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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

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

Friday, March 27, 2009

Something to read-- critically

An article that appeared in Monitor on Psychology, Feb. 2009-- "Programmed for life?", by Michael Price-- offers food for critical thought. According to the sub-headline, "Your developmental environment can... even predict how you'll treat your children." In support of this claim, the article offers discussion of mouse maternal behavior and the ways it is affected by the mouse mothers' early experiences.

Maternal behavior in all species is a fascinating and fruitful research topic. Maternal care involves a complex set of cues exchanged by mother and young, with sights, smells, sounds, and touch sensations all triggering or modulating an essential exchange of behaviors. But... can research into mouse mothering tell us what we need to know about human child-rearing? Is the analogy between mouse and human behavior good enough for us to use the former to draw conclusions about the latter?

The way to answer this question is to look at details of the two phenomena that are being compared. If relevant details are shared by the two, it may be safe to use one to give us information about the other; if they do not overlap by much, conclusions from the comparison may amount to "abusing the analogy"

What do mother mice do to care for their pups? They permit pups to find the nipples and nurse. They lick the pups' rears to stimulate urination and defecation. They clean the nest by eating waste products, afterbirth, and any dead pups they find. When pups get out of the nest (where they may get cold or be in danger), the mother follows their squeaks and retrieves them, picking them up in her mouth. This pattern lasts as long as the pups are hairless, but when they start to grow fur, the mother responds to them much less.

What do human mothers (and fathers) do for their offspring? They place the baby at the breast or offer other food sources. They use diapers or hold the baby away from them to deal with elimination, which by the way they don't need to stimulate. They clean the baby with water. They carry the baby around for many months, usually even after it is able to walk. And they continue to care for their children for many years, even after they are sexually mature.

Is there much overlap between these maternal behavior patterns? No, it doesn't seem that there is. Is the
Monitor writer guilty of abusing an analogy? That seems very possible.

It is possible that parallels between human and mouse maternal behavior are appropriate, but some direct evidence is needed to show this. A loose analogy alone can't do the job.

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