Saturday, September 22, 2012

Daniel Stern and the Creation of Self Through Relational Experience


In integral theory, much like the history of Western psychology upon which it is based, human development - especially that of the infant - generally has been regarded as an innate process that, barring organic defect or environmental crisis, will unfold pretty much like clockwork until we are fully-grown adults. In essence, development was understood as almost completely intrapsychic.

Although some theorists intuited a deficiency in that model, it was not until the emergence of attachment theory (Bowlby and Ainsworth) that we began to understand how the infant develops within the interpersonal and intersubjective context of the child-caregiver dyad. While psychology has accepted these findings in relation to affect regulation, cultural transmission, language acquisition, and several other realms, it has not yet fully grasped that this is true, as well, for the development of the infant's sense of self.

Three people have really laid the groundwork for our understanding of the intersubjective development of the infant - Andrew Meltzoff, Colwyn Trevarthen, and Daniel Stern. I hope to do a post on Trevarthen at some point, but today my focus is Daniel Stern.

Stern's The Interpersonal World of the Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology (be sure to get the 2000 paperback edition - it has a lengthy introduction that adds insights and new information not in the original text) is one of the landmark publications in reshaping how we conceive of the inner life of infants - it's assertions are based on 20-30 years of observational research.

What I most want to focus on here is the idea of the self that Stern proposes and how it develops. The following paragraphs lay out the basic model (somewhat confusingly, he begins with the second month, with the core self, then comes back at the end to the birth-2 months stage of emergent self).
There is, for one, the physical self that is experienced as a coherent, willful, physical entity with a unique affective life and history that belong to it. This self generally operates outside of awareness. It is taken for granted, and even verbalizing about it is difficult. It is an experiential sense of self that I call the sense of a core self (11). The sense of a core self is a perspective that rests upon the working of many interpersonal capacities. And when this perspective forms, the subjective social world is altered and interpersonal experience operates in a different domain, a domain of core-relatedness. This developmental transformation or creation occurs somewhere between the second and sixth months of life, when infants sense that they and mother are quite separate physically, are different agents, have distinct affective experiences, and have separate histories.

That is only one possible organizing subjective perspective about the self-and-other. Sometime between the seventh and ninth months of life, infants start to develop a second organizing subjective perspective. This happens when they “discover” that there are other minds out there as well as their own. Self and other are no longer only core entities of physical presence, action, affect, and continuity. They now include subjective mental states— feelings, motives, intentions— that lie behind the physical happenings in the domain of core-relatedness. The new organizing subjective perspective defines a qualitatively different self and other who can “hold in mind” unseen but inferable mental states, such as intentions or affects, that guide overt behavior. These mental states now become the subject matter of relating. This new sense of a subjective self opens up the possibility for intersubjectivity between infant and parent and operates in a new domain of relatcdness— the domain of intersubjective relatedness— which is a quantum leap beyond the domain of core-relatedness. Mental states between people can now be “read,” matched, aligned with, or attuned to (or misread, mismatched, misaligned, or misattuned). The nature of relatedness has been dramatically expanded. It is important to note that the domain of intersubjective relatedness, like that of core-relatedness, goes on outside of awareness and without being rendered verbally. In fact, the experience of intersubjective relatedness, like that of core-relatedness, can only be alluded to; it cannot really be described (although poets can evoke it).

The sense of a subjective self and other rests upon different capacities from those necessary for a sense of a core self. These include the capacities for sharing a focus of attention, for attributing intentions and motives to others and apprehending them correctly, and for attributing the existence of states of feeling in others and sensing whether or not they are congruent with one’s own state of feeling.

At around fifteen to eighteen months, the infant develops yet a third organizing subjective perspective about self and other, namely the sense that self (and other) has a storehouse of personal world knowledge and experience (“ I know there is juice in the refrigerator, and I know that I am thirsty”). Furthermore, this knowledge can be objectified and rendered as symbols that convey meanings to be communicated, shared, and even created by the mutual negotiations permitted by language.

Once the infant is able to create shareable meanings about the self and the world, a sense of a verbal self that operates in the domain of verbal relatedness has been formed. This is a qualitatively new domain with expanding, almost limitless possibilities for interpersonal happenings. Again, this new sense of self rests on a new set of capacities: to objectify the self, to be self-reflective, to comprehend and produce language.

So far we have discussed three different senses of the self and other, and three different domains of relatedness that develop between the age of two months and the second year of the infant’s life. Nothing has yet been said about the period from birth to two months. It can now be filled in.

