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Biology 103
2001 Third Web Report
On Serendip

A Healing Touch?

Emi Arima

Several weeks ago in our biology, Professor Grobstein mentioned that his college seminar class was holding a bake sale in our campus center. He approached his sales pitch by asking if we were stressed from the workload of the end of the semester. Inevitably we all nodded our heads in agreement that the homework had begun to take its toll. He urged us all to support his class's efforts and their somewhat atypical offer including an optional hug with the purchase of a brownie. After class I found myself thinking about his association with stress and the need for a hug.

I know from personal experience that a hug or even a pat on the back can cheer me up. I've also read that people who make appropriate physical contact in business transactions-a firm handshake or a hand on the shoulder-are more likely to land the deal than those who keep to themselves. However, the necessity of physical interaction goes beyond the role of a mere stress reliever or business etiquette; rather it is essential to the development of an infant-both socially and physically.

Among the most well known experiments on the subject were those of Harry Harlow in the 1950s and 1960s. Through his series of tests with infant monkeys and their application to humans, he brought a new understanding of child psychology and our own behavior (7). Until his experiments, most scientists assumed that the affection infants displayed for their mothers was an association between the mother and the quenching of primary needs-hunger, thirst, and pain (11).

Harlow ran a series of experiments in which he separated infant rhesus monkeys from their mothers six to twelve hours after birth (6). At first he raised the infant monkeys in a laboratory, isolated from others, where they received their nutrition from a bottle. In doing so he noticed that the laboratory-raised monkeys formed an attachment to the gauze used to cover the bottom of their cages. They grew so attached, in fact, that the removal of the cloth for sanitary purposes threw the infants into violent temper tantrums. As a follow up, he found that monkeys raised in a mesh cage with a bare floor had difficulty surviving their first five days. When he inserted a mesh cone the difficulty lessened, and when he covered the cone with terry cloth they developed into "happy babies" (11). According to Harlow himself in his essay, The Nature of Love, "We were impressed by the possibility that, above and beyond the bubbling fountain of breast or bottle, contact comfort might be a very important variable in the development of the infant's affection for the mother" (11).

From this point he embarked on his famed experiments that are now included in most psychology textbooks. He tested this infant-mother affection. In this series of studies he offered a "surrogate" mother to the isolated infants. He had two models of this mother substitute-one made of bare, heavy wire and the other made of wood covered with a soft terry cloth. In one such experiment both models were placed in the infant's cage, but only one had a nipple to provide milk. Regardless of which "mother" fed them, the monkeys spent a significantly greater amount of time with the terry-covered mother (6). Harlow summarized his findings by stating, "These data make it obvious that contact comfort is a variable of overwhelming importance in the development of affectional response, whereas lactation is a variable of negligible importance" (11).

An interesting twist to the story of Harlow's experiments became apparent in the later life of monkeys. Mary Carlson, a neuroscientist at Harvard medical school, says that the cloth mother was inadequate as a replacement for the actual mothers, and the monkeys had trouble both emotionally and behaviorally. "Even when raised in cages where they could see, smell and hear-but not touch-other monkeys, the infants developed what she called an 'autistic-like' syndrome, with grooming, self-clasping, social withdrawal and rocking" (2).

This condition has since been referred to as Maternal Deprivation Syndrome, and many other psychologists have continued on from the basic discoveries of Harlow. One such experiment, run by William Mason and Gershon Berkson, simulated Harlow's original set-up except that the surrogate mother was set in motion. Infants raised with this swinging mother did not develop the characteristic traits of the maternal deprivation syndrome (9). These results led Dr. James Prescott and several others to ask themselves why, and what they discovered is as surprising as Harlow's findings.

"More recent studies suggest that during formative periods of brain growth, certain kinds of sensory deprivation-such as lack of touching and rocking by the mother-result in incomplete or damaged development of the neuronal systems that control affection (for instance, a loss of the nerve-cell branches called dendrites)" (9). According to Prescott, the autistic-like rocking, hyper-reactivity to touch, and abnormal social behaviors characteristic of maternal deprivation syndrome are side effects of the brain damage caused by a lack of physical contact. He isolated these problems to the limbic-frontal-cerebellar brain system, from which, he claims, we develop the "Basic Trust," "Affection," and "Intimacy." These three elements combine to form the experiences of "Pleasure," "Bonding," and "Love." When the infant is deprived of the sensory stimulation necessary to develop the systems involved with these emotions, depression and violence can ensue (8). The infant, deprived of physical contact, does not learn how to form social bonds with others and becomes self-sufficient. Some suspect that the characteristic rocking and clutching simulate the sensory stimulation that the young monkeys did not receive from their mothers.

