Companionship and Art in Mother-Infant Interactions

Colwyn Trevarthen is Emeritus Professor of child psychology and psychobiology at the University of Edinburgh. He originally trained in biology and studied infancy in Harvard in the late 1960s.

The author, in the flesh!

In his talk “Born for Art, and the Joyful Companionship of Fiction,” Trevarthen makes a case for mother-infant interactions as facilitating creativity. Mother-infant interactions take place even before birth, when mothers will speak to their unborn children. This behavior is rewarded when infants recognize their mother’s voice. Subsequent interactions between mothers and their infants are mutually beneficial and have qualities of “communicative musicality,” pulse,” and “narrative.”

These are all qualities of art and require creative collaboration between the mother and infant. Trevarthen doesn’t believe that the interaction was limited to mothers and infants. He believes other family members observed these interactions and reacted positively and creatively, continuing to foster play activity in infants and therefore facilitate further development of creativity.

Trevarthen believes that it was these interactions that ultimately separated us from Neanderthals and gave us the unique ability to produce imaginative art and music, which he believes stems from mother-infant interactions. This makes sense if we think about the neural pruning that occurs in the first few months of life. Interactions between mother and infant during this critical period would strengthen neural pathways related to sociality and creativity that are involved in these interactions.

environ mom infant
Image by me, inspired by research by Zaneta Thayer

Epigenetic factors play a huge role in this transition. The plasticity of the human infant brain creates the perfect opportunity to foster creative innovation during this time. This kind of interaction can only strengthen social bonds within families and communities that participate in these interactions.

There is an online flash activity that I really like that illustrates the importance of the mother’s interactions with her infant. It’s called Lick Your Rats. You are put in the position of a rat mother and tasked with grooming your infant. The more attention you give your pups, the more activated their glucocorticoid receptor becomes, which helps the rats deal with stress more easily as adults. Trevarthen also cites the research that this flash game is based on, so I thought this was the perfect illustration of his point.

lick your rat pups
Try it out yourself! From the University of Utah Health Sciences website

The discovery of mirror neurons in rhesus monkeys is another illustration of how mother-infant interactions could facilitate creative collaboration. Mirror neurons make empathy possible, and therefore make it possible to share experiences. Rhesus monkeys have a very similar developmental trajectory as humans, including the intimate face-to-face interactions between mother and infant that seem to give rise to artistic expression (an outward indication of shared experience and ideas).

I have a few problems with Trevarthen’s ideas. Trevarthen puts a lot of emphasis on the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA) that is needed for the ideal development of a human infant. Mismatch theory is very popular and used to explain an abundance of morbidities that we face today. Trevarthen invokes the EEA in order to make a case for increased maternal interaction in a society that has seen a decline in this kind of parenting. He cites that women  who exhibit warm mothering tendencies tend to have a harder time with abstract reasoning, saying that this is the reason many modern women have trouble juggling the responsibilities of motherhood and employment. I don’t know if this is necessarily the case. This may just be a knee-jerk reaction of mine, but this assertion just sounds wrong to me. There are plenty of women I know who have juggled the demands of employment and motherhood expertly. My own mother, who I like to think is very intelligent and hard-working, raised my sister and I working full time and (as far as I can tell) we turned out as developmentally sound as anyone I know.

He also goes on to say that long periods of day care in the first year of an infant’s life are “clearly detrimental.” If we are invoking the idea of an EEA, however, it doesn’t seem to me that daycare should pose much of a threat to the infant’s development, since the idea that children were typically raised by the community seems to be widely held.

It may just be that I have a problem with the idea of an EEA. Mismatch theory sounds nice on paper, and can account for some problems that we have, but typically these problems can be attributed to cultural causes as well (think obesity/diabetes). Culture is also probably the best solution to these problems, since culture is more fluid and can adapt quicker than biology.

Regardless, I think the idea that artistic creativity emerged from the epigenetic influence of mother-infant interactions is genius. Mirror neurons, release of oxytocin and dopamine during these interactions, and the rythmic nature of these interactions all support Trevarthen’s claims. I think it is also important to note that artistic endeavors are an intrinsic part of human nature, and the idea that this ability to innovate and create on a level that other creatures cannot is truly something that sets humans apart.

