Developmental Psychology, Psychoanalysis and Neuroscience

“Developmental psychology can inquire about the infant only as the infant is observed. To relate observed behaviour to subjective experience one must make inferential leaps. Clearly, the inferences will be more accurate if the data base from which one is leaping is extensive and well established. The study of intrapsychic experience must be informed by direct observation, as the source of most new information about infants continues to be naturalistic and experimental observations…In contrast to the infant as observed by developmental psychology a different “infant” gas been reconstructed by psychoanalytic theories in the course of clinical practice (primarily with adults). This infant is the joint creation of two people, the adult who grew up to become a psychiatric patient and the therapist, who has a theory about infant experience. This recreated infant made up of memories, present re-enactments in the transference, and theoretically guided by interpretations. I call this creation the clinical infant, to be distinguished from the observed infant, whose behaviour is examined at the very time of its occurrence.” ( The Intersubjective World of the Infant p. 15)

Daniel N Stern’s excellent ‘The Interpersonal World of the Infant’ was published thirty years ago. In his book he aimed to update psychoanalysis in light of recent findings in developmental psychology. Freud’s psychoanalytic model had proven to have excellent therapeutic success, but there were aspects of his psychological theories which didn’t make sense in light of developmental psychology. Furthermore there were off shoots from Freudian psychoanalysis, developed by people like Adler, Jung, Klein and Lacan which were equally successful in terms of pragmatic success of theories. A key problem was that despite being equally pragmatically successful in terms of therapy, the theories held contradictory views on the nature of man and on the nature of the unconscious. Since all of the contradictory theories cannot be true at the same time, then we need some way of distinguishing them, so grounding them in empirical findings would seem a great way of doing this[1].

Stern assumes that a sense of self exists long prior to the emergence of language. By sense of self he means non-reflexive awareness. He includes things like, agency, physical cohesion, sense of continuity, sense of affectivity, sense of self which can achieve intersubjecitivity (by 2000 Stern believed that the sense of self and other came together from the start), the sense of creating organisation, the sense of creating meaning (ibid p.7) He notes that from birth babies experience themselves as self’s differentiated from others, there is never an autistic stage of development. From 2-6 months children consolidate this sense of self, there is no symbiotic phase. He argues that infants are excellent reality testers. Some of his observations are clearly highly critical of a lot of psychoanalysts views:

Further, many of the phenomena thought by psychoanalytic theory to play a crucial role in early development, such as delusions of merger or fusion, splitting, and defensive or paranoid fantasies, are not applicable to the infancy period- that is, before the age of roughly eighteen to twenty-four months- but are conceivable only after the capacity for symbolization as evidenced by language emerging, when infancy ends.” (ibid p.11)

Needless to say Stern’s research wasn’t met by universal praise. Some theorists dismissed the relevance of research from outside of psychoanalytic circles (neuropsychoanalysts today are similarly irrationally criticised). While others had more measured criticisms, for example noting the lack of cross cultural data used by Stern, and some developmental psychologists critiqued the fact that the psychoanalytic interpretations went well beyond the facts.

In his 2000 new introduction to the ‘The Intersubjective World of The Infant’ Stern addressed some of the critics of his book and updated his ideas in light of empirical advances that occurred in the 15 years since he wrote the book. In this blog post I intend to draw some parallels between the neuropsychoanalytic research programme which was just beginning at the time Stern wrote his new introduction. I will also discuss some recent evidence from developmental psychology and neuroscience which has emerged in the 15 years since Stern wrote his new introduction.

