Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Necessity of Gaze: Development, Comfort, Orientation

"Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of little children."

- William Makepeace Thackeray

“As one whom his mother comforts, so I (God) will comfort you”

- Isaiah 66:13

Recent neuroscience and psychological research focusing on the maternal-infant dyad has revealed important developmental changes, most of which occur during the infant’s first two years of life. These changes are critical to the infant’s healthy development and future mental health, and rely heavily on the mother’s attentive gaze. Research in this area has painted a picture of human infants as innate contingency detectors that rely on the mother to help order and process their environment.[i], [ii] The subtleties of maternal-infant interactions, many of which rely on eye contact, are believed to modulate critical functions such as the infant’s neuroendocrine responses, social orientation, and management of dysphoric affect.[iii], [iv], [v]

Infants as young as 3 and ½ months are able to recognize different emotional expressions, and show a distinct preference for the face and gaze of their own mother.[vi] It could be said that we come into the world with a predetermined gaze “hunger” which we require to orient and prepare ourselves for life on the planet. Though research in the area is still in the early stages, it is interesting to contrast developmental differences between sighted and congenitally blind children. These early studies have suggested that there may be a difference in terms of the congenitally blind children’s attribution of symbolic meanings during play therapy.[vii] In terms of social-relatedness, autistic-like social deficits have been described in congenitally blind children.[viii]

When the vital importance of the gaze and its functioning organ, the eye, are properly recognized, it is of little wonder that we find it given a prominent place mythology and symbology. Metaphors for the divine invariably use descriptions of “gazing upward.” Vertical gaze positions are invoked when people access divinity-related cognitions, and the opposite is true for Devil-like images.[ix] Thus, looking “up” connotes with power, while looking “down” suggests powerlessness.[x] Looking back over the millennia, the eye and ocular surface has frequently been used to symbolize Gods, emission of influence, and reception of knowledge.[xi] The “all seeing” eye of God may be likened to the scrutinizing super ego which transcends mortality.

[i] Fonagy P, Gergely G, Target M: The parent-infant dyad and the construction of the subjective self. J Child Psychol Psychiatry, 2007; 48(3-4):288-328
[ii] Joseph R: Environmental influences on neural plasticity, the limbic system, emotional development and attachment: a review. Child Psychiatry Hum Dev, 1999; 29(3):189-208.
[iii] Swain J, Lorberbaum J, Kose S, Strathearn L: Brain basis of early parent-infant interactions: psychology, physiology, and in vivo functional neuroimaging studies. J Child Psychol Psychiatry, 2007; 48(3-4):262-87
[iv]Feldman R: Parent-infant synchrony and the construction of shared timing; physiological precursors, developmental outcomes, and risk conditions. J Child Psychol Psychiatry, 2007; 48(3-4):329-54
[v] Feldman R, Eidelman A: Maternal postpartum behavior and the emergence of infant-mother and infant-father synchrony in preterm and full-term infants: the role of neonatal vagal tone. Dev Psychobiol, 2007; 49(3):290-302.
[vi] Kahana-Kalman R, Walker-Andrews A: The role of person familiarity in young infants' perception of emotional expressions. Child Dev, 2001; 72(2):352-69
[vii] Bishop M, Hobson R, Lee A: Symbolic play in congenitally blind children. Dev Psychopathol, 2005;17(2):447-65.
[viii] Hobson R, Bishop M: The pathogenesis of autism: insights from congenital blindness. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci, 2003; 358(1430):335-44
[ix] Meier B, Hauser D, Robinson M, Friesen C, Schjeldahl K: What’s “Up” With God? Vertical Space as a Representation of the Divine. J Pers and Social Psychol, 2007; 93(5): 699-710.
[x] Schubert T: Your highness: Vertical positions as perceptual symbols of power. J Pers and Social Psychol, 2005; 89: 1-21.
[xi] Murube J: The Ocular Surface and Its Symbolism. The Ocular Surface, 2007; 5(1): 6-12

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