Sunday, January 26, 2003

Love at Goon Park

Read this over the week. It’s an engaging biography of Harry Harlow, the psychologist who did a series of very important primate studies from mid-20th century on, studies that illuminated the vital role of love in life, particularly maternal love.

Late 19th-century and early 20th century faith in “science” had brought, by Harry Harlow’s time, the psychological profession to the firm and unwavering opinion that

a) there was really no such thing as “love,” and anything on an infant’s part that we might want to define as such was really nothing but expressions of reflexes and a desire for the food that the mother provides and that

b)parents must strictly ration the affection they showed their children, even infants, because overly affectionate parenting (mothering, especially), produced whiny, dependent children.

These beliefs made their way into countless child-care books and programs during the early part of this century.

Before and during World War II, various heretics began to question orthodoxy. They studied British children sent away from their families to live in the country during the War. They studied children left in orphanages and hospitals, places where children lived with as little human contact as possible (because of fears of communicable diseases, overworked staff as well as the prejudice against affection). What they found, as we all know today, is that children deprived of affection develop serious problems and are even more susceptible to illness. Children denied affection may grow up, seeming to be “strong”, but their strength is really an expression of their inability to engage in normal human relations.

But this was the era of the empirical study, most of which were done with rats. And you really can’t test rats on love. Mainstream psychology refused to take these heretical voices seriously, both because their views were so radical and because their evidence was mostly observation, as opposed to controlled lab experimentation.

So along comes Harry Harlow with his monkeys. Harlow’s work focused on the role of affection and social contact in emotional development. He took baby rhesus monkeys, for example, and put them in cages with different kinds of cloth mamas. He found that no matter what, the babies clung to cloth mamas for comfort and support. They did so even when their food was offered by another device (calling into question the belief that babies only love their mothers because they are the food providers). They did so – frighteningly – even when the mamas were equipped with devices to scare or threaten them. They would get scared by the shakes or sudden jabs with blunt-ended rods, but then they would return, crawl up and hang on to the very same mama who had harmed them.

He tested how the babies reacted in a strange environment when the mamas were in the room, and when they were taken out. Again, confounding current wisdom, Harlow found that the babies acted with much more confidence and curiosity about their environment when the mamas were in the room.

Harlow’s most disturbing experiments were about isolation and depression. He raised babies in isolation for various periods – even up to a year, evaluated the damage (which was extreme) and then tried to find how best to rehabilitate the babies. He constructed an upside-down pyramid in which a monkey was placed. The monkey would spend two days trying to scramble up the sides, then give up and grow increasingly more listless as the days went by. Again, Harlow and his fellow experimenters tried to then figure out how to repair the damage.

You can imagine that Harry Harlowe is reviled today in certain quarters, and even those of us not resolutely opposed to animal experimentation might wince at some of these experiments and wonder about their necessity – isn’t it common sense? Doesn’t everyone know that babies need the constant presence of a dedicated caretaker on whom he can depend? Doesn’t everyone know that human beings are social beings and need contact and attachment, even for the sake of physical health?

Sure, it is common sense. But the problem is that in the decades before Harlow, scientists of all stripes had decided that common sense was wrong, and millions of children, particularly those in institutions, suffered because of it. Harlow didn’t conduct his experiments because he looked at the way human beings instinctively treated their babies – he did it because of the perversions that his fellows had wrought and how these ethos had not only harmed many institutionalized children, but had diverted interest away from finding ways to help children who had been abused and neglected by their own families. And in this context, no one would take any new ideas seriously unless there were “studies.”

The book reminded me of the important of historical context. Always, always. Harlow sounds like pure monster engaging in unnecessary research unless you understand what he and others like him were fighting against in the mainstream scientific community. I remain unconvinced about the necessity of the isolation and the depression experiments, but the maternal affection studies played an important role in ridding us of the noxious parenting and caregiving advice – based on nothing, as so much of the social “sciences” are - of the early 20th century.

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