In his new introduction Stern reminds us that a central finding of his research is that as we go through developmental stages, earlier stages don’t just disappear they remain with us throughout our lives:

“No emerging domain disappears; each remains active and interacts dynamically with all the others. In fact, each domain facilitates the emergence of the ones that follow. In this way, all ways-of-being-with-others remain with us throughout the life span, whereas according to the stage model, all mental organisation can be accessed only by means of a process like regression.” (Stern ‘The Intersubjective World of the Infant XII of 2000 Introduction)

He argued that he switched to the Layered model because the Freudian model of the psychosexual stages of development which postulated discrete stages of development was a disaster at predicting later psychopathology. He also felt that Piaget’s model while good at explaining how the child goes learns how to deal with the inanimate world, things such as number, weight , volume etc was inadequate to deal with a child’s emotional world. Here I think Stern has a point. A big part of my own work over the last few years has been explaining, as Quine put it, how the child goes from stimulus to science. One of the primary weakness of my work is that I have focused almost exclusively on the cognitive aspect of this area. However, neuroscientific data indicates that any supposed naturalised epistemology that ignores the role of the emotional world will be missing out on a large piece of the picture. Computers may be able to calculate without emotion, likewise fictional characters like Spock may reason independent of emotion. However humans interaction with and thoughts about the world are deeply dependent on emotional experiences which influence our cognitive performance. Antonio Damasio’s 1996 Somatic Marker Hypothesis is a good indication of the importance of emotion in human practical reasoning. Mark Solms nicely summed up the importance of Damasio’s results in his ‘The Brain and The Inner World’. By now everybody knows the story of Phineas Gage who in 1840 had an accident which resulted in a rod being shot through his cheek bone up through the frontal lobe of his brain. Gage recovered from the accident, and remained more or less the same in terms of IQ after the accident. However there were noticeable changes to Gage’s personality after the accident, prior to the accident Gage was a responsible savvy member of his community, however after the accident things changed. A physician of the time Harlow described the changes Harlow underwent:

“… The equilibrium or balance, so to speak, between his intellectual faculties and animal propensities, seems to have been destroyed. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which has previously not been his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint of advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operation, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned. … In this regard his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said that he was “no longer Gage” (Harlow, 1868 p. 327)[2]

Solms notes that cases like Gage’s have puzzled neuropsychologists for years. How could people who measured more or less as normal on intelligence tests behave in ways that are so radically irrational. Damasio’s somatic marker hypothesis showed that what was going wrong with people like Gage was that damage to the frontal lobe meant an impaired ability of the brain to interpret messages from the emotional centres of the brain. As Solms put:

“It appears that poor judgement- and decision making abilities of these patients follow from an inability to use the emotion-learning systems, which provide information about the likely outcome of future decisions. ( ‘The Brain and The Inner World p. 177)

Here Solms is correctly interpreting Damasio’s result in showing the vital importance in practical reasoning. I think any account of Naturalised Epistemology needs to integrate findings like Damasio’s and show to what extent our emotions relate to our practical as well as theoretical reasoning. Stern as a psychoanalyst is keenly aware of the role that emotion plays in our daily life, so it is understandable that he would have found Piaget’s narrow focus on abstract cognitive knowledge a bit restrictive. Sterns look at developmental data confirmed that the (normally developing) child from the beginning experiences the physical world and the world of emotional attachment to others. From the start we are immersed in a world that we care about and has meaning for us, at no stage are we disinterested Cartesian Observers.

As a consequence of this interpretative process we begin distinguishing ourselves from, other agents, and objects in the world. Stern notes:

…This book maintains that Self/Other differentiation is in place and process almost from the beginning” (ibid p. XIII)

This claim of Stern’s, which he backs up with mountains of empirical data, flies in the face of Freud’s claims (and many other psychoanalysts like Klein) about an autistic phase of human development. In her excellent book ‘Becoming a Subject’ Marcia Cavell used both Donald Davidson’s transcendental arguments on the necessity of a self-other and a shared object of experience in order to learn a language and her view is largely consistent with Sterns empirical arguments. Stern’s empirical data backs up Davidson’s claim about the self and other being constituted equally primordially from the beginning. As I said above for similar conclusions argued from a phenomenological point of view see Stolorow’s ‘World, Affectivity, and Trauma’.

