Daniel Stern’s The Interpersonal World of the Infant – Rereading a Psychoanalytic Classic

I first read Daniel Stern’s The Interpersonal World of the Infant as a trainee in about 1989.  It was a new book, hot off the presses, and it questioned many of the assumptions that the people who were training me had held dear for most of their careers.  And, much to my surprise, these very talented and capable people were excited – instead of threatened – by the book and the ideas in it.  I think they were excited by it – and this is purely speculative – because this book was consistent with their experience of their own children in the ways that the previous psychoanalytic theories had not been.  Whether or not that was the case, it is the case that this dense book, written in a very high tone, but with good examples, helped me greet my son in a way that seemed to me to be consonant with who he was when he was born.  That said, I also need to clarify that he was born ten years later, which is probably a good thing, because it took a considerable time for the material from this book to sink in – and frankly, re-reading it every year as I do now for a graduate course that I teach, I find new things in it each time that I read it.

This book seeks to integrate two very different literatures.  One is the psychoanalytic literature that is based on the “re-created infant” – a child remembered in the therapeutic process – sometimes by the adult (in conversation with his or her analyst) on the couch – sometimes from working with young children and trying to imagine, based on newly verbal kids, what the internal experience of pre-verbal infants must be like.  The other is the growing literature that Stern tapped into (and contributed to) about the “observed infant” – a preverbal infant that a researcher “asks” to answer questions about his or her internal states having the infant do the things that the infant is able to do.  A newborn, for instance, is able to move his or her eyes to track things, is able to turn his or her head when it is supported, and is able to engage in sucking behavior.  So, we use these few things that newborns can do to ask them questions.  We ask them – can they remember?  We bring in their mother’s breast pad and place it on one side of their head and the breast pad from another woman and place it on the other side, and they reliably turn their heads towards their mother’s breast pad.  They have memory (and other faculties) right from the get-go.

More central to his thesis, we give infants a pacifier that is either smooth or bumpy.  We let them suck on it without seeing it.  We then show them two pacifiers – one that is bumpy and one that is smooth – and they spend more time looking at the one that is like the one they have been sucking on.  This turns out to be a tremendously important piece of information.  What the infants are communicating to us is that they can transform tactile information – what the pacifier feels like – into an abstract representation – what it is shaped like – that they can recognize visually.  This ability – to represent something concrete in abstract terms – again essentially from birth – turns our understanding of the mind of the infant upside down.  Instead of having to learn all kinds of intermediate steps to build up to being able to represent something perceived in their minds, they can do this essentially immediately.  OK, so we have to rethink Piaget and rework our understanding of cognitive development.  But Stern doesn’t really get all that interested in this momentous shift – he is much more interested in why we are equipped to do that.

Stern spends the rest of the book articulating that the reason we are built to represent things cross modally is because this supports our ability to relate to our caregivers – and this, in turn, facilitates our learning lots of things from them – but primarily how to relate.  To get from here to there, Stern notes that we are not born with an oceanic lack of knowledge about where we begin and end, but actually we learn quite quickly that we have a boundedness and we experience Mommy as a separate entity in the world (this is radically different from some psychoanalytic developmental schemas).  He also introduces the notion of vitality affects – the idea that emotions are not just categorically different – but that they come in a rush – that they may start out slow and then become stronger – or they may taper off slowly.  He uses this fact to note that we use the vitality component to communicate to infants that we know what they are feeling by matching the speed of what we are doing to the speed of what they are doing – that we can mirror what the infant is doing.  But, and this is the really cool part, we don’t just mirror, we exploit the infant’s ability to represent things cross modally, to make a sound that we emit track the intensity of their muscular tension – and, in the next moment, we open our eyes as wide as the sound they emit.

What Stern is observing are the everyday interactions that take place between infants and parents.  As a result of that observation, he is able to articulate what we as a species know intuitively with the more precise language of science.  We can communicate feeling states with each other and this is the basis of human communication.  What he adds is the postulate that we are built to do just that.  We are built to communicate.  He then notes that the culmination of this communication ability – the introduction of language – learning to talk – is a two edged sword.  We are able to communicate particular thoughts more accurately, but at the cost of a loss of affective communication.  The richness of our communication actually plummets as the precision increases.  Our infants become, in a weird but very palpable way, less interesting as they learn to talk.

So, with Stern (and, frankly, T. Berry Brazelton, a pediatrician who writes about these phenomena in much more accessible terms), I was able to greet my son in his early life not just intuitively, but as a true geek should, with book learning.  We spent time together playing, hanging out, and napping.  I thought that I would get a lot accomplished when he was napping, but I rarely did.  I usually napped with him – being fully engaged is hard work – for the kid and (at least this) parent.  My experience of our time together was of connecting with a huge intelligence – one that was curious about the world, about me, about himself – and wanting to learn more about it.  So I was terribly disappointed when he learned to talk (Oh, don’t get me wrong – I was excited – you would think no person had ever learned to talk before – I was amazed and proud about this incredible achievement), I was disappointed that the imagined other – the kid that was so broadly curious – now would utter one word statements – “Cookie” – that collapsed all of that wonderful space that we had built between us.  Language is a double edged sword indeed!

Of course, as Stern points out, we learn to use language to create cross modal descriptions - they are the basis of poetry - my love is like a red, red rose.  This, in turn, facilitates the kinds of communications that can be lost when language first appears - though the functions of language are manifold and they can move us away from an intersubjectivity as well as move us towards it.

Stern has a bigger ax to grind in this book.  He is using his evidence to support an intersubjective theory of psychoanalysis.  I think there is something to this argument.  But I also think that this developmental perspective can help inform many other psychoanalytic theories as well.  For instance, many older psychoanalytic theories postulate a diffuse, boundary less state as a part of normal development – and suggest that later boundarylessness is a regression to an earlier state.  While it may be that the later state is a regression to an earlier one – it may be a regression to a pathological earlier state of boundarilessness – perhaps related to early traumatic experiences that crossed personal boundaries, overwhelming the infant’s capacity to manage the autonomous state they were built to inhabit. 

But it is not just in theory that this book can help.  In our “technique” – how it is that we connect with others, this can be a truly useful perspective.  As we better understand the actual infant, we will be better able to connect, not just with those infants (this really did help me in raising a child), but with the adults that they become.  Adults who have amazing capacities for communication – for communion really – can see these capacities atrophy as they focus on developing other skills – such us finding just the right words to communicate how an infant develops.  Not all is lost, however.  When we play with infants, we regain a sense of how spectacular it is to be in contact with another human being.   Also, when we play in therapy, we can connect with that “inner child” and remember what it means to feel authentically – and we can use that connection as a base to move forward in relating in very adult – deeply felt - adult ways.

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