Dupont, I don't know what's happened to your comments. They don't show up here, but when I look at the comment archive they are said to have been published. Maybe they'll pop up later. Sorry--


  4. Methinks you gave a pretty good case for why they're probably not (in symbiosis) but if there is any evidence to the contrary, I'm all ears.

    I was just reading that Mahler's psychoanalytic theory may have been influenced by own background too, which included a cold, rejecting mother--this is what one biography claims. Plus she was very much into phenomenology, which gives weight to subjective experience over everything else.

    Question: What is "self" psychologically? Does the baby know its hand or foot is part of him or herself, and at what stage? Can a hand be distinguished from, say, a mobile? I guess I'm asking what the physical boundaries of self are in the first months of life.

    Talk on! It's fascinating.

  5. Well, I will be rich and famous, or at least famous, when I can answer this question about self! But let's see what I can pull together.

    Even a four-month-old can bite your nipple hard enough to hurt quite a bit, but they don't bite themselves and make themselves cry, so it seems they know some kind of difference between "me" and "not-me". Still, they seem to examine their feet as if they are something new, but that could be either not knowing that it's themselves, or just practicing a new skill.

    Between about 3 and 8 months, babies look at themselves in the mirror and respond socially, but they are not thought to recognize themselves. When they see other people in the mirror, they recognize them and may look around to see the person directly-- also they look back and forth from their own image to that of another person. Only at about 15 months do they recognize themselves-- when you put a spot of lipstick on their nose, and they see it in the mirror, they put a hand to the nose.

    Psychoanalysts have put a lot of emphasis on the baby defining the self by stroking a body part, tugging at hair or ears, etc. Maybe-- I don't know how you can tell this. In any case, part of the issue is always, how many months are "the first months"? After 8 months they do a load of this and are fascinated by their own and others' noses, eyes, etc. But birth to 3 months? Their motor control is so poor that it would be hard to tell (although you can record a sort of pre-reaching where they point the hand briefly at an object, and I don't think they do this at their own body parts).

    Is this a lame enough answer?!