Stern goes on to argue as follows:

One consequence of the books application of a narrative perspective to the nonverbal has been the discovery of a language useful to many psychotherapists that rely on the nonverbal. I am thinking particularly of dance, music, body, and movement therapy, as well as existential therapies.” (ibid p. XV)

I think that this aspect of Stern’s work is important to look at. His developmental work has led him in the direction of embodied cognition and he cites approvingly the work of Evan Thompson, Varela etc. For a discussion of embodied cognition see my blog-post’s as well as .Stern’s focus on embodied cognition is congenial to both the existential psychoanalysis of Stolorow etc who were heavily influenced by Heidegger and the Work of Cavell et al who were influenced by Davidson.

“Researchers working within the new perspective of an embodied mind, where the traditional sharp separation between body and mind is no longer maintained, have provided insights into the nature of a primary consciousness that is usable in infancy (e.g., Clark, 1997, Damasio, 1999; Varela, Thompson, and Rosch, 1993) primary consciousness, is not self reflexive, it is not verbalised, and it lasts only during the present moment”

Stern’s work on embodied cognition helps make sense of a real embodied person developing in a shared world with other embodied subjects. His view is a welcome change from the quasi-solipsism favoured by some psycho-therapists. Stern’s leaning on the work of neuroscientist Damasio also helps to create a links with Neuropsychoanalysis. Neuropsychoanalysis is a bridge subject which aims to help develop a mutually helpful exchange of ideas between psychoanalysis and neuroscience. Some of Stern’s work is largely consistent with modern Neuropsychoanalysis. This offers a further bridge between developmental psychology, psychoanalysis, and neuroscience and can help turn psychoanalysis back into the scientific endeavour that Freud always recommended.

Stern notes that all mental acts are accompanied by input from the body. Damasio calls these inputs “background feelings” and Stern calls them “vitality affects” (ibid p. XVII). In Solms and Turnbull’s ‘The Brain and the Inner World’, they also make use of Damasio (1999), distinction between core consciousness which is background awareness of bodily feelings and states, and extended consciousness of the sensory world we experience. Solms notes that we know from brain damage that while our extended consciousness can be destroyed and our core consciousness spared the converse is not true. If a person’s core consciousness is destroyed through damage to the extended reticular and thalamic activating system, all consciousness is destroyed. Damasio’s discoveries show that animals with similar brain physiology to our own will have core consciousness like us.

Stern builds on Damasio’s work arguing that when our background awareness is connected to an intentional object in the external world we achieve primary consciousness which is a state of awareness he thinks other animals lack entirely. It is worth noting that the picture of the embodied nature of consciousness Stern sketches has been supported independently by contemporary researches into consciousness. In her 2013 book ‘Touching a Nerve’ neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland summed up recent research into consciousness. I have discussed her work in detail in another blog-post I recommend people read the post in full to grasp her position on consciousness. Here I will merely outline the aspects of her work that is relevant to the work of Stern.

In her (2013) Touching a Nerve Patricia Churchland outlined what she saw as the current consciousness studies at the present time. She agrees with Dennett that there is no single location in the brain where consciousness occurs, and argues that there are particular structures in the brain (along with looping links connecting those structures) which are necessary for the maintenance of consciousness. She maintains that it is important to distinguish between two things:

  1. The structures that support being conscious of ANYTHING AT ALL.
  2. The structures that support being conscious of THIS AND THAT ( the contents of consciousness)

Now as we saw above Stern and Solms who are both following the work of neuroscientist Damasio make the same distinction. However they describe consciousness of anything at all as the monitoring of our bodies which Stern calls the background music of being alive. In this connection Churchland discusses the work of Nicholas Schiff a neurologist who studies disorders of consciousness. His research led him to the central thalamus and its ingoing and outgoing pathways as giving us the capacity to respond to the world. She argues that there are looping neurons from these upper layers of the cortex projecting right back to the ribbon in the central thalamus (Touching a Nerve p. 235). The looping back allows for maintaining an especially potent but transient connection for a chunk of time.

