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Infant Studies and Baby Science in the Future - Part 2 Pleasures and Annoyances: Lessons from Babies

My presentation is about the behavioral guidance one gets from pleasure-seeking. I wish, therefore, to start by saying that it is a very special pleasure for me to be in Japan on the occasion of the meetings of the International Society for the Study of Infants (ISIS), to be with Dr. Noboru Kobayashi and other friends in this country once again, and to have the opportunity to address a larger audience through CRN.

As my colleagues know, I always travel with many slides, for I truly believe that a photo is worth, as the saying goes, a thousand words. The advent of Powerpoint has made the display of photos, graphics, and figures especially easy, and in my appearances in Japan I made luxurious use of such modern conveniences. For the present venue, I now wish to present the "points" of my current thinking on the topic at hand, and which I spoke of in Kyoto and Tokyo, in as concise a format as possible. Perhaps this succinct offering will not only suffice, but may deliver the points even more lucidly without the distraction of numerous photos of the babies, the researchers, and the graphs they generated together.

From my 50-year career in the field of infant behavior and development, I have also studied children growing into adolescence, young adulthood, and now into middle age. I am beginning to feel as if the infants I have studied are now almost as old as I am. In fact, my colleagues and I at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island are still following those infants whom we first studied as newborns ? and they are now reaching their midforties! This gives us a great perspective on human development as it unfolds, and as the destinies of individuals are reached.

Among the greatest lessons I have learned from this enterprise is that the pleasures and annoyances that individuals encounter, some produced by their own behavior and some produced inevitably by the context in which they live, are among the most important determinants of individuals' well-being and life destinies. Humans come into the world, after embryonic and fetal development which in themselves produce individual differences in morphology, with a variety of inherent or constitutional reflexes which provide the basis for the earliest manifestations of behavior. These neurophysiological dispositions are "gifts of the species," and provide the scaffolding for neuromotor responses to occur when elicited by a variety of sensory stimuli. The newborn mammal comes into the world capable of tasting, hearing sounds, smelling aromas, responding to tactile stimulation, and seeing. Individual differences abound at birth, these variations having their origins in genetic diversity, congenital or intra-uterine exposures, and perinatal experience. Of special import is the fact that the normal human newborn arrives ready to receive stimuli in all sensory modalities, and to experience the pleasures and annoyances of sensation.

With time and the cascading of developmental processes, the basic reflex repertoire of the baby will become altered (McGraw, 1943). Simultaneously with the morphological changes in brain structure and development of peripheral neurological structures, including dendrite proliferation and myelinization of neural tissue, increasingly complex stimulation will be assimilated by the developing child. The basic reflexes of the child, including the grasp reflex, swimming reflex, and stepping reflex, strikingly present at birth, will eventually wane in strength and yield to a more mature "voluntary" or learned pattern of behavior in each of these modes while seeming to carry with them vestiges of their reflexive past. A very special transitional phase of development is that occurring between two and five months of age, in which the human infant's cerebral cortex ascends in dominance over the subcortical structures that previously mediated the reflexive behaviors.

During the period from two to five months of age, the baby seems especially susceptible to learning prospects afforded by the environment. Some of these are of the classical conditioning sort in which a previously neutral stimulus acquires efficacy in eliciting a response previously favored only by an unconditioned stimulus. An example of this would be the baby's salivating in response to the sight of a particular spoon with which it has been previously fed. Whereas the spoon-held food previously elicited salivation when the food touched the baby's taste buds, now the sight of the spoon itself produces a similar response. As the food is itself a pleasant substance, eliciting a gleeful response in the baby, especially when quite hungry, now even the approach (sight and sound) of the feeding person will often produce sounds of glee, smiling, and other signs of affinity or affection for the feeding event and person. This in itself may be seen as a basis for attachment of the baby for individuals in his or her environment who provide satisfying experiences. This entire pattern of events, particularly when it becomes apparent that the baby engages in behavior seeking to perpetuate these moments of pleasure, may be regarded, first, as honoring the classical conditioning paradigm of Pavlov and at the same time exemplifying the Law of Effect of Thorndike: Those responses which are followed by a satisfying state of affairs will tend to be repeated in the future, while those responses which are not will tend in that same context not to be repeated (Reese and Lipsitt, 1970).