16 thoughts on “Companionship and Art in Mother-Infant Interactions”

  1. Trevarthen’s (2012) article had some meat to it. I found it to be a pretty solid review of research regarding infant development and play. We are shown how different aspects of the environment of evolutionary adaptiveness (EEA) of infants shapes their development and their psychology and social abilities in the future. You hear stories of American couples adopting babies from foreign orphanages and the issues they encounter. These communicative and interpersonal issues could find explanation in this type of research. Trevarthen states that mother, father, and family need to ‘play’ with the infant. That is, the imaginative parenting exhibited by modern humans nurtured the child’s ‘affectionate ingenuity.’ A strong part of this article was the addition of Bateson family research, especially that of M-C Bateson. Infants are not uncommunicative blobs. They are not ‘acted upon’ but ‘interacted with.’ M-C Bateson illustrated this fact, discerning the signs of proto-conversations between mother and infant. Vocalizations are a huge part of this but so, too, are movements. We all talk with our hands.

    I really liked Trevarthen’s paragraphs describing Tulving’s research. The idea of episodic memory as the building block for both autonoesis and socionoesis is insightful. It reminds me of Tom Hank’s in Castway, and how he screamed for Wilson when he was lost at sea. It truly was a ‘loss of this collective story-making’ as Trevarthen so aptly put it. As much as I found the information presented in this article to be quite fascinating, I would have liked stronger support for his conclusion that the US is behind the times in raising children effectively. It is clear that mothers, fathers, and family members have an obligation to the infant so that they develop properly but I think Trevarthen’s conclusions drastically overreaches in light of the information he gives the reader.

    I was not a fan of the Mason (2009) article. While I believe that there is some credit to phenomenological methodology I don’t think I would ever use it as my only form of investigation. The background information presented was minimal and surface level which suggests that the author does not have the strongest grasp on the more biological aspects of play and inter-personal interaction. While the author tried to make a distinction between participant observation and fieldplay, I don’t think it carried through. Finally, I really disagree that the emic and etic are no longer issues dealt with by dance researchers. If we could all become one through dance, school dances would have been a lot more enjoyable. Victor Turner also talked about the importance of bodily experience. Couldn’t dance ethnography just be defined as a part of doing comprehensive ethnographic work?

    As a fan of the show “So You Think You Can Dance,” I have often marveled at the relationship between choreographers and dancers and how a particular piece comes together. The Mason article mystified the process with non-directional “feely-subjective” research. Dissatisfied, I looked for some articles that looked at dance more scientifically and systematically. I came across an article by Sofianidis et al (2014) titled “Can dancers suppress the haptically mediated interpersonal entrainment during rhythmic sway?” What I found interesting about interesting about this article was that it focused on the importance of partnering and keeping rhythm with the beat. As a fan of all types of dance, I immediately thought of all the ways in which partners synchronize and all the ways in which they purposefully de-couple their movements.

    Specifically, this research was looking into the theory that it is extremely difficult if not nearly impossible to intentionally not engage in interpersonal entrainment. Previous studies had shown that this was the case when couples were given visual cues meant to evoke such an interaction. Sofianidis et al. focused on testing this theory with haptically coupled individuals. Since dances are trained in body control, they might be more able to withstand the entrainment urge. Traditional Greek Dancers have been found to be unusually good at matching the beat of the music but also keep rhythm with their partner’s rhythm through hand-holding. So, 54 participants were broken down into three groups with 9 couples each. The first group was made up of expert couples. The second group was made up of mixed couples, that is, a couple with one expert and one non-dancer. The third group was made up of non-dancer couples. The participants were given noise-blocking headphones that produced a fast or slow metronome beat. Reflective markers were placed on their index fingers and the experts (and randomly selected non-dancers for group 3) were placed to stand on force plates. Participants swayed to their beats, non-touching (NT) and touching (T). Six trials were completed for NT alone, 3 trials each for slow and fast beats. Five trials were completed for NT to T and T to NT. All conditions lasted for 30 seconds.