She also argues that some regions of the thalamus that connect to, for example, the visual area do so in a domain specific manner. So the retina is connected to the LGN in the thalamus, however the LGN projects only to the visual cortex area V1 not to everywhere, not even to everywhere in the visual cortex (ibid p.235). This is typical of other sensory modalities. She calls this a system by system development of a specific signal. She notes that things are different in the central thalamus, the pattern of the central thalamus suggests a different set of functions: be awake and alert or down regulate and doze. She makes the point that the distinction of functions in the thalamus corresponds with the distinction between being aware of something in particular and being aware of anything.

She goes on to say that there are other aspects of the central thalamus which separates it from other cortico-thalamic systems such as the style of neuronal activity. The central thalamus has unique connectivity and unique behaviour. Think of this interms of the awake/sleep cycle. During awake and dreaming states the neurons fire in bursts an unusually high rate (800-1000 times per second). This bursting pattern is not displayed during dreamless sleep. So this strongly indicates that the central thalamus plays a big role in making people conscious.

The ribbon of neurons that is the central thalamus is controlled by the brain cell and regulates the cortical neurons to ready themselves for consciousness. In a nutshell BRAINSTEM+ CENTRAL THALAMUS + CORTEX is the support structure for consciousness.

She goes on to describe what happens when the Central Thalamus is damaged:

  1. If a lesion occurs on one side of the Central Thalamus people tend not to be conscious of the affected side. If both sides are affected then the person is in a coma.

Again this is consistent with Stern and Solms claim that damage to core consciousness destroys consciousness, but we can have our extended consciousness destroyed and still be conscious in an animalistic way.

To be aware of something, say a dog barking one needs to have the brainstem, central thalamus and upper layer of cortex in its on state. Central Thalamic Neurons must be firing in bursts that ride the lower frequency brain wave of 40hertz. In addition the specific areas of the thalamus (for sound and sight, respectively) must be talking to the proprietary areas of the cortex.

Overall one can see that Churchland’s description of the current state of play on consciousness studies is largely consistent with the views that Stern and Solms were working with 15 years earlier.

Stern builds the bridge from self to other through discussing the literature on mirror neurons. He cites Braten (1998) whose work indicates that mirror neurons take effect from the start and are part of the reason we can distinguish between self-other and shared objects of experience. Based on evidence from mirror neurons Stern makes the following claim:

“In light of the new evidence on other-centered-participation shown by infants in their many forms of imitation, as well as the new findings on mirror neurons and adaptive oscillators, I am now convinced that early forms of intersubjectivity exist almost from the beginning of life” (Stern ‘The Interpersonal World of the Infant p. XXII)

Based on Stern’s developmental data (and neurological data) he not only argues that intersubjectivity is there from the start but that there are four main ways of being intersubjectively there with others. (1) Self Regulating Other: Which is involves regulation of things like security, attachment, arousal, activation, pleasure, etc (2) Primary intersubjectivity (which begins around 9 months) where we are linked to the other via other centric participation. (3) Self in the presence of the other: Stern describes this as the type of thinking that occurs when the self is in the presence of another though not interacting with them. (4) The sense of self with others as part of a family triad. Stern argues that by three months the child begins to form expectations and representations of the self as part of a triadic constellation (ibid p. XXIII).

Stern’s four different senses of the self with others are very important. However it is equally important to emphasise the importance of our sense of relatedness to each other against background of a shared world of experience. Psychoanalyst’s Stolorow and Cavell have correctly emphasised that our embodied interaction with a shared world of experience is a necessary condition of any thought. Stern doesn’t deny any of this, as can be seen from above he argues that our sense of a shared world of experience is equiprimordial with our sense of others. Nonetheless I think that it is important to emphasise the point by considering some recent developmental that supports Stern on this point. The epistemological triangle can only be complete when the objective world is added. This is a point that is so obvious (a shared world of experience is ever present) that we sometimes play down this truism. On this issue I think it is important to discuss the relation some psychological data on children’s relation to the world before continuing on discussing the dyadic relationship that exists between people.

