Book Review of: How Infants Know Minds. Reddy, V. (2008). Harvard University Press.

Ryle, T., 2009. Book Review of: How Infants Know Minds. Reddy, V. (2008). Harvard University Press.. Reformulation, Summer, pp.33-34.


Professor Reddy presents in this book a review of observational work on early development; as usual both the capacities of infants and the ingenuities of experimenters are impressive and in this case are laced with delightful personal experiences with her own children. But beyond this the book offers a vigorous critique of the dominant conceptual basis of most developmental psychology. Her thesis is simple: Why is it that, in the current essentially Piagetian tradition, infants are granted extensive and growing abilities in their comprehension and manipulation of the physical environment but are assumed to have no emotional or psychological capacities? She explains this by an analogy: just as according to aeronautical theory bumble bees cannot fly, so according to conventional psychology infants cannot feelingly know other minds.

This capacity is seen by most psychologists to be achieved only after cognitive developments allow them to deduce feelings from behaviours, much in the way that these psychologists construct models of emotion by a process of observation and deduction. This ‘third person’ approach, when applied to early development, ignores the experience of virtually every parent and imposes enormous constraints upon how infant behaviour can be understood. Prof Reddy argues that understanding a fellow human being of any age must involve an engagement on human second person (‘I-Thou’) terms and describes how such interactions are supported by the innate biological features of the infant self and by the ensuing intense, continued relationships with others. Early affective expressions and interchanges are the base onto which are grafted semiotic communications with the social network.

How far has CAT theory incorporated these understandings or at least remained compatible with them?

From the beginning, the theoretical base of CAT depended on the critical assimilation of aspects of other models, notably psychoanalytic object relations theories, personal construct theory and, later, work in the Vygotskian tradition. The formation of self processes through the internalisation of parental figures, as described in Freud’s structural model and in object relations theories, was a central influence on the development of CAT theory, but has been elaborated and considerably revised with the recognition that, rather than representations of others being acquired, patterns of relationships with others are internalised and repeated. CAT rejected the separate study of feeling, meaning, knowing and acting and with the description of the Procedural Sequence Object Relations Model (PSORM) the psychoanalytic focus on conflict was replaced by an emphasis on sequences.

The key concept of the reciprocal role procedure (RRP) offered a model of the formation and maintenance of relationship patterns with others and recognition of the role of others in the formation of the individual self. Leiman applied Vygotsky’s understanding of the process of internalisation to earlier stages of development and emphasised the role of socially generated signs as the bearers of meaning in human development and as the basis of self-reflective consciousness.

The relevance of new observational studies to CAT

The social formation of the individual through the experience of early relationships and through dialogue was thus clearly enunciated. It could be argued, however, that the focus on semiotics and the now fashionable interest in ‘dialogism’ have overshadowed the importance of innate, unmediated affective expressions and enacted relationship behaviours in the formation and maintenance of personality The concept of the RRP implies a relationship between two individuals but the nature of the individual self in the very young infant has been incompletely addressed.

The absolute need to emphasise the social origins of the individual self during the development of CAT may have led to a relative lack of attention to this question, although the work of Trevarthen has been seen to be of fundamental importance here.

‘How infants know minds’ offers a closely argued case for the need to base the study of infant development on an engagement of the observer with the infant who already exists as a separate self at one pole of the engagement.

Reddy argues that traditional approaches introduce two distortions in that they disembed the infant’s mind from the community of minds it inhabits and disembody it, talking as if minds are hidden and only to be understood by interpreting observable behaviours. To base understanding of infant development on these conceptual foundations has generated decades of largely unproductive research into the child’s acquisition of a ‘theory of mind’. Having offered a clear discussion of the philosophical issues raised by the assumption of there being an ‘uncrossable gap’ between minds, the book considers observational studies of development concerning a number of key areas (such as the role of rhythm and imitation in establishing communication, the infant’s awareness of being the object of attention, the patterning of conversation, self-consciousness, joking and deceiving) in each case considering the scope and limits of ‘third person’ understandings and indicating how far second person studies and assumptions contribute to understanding.

Autism

I am grateful to Julie Lloyd (personal communication, March 2009) for noting how Reddy’s perspective on children with autism can be understood as the person taking a ‘third person’ perspective on themselves and others and as having serious problems with a ‘second-person’ perspective. She suggests that this view is compatible with the position offered in CAT in which this deficit is seen as a dialogic gap or disassociation between the emotional and conceptual aspects of self. The devastating effects of autism can be seen to result from the inability to ‘feel other minds’. Reddy describes research in which children diagnosed with autism failed to show any self-conscious emotional reactions to the self or to others in the presence of a mirror (unlike children with Down’s Syndrome), although they could recognise both the mirror and their own reflection.

Developing CAT

The book reinforces the claim that CAT as a model is compatible with research in the field of early development and clarifies areas where CAT has been vague, notably in reviewing recent work and in describing the innate biological features which underlie the human infant’s capacity to be socially formed. It does not address directly the question of sign mediation, perhaps because it deals largely with the first two years of life, but clearly affective interchanges involve conventionalised signs as well as innate expressiveness from early on.

The dependence on language in much of psychotherapy, including CAT, can lead to a third person ‘objective’ attitude in both theory and practice. Even our celebration of dialogue might undervalue the unspoken exchanges conveyed by tone and posture (and possibly involving our mirror cells) and may discount the impact of just being with a person or a group. The linking of art therapy and music therapy to CAT verbal and diagrammatic reformulation may point to one way of incorporating more non-verbal elements. This not to say that the historical aim of CAT to identify and challenge obstacles to change--removing ‘roadblocks’--will not continue to require from therapists the ability to sense and describe verbally and diagrammatically procedures which patients have not been able to identify, describe or revise.

Full Reference

Ryle, T., 2009. Book Review of: How Infants Know Minds. Reddy, V. (2008). Harvard University Press.. Reformulation, Summer, pp.33-34.

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