    Their results indicate that the traditional Greek dancers did indeed have more control over their bodies. They were in fact able to keep their sway timed to their metronome when touching fingertips with a partner who’s metronome was set at a different rhythm. The non-dancer couples showed some entrainment. The most entrainment was found between the mixed couples. In this group, the non-dancers rhythm was heavily influenced by their experienced partners. Interpersonal entrainment can be resisted; dancers are just trained to prioritize the musical beat rather than their partner’s beat. Non-dancers prioritize sensory information and therefore find themselves more entrained to their partner’s movements. In the case of the mixed-couples, there seems to be a leader-follower phenomenon occurring. This social interaction must be communicated through haptic touch (as has been shown in swing dancing). For me, this research provides much more substantial proof as to how dance is experienced than the Mason article.

    1. These two articles provoked particularly lively discussions in class. Many, including myself, had issues with the Trevarthen article. Once discussion began, our feelings intensified. There is way too much emphasis on the ideal environment to raise a child. There is enough pressure in the fact that you have a child and it comes out all soft and vulnerable. I imagine that first time parents experience unimaginable stress when the hospital says “Congratulations” while simultaneously kicking them out of the building after a day or two. Really, this seems like an article supporting 1950s housewives. If raising a healthy and well-adjusted child depends largely on the mother-infant interaction, then the burden of producing competent offspring rests solely on the mother which isn’t fair. In my opinion, Trevarthen’s argument loses all respectability when he basically states that women who are warm mothers have a lower ability to reason abstractly. I think Trevathen should consider that as long as a child receives love and attention from someone, they will be just fine. If day cares have enough staff to handle the children effectively, then the child will not be wanting for stimulation interaction. This article reminds me of the Worthman article we read previously on emotion and embodiment. I’d like to see both author’s opinions on the crisis orphanages are facing world-wide (i.e. too many children, too few staff and supplies).

      I still strongly dislike the Mason article, even after giving it a second look. Phenomenology is an important method, but it cannot be the only method to research, especially if that research is proclaimed to be neuroanthropological. Again, Worthman stated that individuals who are subject to the same event will experience it differently. This is one of the reasons we will never be able to do away with the phenomenological approach: it’s just too important. However, there needs to be a way to study experience scientifically. I know that even this statement can be contested but, in my opinion, the strength of neuroanthropology and other social sciences is the bridge the gap between what cannot be quantified and what obviously can be. In other words, neuroanthropology is one such field that united the humanities and the hard sciences. Mason’s research on dance lies directly with a humanistic approach. In my opinion, this weakens any subsequent conclusions on the matter. In both of the aforementioned articles on art, the running theme seems to be the experience of play. If this is the case, then it might be useful to follow Leslie Heywood’s lead in synthesizing Panksepp’s affective neuroscience of emotion with Porges’s Polyvagal theory to understand what play is and why it might have been naturally selected for.

  2. I have never thought of the mother-infant bond as being artistic and creative. Not being a mother myself, I cannot really know what that bond feels like. I always thought it was purely biological, as it is with other animals. I have often heard people question what the purpose of art is, that art exists just for arts sake, but this article points to an actual, visible value in art. The mother-infant interactions, which lead to art and creativity, are what makes humans human. Art and creativity gives us an awareness of the world that we otherwise would not have. This, then, makes art and creativity some of the most important, yet understated, facets of humanity.

    However, I have an issue with the idea that putting your child in daycare means there is a “lack of warm maternal support.” While a child in daycare might not be around his parents during a portion of the day, that does not mean that the parents are not warm and affectionate when they are off work and the kids come home. I could potentially see how this could make a mother even more affectionate, for her absence during the day might make her want to be extra affectionate at night.

  3. I also do not think that I agree with his conclusions about mothers having a hard time juggling work and their children or that daycare is detrimental to children when they are young. I myself went to daycare often at a young age and have found that it was a good thing because of the ways I was able to interact with other children and different adults than my parents. By going to daycare for so long when I was younger, I feel that I was able to accumulate many social skills at a much younger age than normal, which gave me a better look at my life and how I interacted with people.