Jean Piaget’s experimental research led him to believe that young children at the age of five months do not have an adequate knowledge of objects and that they have to pass through a variety of developmental stages before they will acquire the full concept of an object. Piaget noted that children playing with a ball will not search for it if it runs out of their field of vision. He drew the conclusion that they do not have knowledge of object permanence at this age. As early as the seventies, psychologists such as Bower were questioning Piaget’s view by claiming that these babies do not search for the missing objects because of a problem of coordinating their movement. And since the seventies, it has been common-place to try to test children’s concept of an object by using experiments that do not require coordinated sequences of actions. Bower’s studies have made surprising discoveries: (Here I am citing from Baillargeon, R., Spelke, E, and Wasserman’s paper ‘‘Object permanence in infants’’):

Bower’s studies have yielded four findings that seem to have provided evidence for object permanence in infants well below 9 months. First, 7 week old Infants were found to discriminate between disappearances that signalled the continued existence of an object (e.g. Gradual Occlusion), and disappearances that did not (e.g. gradual dissolution or sudden implosion). Second, 2 month old infants were found to anticipate the reappearance of an object that stopped behind the screen, ‘looking to that half of the movement path the object would have reached had it not stopped’ Third, five month old infants were found to show disruptions in their tracking when an object was altered while passing behind the screen: they tended to look back at the screen, as though in search of the original object. Finally, 5-month-old-infants were found to reach for an object that had been hidden by darkening the room. (1985, 195)


However, Bower’s experiments are not conclusive evidence that children are born with concepts of object permanence. Piaget himself claimed in a personal correspondence with Bower that he could interpret some of these experiments in a way which was consistent with his own theory (ibid., 97). Because of the inconclusiveness of the debate between Bower and Piaget,[3] Baillargeon et al. set up more rigorous tests to show that humans are born with concepts of object permanence. Quine, like Piaget, also argued that Bower’s experiments did not necessarily show that a 4-month-old child has a concept of an object:

True, an infant is observed to expect a steadily moving object to reappear after it passes behind a screen; but all this happens within the specious present, and reflects rather the expectation of continuity of a present feature than the reification of an intermittently absent object. (1969, 24)

Here Quine is interpreting Bower’s famous experiment to mean not that the young child has a concept of an object, but as indicating that the young child expects continuity in his experiences. Baillargeon et al.’s experiment aimed to test this view of Quine and Piaget’s.

They began by testing whether children have what they called The Solidity Principle, which was the principle that a solid object cannot pass through another solid object. An experiment was set up where an object was presented to the child and then occluded. Then another object was rolled towards the occluded object. If the child exhibited surprise that the object moved through the space which seemed to be occupied by first the object, then this would exhibit two things: first, that the child had grasped the Solidity Principle; second, that the child understood object permanence, because he knew the objects still existed when occluded. Baillargeon et al performed this experiment on four month old children. An unargued assumption of the experiment was that the child was exhibiting surprise when he stared at the event longer than when it did not violate the solidity principle and the object permanence principle. When completed the experiment showed that four-month-old infants do seem to reason according to the principle of solidity, and the principle of object permanence.

Quine explained Bower’s experimental results by saying that the child expected the object to return out the other side of the screen because of an expectation of continuity. The child saw the object-shaped thing move towards and behind a screen. So he expected this object-shaped thing to continue moving in the same direction as it started from; hence, the surprise when it did not move out the other side of the screen. For Quine this in no way indicates that our child has a sophisticated concept of an object. However, expectation of continuity does not explain what is going on in Baillargeon et al.’s experiment. The child is exhibiting two beliefs: first, the belief that object-shaped things do not disappear when occluded; second, that object-shaped things are solid, and hence cannot be moved through. Hence the surprise the child exhibits when the object appears on the other side of the screen as though it had passed through the original object. Obviously, expectation of continuity does not explain what is going on in Baillargeon et al’s experiment. So to account for both Bower and Baillargeon’s experimental results, Quine needs to postulate at a minimum that 4 month old children expect object-shaped things not to disappear when occluded, to move in undeviating paths unless stopped by another object-shaped blob, and to have solidity. Research by Baillargeon et al. which I have just outlined indicates that four-month-old children seem to have implicit knowledge of the following five principles about objects:

(1) The principle of solidity.

