The Far-Reaching Impact of Bowlby on Psychoanalysts – II

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Psychoanalysts of varying orientations — Freudian, Anna Freudian, Jungian, and Kleinian — have responded to many of Bowlby’s ideas in a piecemeal fashion. All would acknowledge the importance of his work and, with few exceptions, would claim that the nature of the mother-child relationship together with the vicissitudes of separation and loss have significant implications for therapeutic intervention. Nevertheless, the proportion of practicing psychoanalysts who have been able to grasp the larger picture of human relationships and development outlined by the theory of attachment remains small. Here’s part two of the eleven-part, in-depth research, by Prof. Ashoka, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.

Dorothy Burlingham and Anna Freud (1942) had reported on the suffering of the children in their care at the Hampstead Nurseries, London, and James Robertson, a psychiatric social worker familiar with their work, had begun a series of studies of children separated from their parents who were living in residential nurseries and hospitals. The plight of these children was unmistakable and terrible. The World Health Organisation (WHO) was interested in the many thousands of post-war refugees and approached Bowlby to write a report on the mental health of homeless children. This report entitled Maternal Care and Mental Health was published in 1951. It was later popularised and reissued under the title, Child Care and the Growth of Love. 

Child Care and the Growth of Love is a refreshing and readable book, full of observations, anecdotes, and practical advice. Since all the heavy, statistical material is omitted in the popular version, the hypotheses advanced seem almost naive when viewed from the context of the sophisticated and well-documented model of attachment we have before us today. In this early work, Bowlby’s basic insight into the origins of pathology stands out loud and clear: maternal care in infancy and early childhood is essential for mental health. The importance of this discovery, Bowlby (1953) felt, 

may be compared to that of the role of vitamins in physical health  …The outstanding disability of persons suffering from mental illness, it is now realised, is their inability to make and sustain confident, friendly, and cooperative relations with others. The power to do this is as basic to man’s nature as are the abilities to digest or to see, and, just as we regard indigestion or failing vision as signs of ill-health, so have we now come to regard the inability to make reasonably cooperative human relations.

In the intervening 40 years, psychoanalysts of varying orientations—Freudian, Anna Freudian, Jungian, and Kleinian—have responded to many of Bowlby’s ideas in a piecemeal fashion. All would acknowledge the importance of his work and, with few exceptions, would claim that the nature of the mother-child relationship together with the vicissitudes of separation and loss have significant implications for therapeutic intervention. Nevertheless, the proportion of practicing psychoanalysts who have been able to grasp the larger picture of human relationships and development outlined by the theory of attachment remains small.

In addition to the painful nature and unfamiliarity of Bowlby’s point of view, the alienation felt by many psychoanalysts may proceed from an ambivalent and even negative attitude towards research in the behavioural sciences. Bowlby’s theory depends more upon direct observation of attachment and separation behaviour than upon inferences drawn from the analysis of adults. Freud himself waged a comparable battle with the behavioural sciences of his day in his search for knowledge of man’s mental life. But now that psychoanalysis has been established for almost 100 years, this posture amounts to little more than prejudice and exacerbates the isolation of psychoanalysis from related branches of human psychology and biology. Psychoanalysts often argue that research, based upon the observation of “external reality,” is irrelevant to analytic work, the domain of which is the exploration of “inner” or “psychic reality.” Some psychoanalysts even argue that the study of normal infant and cognitive development would impede their “intuition” into the unconscious phantasy life of the patient. 

In my view, neglect of research findings has led to a fixation in the psychoanalytic theory of development. The Victorian picture of children, implicit in Freud’s theory, has changed very little in the century since psychoanalysis began. A dominant feature of this picture is of a withdrawn, asocial, narcissistic and egotistical creature. Young children must be socialized into affectionate relationships with others and induced to learn about the outside world through the frustration of their wishes and the civilization of their instincts. As Freud (1905) said, “All through the period of latency children learn to feel for other people who help them in their helplessness and satisfy their needs, a love which is on the model of, and a continuation of, their relation as sucklings to their nursing mother.” Through her care and affection, the mother “teaches” her child to love. One of the leading child psychoanalysts of today, Margaret Mahler (Mahler, Pine, & Bergman, 1975), describes the new-born as little more than a vegetable. Only “by way of mothering … the young infant is gradually brought out of an inborn tendency toward vegetative, splanchnic regression and into increased sensory awareness of, and contact with, the environment.”

This statement, based upon direct observation, is totally inconsistent with the body of infant research that has been assembled by the disciplines of ethology, developmental psychology, anthropology, and paediatrics. The contrasting picture of the infant, to which Bowlby has made a large contribution, is of an alert and curious creature who becomes intensely attached and most sensitively attuned to his or her mother. The full impact of human attachment seems almost as unpalatable to psychoanalysis today as was Freud’s discovery of childhood sexuality. Bowlby’s insight into the conflict between the methods of traditional psychoanalysis and conventional scientific research is that, like workers in many other disciplines, the psychoanalyst must be capable of assuming two roles that require two very different mental outlooks. Whereas the scientific attitude discourages personal involvement and advises emotional detachment as a requisite for rigor and objectivity, the art of psychotherapy requires a capacity for immersion and imagination 

In order to delineate some of the major theoretical implications of Bowlby’s research for the discipline of psychoanalysis, I will focus on four aspects of his theory of attachment. These are (1) instinct theory, control theory, and evolution; (2) the nature and function of attachment behaviour from infancy to old age; (3) normal and pathological processes of mourning in response to separation and loss; and (4) psychoanalysis as art and science. 

(To be continued)
©Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad 

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Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the ‘most educationally qualified in the world’.