  4. Great write-up. I also feel that Trevarthen puts too much emphasis on the mother-infant interaction- what about the greater socio-cultural environment? I do think however that mother-infant connection helped build our capacity for language- think “motherese.” I did like the phenomological approach of both of these readings- quite different from what I am used to reading in this department. I wonder, “how hard is it to get stuff like that published anymore?”

  5. The EEA explanation regarding the relationship between warm mothering practices and an incapability for abstract thought truly disturbs me. Maybe, just maybe, a huge reason some women have trouble juggling employment and motherhood (particularly during a child’s infancy) is due to the incredibly short paid maternal leave time in the United States. Furthermore, the US rarely offers paid paternity leave, which would undoubtedly help the mother raise the child. Worse yet, single mothers are especially hurt by the limited maternity leave in the US. It’s pretty hard to be super tender and loving if you’re stressed about keeping your job as well as raising a child. Perhaps this is also a knee jerk reaction, but I for one am pretty offended. It would be interesting to see a similar study in a place such as Sweden or Italy, where the paid maternity leave is much longer.

  6. What about the babies whose mother and family have rejected them,or who have abandoned them, who did not receive that creative interaction?

  7. I was slightly peeved by the emphasis the Trevarthen placed on mother infant interaction over others. It seemed like he was saying yes the family should play with the child, the father can and should play with child as he will have greater impact later on, and siblings should also interact but if they mother is not the main one to provide interaction and stimulation it will be detrimental. He brought up how daycare can be detrimental for a developing infant but just as extended family provides a necessary caring and vital support network for an infant so do the daycare workers who form a bond with the child they care for on an often daily basis. I was pleased to see a mention at the end of the article on the poor maternity and paternity leave situations for families at all socioeconomic situations in the U.S. and how this can effect families and infants. Although, that was not specifically investigated or discussed. There was one other issue I had with the article and that was it seemed to imply that mothers everywhere engage in this type of loving play interaction cross culturally before birth and after with their infants. I’m unconvinced this is true. Women in some hunter gatherer societies do not believe it is their responsibility to engage in eye contact, talk to their infant, playfully touch their infant, or other similar things that were mentioned here. Their primary goal may be to keep the infant fed, safe, comfortable, happy, and mainly alive. While I think the article was very applicable to the U.S. and other western countries it may not be as applicable to others that are less similar to us in the way they raise their infants and children.

    1. After our discussion on the importance of play and dissociation, the article does seem particularly culturally limited, even if it does bring up some interesting points. Even looking at a number of animals, fathers and other members of the group do play with younger members.

  8. I am personally of the opinion that neandertals and homo sapiens interbred in Europe, as we can see in DNA evidence. I am not sure what evidence has been provided that he thinks supports the idea that the were more or less creative that homo sapiens of the same period. In neandertal burial sites we see evidence of flower being left for the dead as well as gifts. To bequeath gifts to the dead, who have no need for them in the physical world, must require some degree of imagination with regard to the after life at the very least. I feel as though to say that humans were more creative base on their mother infant interaction, which can in no way be comparatively studied, is a fairly large leap lacking a significant amount of scientific inquiry. Additionally, I feel that many of his assumptions regarding modern mothers are not scientific in any way. They most come off as misogynistic, as I can see no real basis in his work for what he is saying. It sounds to me as though he is pontificating in order the attempt to give undue scientific legitimacy to his misguided opinions.

  9. I’d never thought of mothers communicating with their unborn children as an advantage, but I suppose it makes sense. I wonder, however, how much advantage this actually gave H. Sapiens over Neanderthals. I feel like anthropologists love to give reasons why the Neanderthals died.