(2) The principle that objects are three-dimensional.

(3) Objects tend to move on undeviating paths.

(4) Objects move continuously through space and time.

(5) Objects only move when contacted by another object. (Children make exceptions to this principle when they are viewing intentional objects)

This work of Baillargeon et al. indicates that children from a very young age have an intricate knowledge of objects. Stern was aware of some of this work (though a lot of it was discovered after he wrote his book), and he felt important as it is it needs to be looked at alongside data on children’s implicit knowledge of others. Happily there has been a stunning amount of research in this area aswell, people like Simon Baron-Cohen[4] work indicates that prior to learning language, normal children view other people as intentional agents with beliefs, desires etc. Furthermore, there is evidence that such children who lack this theory of mind suffer severe language learning difficulties.[5] The evidence for a pre-linguistic theory of mind has been summed up succinctly by the psychologist Paul Bloom:

What understanding do prelinguistic children have about the minds of others? Consider first sensitivity to what other people are attending to. By around nine months, a baby will naturally follow its mother’s line of regard (Butterworth, 1991), and will also follow her pointing gestures (Murphy and Messer 1977), at about the same age, babies can monitor their parents’ emotional reactions to potentially dangerous situations and react accordingly. For instance when seeing a spider, a baby will be less likely to approach it, if its mother seems fearful than if she seems happy (Zarbatany and Lamb 1985) and when babies are uncertain or hesitant, they check what their mother is looking at and how she is reacting (Bretherton, 1992)… (2000, 67)


Bloom then wonders whether the gaze following is really an indication that the child has an implicit theory of mind, as Baron-Cohen believes it does, or whether the gaze is just an automatic orientating device that has nothing to do with intentional attribution. And he cites an experiment which seems to indicate that Baron-Cohen was indeed correct:

One way to address this question is to ask what sort of stimuli elicit gaze following in babies. A study with 12-month-olds by Johnson, Slaughter, and Carey (in press) reports an intriguing finding. When exposed to a robot who acts contingently with them through beeping and light flashing, but that has no face, babies will nonetheless follow its gaze (the orientation of the front, reactive part of the robot) treating it as if it were a person. But they do not do so if a faceless robot fails to interact with them in a meaningful way. This suggests that gaze following is applied to entities that give some sign of having intentional states, regardless of their appearance, and supports the view that gaze following is related, at least for twelve-month-olds to intentional attribution.(ibid, 62).


In my next blog post I will discuss in more detail how current developmental data, and neuroscientific discoveries support Sterns views on the nature of the self against the view supported by people by Klein. To do this I will describe the developmental data presented by Stern in light of more recent research, and compare this with the extravagant speculations of Klein. By closely analysing Klein’s texts I will show that her claims while perhaps supported by the pragmatic success of her and her disciples is not supported by any empirical data. I will demonstrate that based on current empirical data the more moderate position argued for by Stern is the one that warrants further research. I will also further develop parallels with Neuropsychoanalysis and Sterns position.

[1] I am not here claiming that this was Stern’s motive in writing the ‘Interpersonal World of The Infant’ merely that I think it is a happy consequence of this type of interdisciplinary empirical research.

[2] Quote taken from Solms and Turnbull 2000 ‘The Brain and The Inner World p. 3)

[3] Piaget is not only a strong proponent of the view that the empirical evidence for innate concepts is weak; he also refuses to grant any significance to Chomskies’ poverty of stimulus argument. So Piaget is, in effect, one of the strongest opponents of both the logical and empirical argument for innate concepts. Chomsky and Piaget had a public debate in the 1970 and this debate is recorded in the Book: Piattelli-Palmarini, M EDS Language and Learning:The debate between Jean Piaget and Noam Chomsky.

[4] See Simon Baron Cohen:Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind.

[5] See for example Cohen’s book Mindblindness, and Kuhl, P. ‘‘Is speech learning gated by the social brain?’’ Developmental Science 10 pp 110-120

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