In December of 1989 Nicolae Ceasescu's dictatorship in Romania came to an end when he and his wife executed. Ceasecu's attempts to double the Romanian population in one generation left men and women fiscally unable to provide for their families and forced them to turn their children over to orphanages. By the time of his execution, more than 150,000 children occupied these ill-equipped facilities (12). Caretakers had as many as twenty infants in their care, which left little time for any personal care beyond changing diapers and administering bottles (1). When foreign doctors came in 1989 and examined the children, they found "grossly delayed" development of mental and motor skills, a significantly stunted growth-"the children were in the third to tenth percentile for physical growth"-and a tendency to rock and grasp themselves(2).

The deprivation of touch is no laughing matter, nor are its consequences restricted to the rhesus monkeys used in Harlow's experiments. Thousands of these Romanian orphans showed the same signs of social ineptness later in life-the damage is permanent. "Rock A Bye Baby" cites a case where an intense one-to-one physical relationship between a substitute mother and a six-month-old child significantly reduces the child's retardation (10). However, the cases of maternal deprivation syndrome still greatly outnumber stories such as this one. Approximately two-thirds of children under two years old who experience Failure to Thrive (stunted growth, inability to gain weight, and failure to accomplish the typical childhood milestones) are caused by neglect or ignorance on the part of the parents (5).

Mary Carlson, inspired by Harlow's findings on the effects of deprivation, directed her career toward its effects on the human race. She, along with many other scientists involved in this area, attempt to bring this issue beyond the scientific realm. According to Carlson, this is as much an issue of human rights as it is an avenue of scientific research. Romania has joined an allegiance of countries in ratifying the United Nation's Convention on the Rights of the Child -an allegiance that includes all countries in the world except Somalia and the United States.

Renee Spitz, who studied infants in foundling homes and along with the effects of long term hospitalization with John Bowlby in the 1930s (13), concluded from his research that we need strokes [denotes human contact] as much as the air we breath, the water we drink, and the food we eat (3). The concept of the need for human interaction is not difficult to comprehend and yet we seem to make it very complicated because the trend continues. It seems that if something as simple as a hug can be so vital for proper development-and also be such a cheerful sign of affection and encouragement-we would give and receive them freely. However, if such were the case, why would the idea of a complimentary hug with the purchase of a brownie be such a novel idea?

I found a children's story called A Warm Fuzzy Tale while I was doing my research. It tells the story of a long ago town, where all the people had bags of "warm fuzzies." The people gave these "warm fuzzies" to each other freely and it made them happy. Then one day a bad witch convinced someone that they had to conserve their stock because when they ran out they would never have any more. Soon the people stopped exchanging the "warm fuzzies" all together, and they became very unhappy. A stranger came to the town and begun to freely give hers away to the children. The children became happy and began to share again, but the parents-still wary of running out of their supply-disapproved (4). There is an extent to which our constraints on human contact and our concept of personal space make sense. Although children can freely give away hugs and kisses to anyone they encounter, such behavior is inappropriate in the work environment. And yet, I often think we sometimes hold back too much in attempts to be "correct."

There is no ending to The Warm Fuzzy Tale, nor is there one for the issue of the deprivation from the human touch. "The struggle spread all over the land and is probably going on right were you live. If you want to, and I hope you do, you can join by freely giving and asking for Warm Fuzzies and being as loving and healthy as you can" (4).

WWW Sources

1) No Laughing Matter , from The Science of Mother's Day

2) Not really a monkey..., from The Science of Mother's Day

3) Learning to Love

4) A Warm Fuzzy Tale

5) Maternal Deprivation Syndrome , from ThirdAge.com

6) The Experiment , from Chicken Wire Mother

7) Harry Harlow , from The Psi Caf

8) Birth and the Origins of Violence

9) Alienation of Affection

10) Rock A Bye Baby , Time Life documentary and summary

11)The Nature of Love, from Classics in the History of Psychology

12) The Journey Home: A Romanian Adoption , from CBC

13)"Nature" And "Nurture" Interact In Sequential Stages , from Classrooms of the 21st Century

14) A Decisive Decade of Protection , from Unicef




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