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.
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.
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.
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.