    Also, the Mason article made me think of something posted on the Neuroanthropology facebook a few days ago. Here’s the link:

  10. I was really interested in learning more about the “bonding hormone” also known as oxytocin. So after doing a little research, I came across this article by Maureen Salamon called, 11 Interesting Effects of Oxytocin, and it was really fascinating to learn about all the different effects this hormone can produce. According to Salamon, oxytocin is also known as the “hormone of attachment” because it creates feelings of calm and closeness between mother and child during childbirth and breastfeeding. Pregnant women with higher levels of oxytocin during their first trimester bond more strongly. Next Oxytocin solidifies relationships. According to The National Academy of Sciences, when comparing urine levels of oxytocin and a related hormone called vasopressin in biological and adoptive children who lived in Russian and Romanian orphanages, oxytocin levels rose in biological children after having contact with their mothers. Oxytocin levels remained static in adoptive children in the same situation suggesting a physiological basis for why some adoptive children have difficulty in forming secure relationships. Oxytocin can also ease stress, according to the article, research done on prairie voles showed that those separated from their siblings exhibited signs of anxiety, stress and depression that lesson after they were injected with oxytocin. Another effect of oxytocin is that it crystallizes emotional memories. The National Academy of Sciences supports researchers’ whose theories suggest that oxytocin would amplify men’s early memories of their mothers. The researchers’ had men, who had positive relationships with their mothers, inhaled a synthetic version of the hormone, which in turn, intensified fond memories of their mothers. Oxytocin can also facilitate childbirth and breastfeeding. Large amounts of oxytocin are released during labor which intensifies contractions that open the cervix and allow the baby to pass through birth canal. Physicians use synthetic oxytocin, brand name Pitocin, to induce labor. After birth, the hormone continues to stimulate contractions that discourage hemorrhaging. The hormone oxytocin can reduced drug cravings as well. In 1999 the Journal Progress in Brain Research reported that oxytocin inhibits tolerance to addictive drugs and reduces withdrawal symptom. “It’s an antidote for carving”, the Journal claims. This “bonding hormone” can also improve social skills. According to the Journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, inhaling oxytocin improved the ability of people with autism to interact with each other, reducing the level of fear during socializing with others. Natural oxytocin levels were lower in those with autism. Oxytocin can also trigger protective instincts, induce sleep and foster generosity, according to the article. The Journal of Science claims that oxytocin sparks aggression against outsiders who might threaten someone’s social group. Oxytocin also counters the effects of cortisol, which in turn has a calming effect which encourages sleep, according to the Journal of Regulatory Peptides. The Journal Public Library of Science ONE conducted an experiment in which oxytocin was inhaled and then that individual was asked to make a decision on how to split money with a stranger. Those on oxytocin were 80% more generous. The effects of this hormone seem to be abundant.

  11. The concept of the baby’s environment of the mother being such an important aspect of the baby’s development reminds me of the article on psychosis. It just further shows the importance of the cultural and physical environment for mental and physical health.

  12. I did not like this guy. He put a lot on the plate of the mothers, as if there isn’t enough already. He is whole attitude seemed very backwards, and though some of what he said could be substantiated, I feel as though he was drawing a lot of unnecessary conclusions that paint the females of our species into a proverbial corner. An as someone who was raised by a working mother, and I think I said this in my original comment that I couldn’t find, I was just offended. This may be a bit of bias on my part but there is a lot more where he is coming from. You have to be objective in science and this lacked a lot for me. So as much as it contributed to the discussion it detracted.

  13. After our discussion in class, I definitely feel that he is not capturing the whole picture here. I think that he makes some good points and brings some interesting things to the table, but I think there is definitely a lot more to mother-infant relationships and interactions.

  14. Reading this article again, I am still peeved by the admission that working women cannot be good mothers. The one valid argument that this point does relate to is the fact that the United States has one of the worst maternity leaves of the developed countries. I do not think that women who use day cares are bad moms, but I do not like the fact that they are given no choice but to go back to work almost immediately after having a baby. For first time moms in particular, the adjustment can be extremely hard to get used to. It can be hard for ambitious women to choose between their career and “properly” raising their children. This problem could be rectified if there was paternity leave as well, which of course there is not. How can people be upset that women are placing their children in day cares when there is no alternative for the working woman? I for one do not intend on giving up my career and my life for my children.

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