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

Sunday, July 29, 2012

It Ain't Necessarily So: Mistaken Conclusions From Adoption Anecdotes

Why do people continue to espouse mistaken understandings of adoptees’ relationships with their birth mothers? Why do they seek information that they think confirms some special relationship they had and then lost when they were adopted as tiny infants? In much of western culture (although, not, by the way, in traditional Hawaiian society), there is a myth of the birth mother’s stamp on her infant, and the longing of the adopted child for reunion with a person for whom there is no conscious memory.

(Curiously, in spite of this myth, modern literary representations from drama to comic books have focused on the search for the lost father--  although the little girl Hushpuppy in the wonderful movie “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is shown as searching for her mother, now that her father is dying.)

Part of the birth mother myth may be a remnant of the old conviction that a pregnant woman’s wishes and feelings would mark her baby both mentally and physically. A “strawberry mark” might be explained as caused by the mother either eating too many strawberries, or by wanting some and not having them. If a pregnant woman saw something she wanted to eat, she might be advised to have some, because if she didn’t, her baby would “want”. It’s only a step from those beliefs to the idea that something happened during pregnancy that irrevocably connected the baby to the birth mother.

Beyond the influence of old tales on people’s beliefs about birth mothers and babies, though, there’s the fact that some individuals and groups make a point of insisting on a deep connection—in spite of the fact that no systematic evidence supports their beliefs. One organization well-known for this activity is the Association for Pre- and Perinatal Psychology and Health (APPPAH), which advocates the beliefs of authors like Francis Mott, Frank Lake,and Stanislav Grof that dreams and experiences under the influence of LSD are accurate depictions of what a baby experiences prenatally and during birth. The APPPAH web site,, posts a variety of articles arguing for or building on the claims of Mott, Lake, Grof, and others. One of these is a paper by Lavonne Stiffler  stating that “synchronicity”  (related events that reflect an underlying spiritual framework of causes) characterizes reunions between adoptees and their birth parents.

You have to pay to read Stiffler’s paper, but you can get a good idea of the contents with the “look inside” feature of her book of the same title on Amazon. Published in 1992, Synchronicity and Reunion: The Genetic Connection of Adoptees and Birthparents recounts a number of personal narratives as evidence that genetic factors connect separated parents and children and cause them to look for each other. She suggests that such a wish may involve a form of “homing instinct” that drives humans to look for people in the same way that migratory animals search for their territories and flight paths. As a mechanism for such searching, Stiffler refers to magnetite crystals in human brains.

Now, I am not about to say that it is impossible that genetically related people would seek each other. It’s a world of wonders, there are more things under heaven and earth than are dreamt of , and they laughed at the Wright brothers (or was it the Marx brothers?). It could be, right? But the point that concerns me is this: how would we go about discovering that it was right, and how would that method compare with what Stiffler did in her dissertation at the Oxford Graduate School (no connection with the real thing) in Dayton, TN?

Stiffler herself notes that her set of stories comes entirely from reunited adoptees and birth parents. Having found each other successfully, and being happy about the fact, these people were asked to tell the stories of their searches for each other, what they thought, what they felt, and so on. Stiffler concedes handsomely that she has no idea what would be the stories told by people who searched without finding, did not search at all, or were reunited and did not care for each other. And despite this concession, she goes right on to say that a synchronicity or coincidence of events is meaningful in that it is a unique subjective experience for the participants--  in other words, it would appear, that it does not really matter whether a phenomenon can be observed objectively.

From my point of view, which I think I share with other children of the Enlightenment and admirers of critical thinking, the subjective aspect is interesting and useful to know about, but if there is no objective evidence for a phenomenon, we can’t build our understanding of the world on a mere assumption that the phenomenon exists. So, if we want to understand whether there are special links between  birth mothers and their separated babies, we need to look at a large group of such people and examine the experiences and narratives of all of them, not just those who have been reunited and are volunteering to tell us about themselves.

I don’t reject the stories collected by Stiffler. But I do say that they can be understood only in the context of other stories by people who have had the same experiences of separation. Why? Well, there’s the statistical part about small and large samples, but let’s leave that out. A more important issue is that investigations like this depend on retrospective approaches and therefore on memory. All the interviewees can do is to tell us what they remember and how things seemed and seem to them. And human memory, of course, is not a matter of neural videorecording, but a matter of reconstruction of pieces of information so that they make sense to the rememberer. That reconstruction is what makes us say that we were always suspicious of the investment counselor who turned out to be a fraud (when in fact we always had complete confidence in him before), or that a son- or daughter-in-law with whom we got along well suddenly “never seemed like the right kind of person” after  splitting up with our child.

 We are always looking for patterns, patterns that make us feel safe and help us conceal from ourselves the unpredictable risks and traps of the real world. If we can think that we felt in our bones that our relinquished child lived in Chicago, that’s comforting. If we can think that a person lost to us is not really lost but will be drawn to us by magnetite crystals, that’s even more comforting. Stiffler’s book and article play on this desire we all feel for comfort in a dangerous and random world.

Stiffler and other authors honored by APPPAH have not shown that their beliefs are more than comforting patterns. It ain’t necessarily so--  until some serious evidence is brought forward, and that has certainly not happened yet, in spite of the claims of Verny, Verrier, and other APPPAH stalwarts.


  1. I think that the things Stiffler quotes in her book, similarities between mothers and adoptees, are somewhat due to genetics, but not to any special bond formed in pregnancy. Purely anecdotal, but a lot of weird little quirks like preferring or hating a certain food, color, type of music, pet, field of study or profession might indeed be genetic to some extent.

    Genetics is complicated but not mystical, and relatives can just as easily not resemble each other as have a lot of similarities. The study Stiffler did was all self-reported, so it is only true for those who searched, reunited, and liked what they found, as you said. It does comfort me that my child has some traits in common with me and others in the bio family, but I can also see many that are just uniquely himself, and am glad of that as well. Nobody should have to be a clone or reflection of the mother to be accepted.

    APPPAH is over the edge in seeing what they want to see and drawing unwarranted conclusions, plus ignoring anything that does not confirm their bias.

  2. One thing I've always wondered: in the past lots of women died in childbirth or shortly thereafter. If birth mothers have some mystical connection to their kids that can never be replicated by anyone else and leaves infants grieving, why weren't these problems worse in the past?

  3. Goodness, you aren't trying to bring common sense into the discussion, are you?!

    No doubt some would say that various violent and cruel events of the past were all due to mothers' deaths in childbirth. This is basically what Philip Aries said about the results of historical abusive treatment of children, and what various "psychohistorians" like Lloyd deMause have argued about personality development. There's no way to test their claims, so they win, according to themselves. However, examination of their claims shows how implausible they are.

  4. Of course one can equally argue that the reason why true attachment doesn't begin until about 6 months or so is for that very reason. From the evolutionary view it would be counterproductive given that human maternal death or inability to care for your own baby would have been so common in earlier times.

  5. Not just equally well... but better, in my opinion. But taking that evolutionary perspective raises the question of how much natural variation there is in the development of attachment behavior and motivation. Unless there was natural variation, there couldn't be natural selection-- so do we still have some degree of natural variation today? I have no idea-- but it's certainly true that other developmental milestones like speech and independent walking show a good deal of variation in their timing.

  6. No reason to suppose we don't still have natural variations today. In fact I believe at the genetic level they have been able to demonstrate this, although the vast majority of variations have no or little effect.

  7. I meant variations in the phenotype, in this case the developmental pattern of attachment-- such variations, as you say, are not necessary effects of variations in the genotype.