While some observers make a rather sharp distinction between classical conditioning, on the one hand, and operant conditioning as systematized by B. F. Skinner, on the other, there seem to be developmental considerations which suggest that a transition is made, perhaps most strikingly during the two to five month age period wherein the baby's behavior becomes principally operant in nature. That is to say, the baby engages in behaviors which make something happen, usually providing something pleasant or avoiding some event that is unpleasant. Examples of this kind of "operative behavior" would include the child calling for mother, or requesting specifically the ball on the floor, or giving postural signals to be picked up. The achievement of this developmental milestone, wherein the baby learns the generic verity, i.e., a lesson beyond the immediate circumstance, that his or her own behavior makes a difference, is, in my opinion, among the most important "life lessons" a human can learn. It is the achievement of a notion of self-efficacy, of a kind of responsibility, and of the rudiments of choice.

I wish to turn now to the importance of the transition just described. As previously suggested, newborns come into the world with individual differences in their capacities for behaving. In particular, their reflexes vary in strength and ease of elicitability. In all likelihood these differences are relevant to the progress that the baby makes in the transition from the principally subcortical or reflexive functions to the cortically mediated learned behavior just described. Babies will vary in the frequency and intensity of reflexive behaviors in which they will engage during the first two months of life prior to the gradual transition. Each execution of one of these reflexes can be regarded as a learning experience in which the baby can come to realize that the behavior alters the consequences. For example, if the baby responds to an object placed in the palm of its hand with a squeeze, it may encounter an object which has shape and substance. Similarly, grasping a blanket, then drawing it to the mouth has consequences such as providing oral stimulation contingent on this behavior pattern.

By the same token, some babies have strong respiratory occlusion responses, and others are quite lethargic in response to threats to easy airflow to the respiratory passages. Mothers frequently note that their babies will respond frantically to blockage of the nasal passages while suckling with a tight oral grasp on the nipple. While more research is needed on this sphere of infantile functioning, we suspect that babies who have strong and effective respiratory occlusion responses, i.e., defenses against smothering, are infants who will experience frequent relief from respiratory blockages during the reflexive, subcortical phase and will thus have learned by the time they are two to five months of age how to defend themselves effectively from smothering. Thus they would not be likely candidates for crib death when lying in the prone position. They would be infants, one might say, who are competent in saving their own lives through the effective utilization of learned behaviors (Lipsitt, 2003).

Interestingly, the two to five month age period is of special importance in the epidemiology of sudden infant death. Numerous studies have shown definitively that 90-95% of all crib deaths occur between the ages of two and five months. Before two months, babies are largely "immune" from crib death, and after five months they are essentially free of such danger again. Any convincing theory of crib death must include consideration of this important developmental aspect, this window of time which places some infants in harm's way. Thus far it appears that a viable hypothesis is that SIDS is the result of a conspiracy of neurobehavioral and learning deficiencies.

In another place (Lipsitt, 2005) I have suggested that the perils of behavior in foreshortening human lives have not been adequately recognized and researched. Epidemiological data in all developed countries indicate that more young people die of behavioral misadventures than of all diseases combined. We need to acknowledge and address the major life hazards, especially of but not limited to young people. These are accidents, suicide, homicide, excessive alcohol consumption, smoking, use of dangerous drugs, bullying and, alas, warfare. These are all behavioral conditions. And they are remediable.

Lipsitt, L.P. (2003). Crib death: A biobehavioral phenomenon? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12, 164-170.

Lipsitt, L.P. (2005) Ignoring behavioral science: Practices and perils. In D.B. Pillemer and S.H. White (Eds.). Developmental psychology and social change: Research, history, and policy. New York: Cambridge Press.

McGraw, M.B. (1943). The neuromuscular maturation of the human infant. New York: Hafner.

Reese, H.W. and Lipsitt, L.P. (1970). Experimental child psychology. New York: Academic Press.
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