During this earliest period, a sense of the world, including a sense of self, is emergent. Infants busily embark on the task of relating diverse experiences. Their social capacities are operating with vigorous goal-directedness to assure social interactions. These interactions produce affects, perceptions, sensorimotor events, memories, and other cognitions. Some integration between diverse happenings is made innately. For instance, if infants can feel a shape by touching an object, they will know what the object should look like without ever having seen it before. Other integrations are not so automatic but are quickly learned. Connectedness forms rapidly, and infants experience the emergence of organization. A sense of an emergent self is in the process of coming into being. The experience is that of the emergence of networks becoming integrated, and we can refer to its domain as the domain of emergent relatedness. Still, the integrative networks that are forming are not yet embraced by a single organizing subjective perspective. That will be the task of the developmental leap into the domain of core-relatedness.  
(Stern, Daniel N., 1998. The Interpersonal World of the Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology. London: Karnac Books. Kindle Edition.[Kindle Locations 491-529])


Since the publication of the original book, Stern has added two more stages to this model - the core self-with-another following the core self and leading into the subjective self; and the narrative self, or selves, developing out of the verbal self (and it's cool that he acknowledges the multiplicity aspect of this self).

* * * * *

Each of these stages represents a change in the relationship between the infant and the caregiver. In the first two months, there is a very basic, body-based sense of self at this point, an emergent self represented as an organization of experience, all of which is contrary to the prevailing belief that children are born without a self.
I conclude that during the first two months the infant is actively forming a sense of an emergent self. It is a sense of organization in the process of formation, and it is a sense of self that will remain active for the rest of life. An overarching sense of self is not yet achieved in this period, but it is coming into being.

(Stern, Kindle Locations 686-688)
At two months, the infant begins to make consistent eye contact, and the relationship has shifted from organization and emergence to one of affect and mentalization.The next move is to meaning, and then to the autobiographical sense of self, which is more individual (my memories), but all of that autobiography is relational.

Here is more from Stern:
The four senses of the self conform in their time of emergence to the major developmental shifts that have been noted. The change in the social feel of an infant with the emergence of each sense of self is also in accord with the nature of these shifts. So is the predominant “action” between parent and child, which shifts from the physical and actional to the mental events that underlie the overt behavior and then to the meanings of events. Before examining these senses and domains further, however, we must address the issue of sensitive periods and make clear that we are dealing not only with successive phases but also with simultaneous domains of self-experience.

As the four domains of relatedness develop successively, one after the other, what happens to each domain when the next comes along? Does each sense of self remain intact in the presence of the new ones, so that they coexist? Or does the emergence of each new sense of self eclipse the existing ones, so that sequential phases wax and wane?
The traditional picture of both the clinical infant and the observed infant leans toward a view of sequential phases. In both developmental systems, the infant’s world view shifts dramatically as each new stage is ushered in, and the world is seen dominantly, if not exclusively, in terms of the organization of the new stage. What happens, then, to the previous phases, to the earlier world views? Either they are eclipsed and drop out or, as Werner (1948) suggests, they remain dormant but become integrated into the emergent organization and thereby lose much of their previous character. As Cassirer (1955) puts it, the advent of a higher stage “does not destroy the earlier phase, rather it embraces it in its own perspective” (p. 477). This also happens in Piaget’s system.
 (Stern, Kindle Locations 529-543)
This version of stage development is different than the transcend and include model of integral theory - which was borrowed/adapted from other sources. In Stern's model, each new stage adds a new experience to the previous one, and the stages co-exist at all times, although one may be more often used or active than others.

In Ken Wilber's AQAL model, early developmental stages are seen to be discrete, so that while one is dominant (the proximate self), we can only see and manipulate the world through that perspective or skill (this comes largely from Piaget's work, and it has been called into question in recent years). In Stern's model, however, we always have access to the all of the versions of self that have so far emerged.


Stern expands on these ideas in these two paragraphs:
We see that the subjective experience of social interactions seems to occur in all domains of relatedness simultaneously. One can certainly attend to one domain for a while to the partial exclusion of the others, but the others go on as distinct experiences, out of but available to awareness. In fact, much of what is meant by “socializing” is directed at focusing awareness on a single domain, usually the verbal, and declaring it to be the official version of what is being experienced, while denying the experience in the other domains (“ unofficial” versions of what is happening). Nonetheless, attention can and does shift with some fluidity from experience in one domain to that in another. For instance, language in interpersonal service is largely the explication (in the verbal domain) of concomitant experiences in other domains, plus something else. If you ask someone to do something, and that person answers “I’d rather not. I’m surprised you asked!” he may at the same time raise his head and throw it back slightly, raise his eyebrows, and look down his nose a bit. The meaning of this nonverbal behavior (which is in the domain of core-relatedness and intersubjective relatedness) has been well rendered in language. Still these physical acts retain distinctive experiential characteristics. Performing or being the target of them involves experiences that reside outside of language itself.

All domains of relatedness remain active during development. The infant does not grow out of any of them; none of them atrophy, none become developmentally obsolete or get left behind. And once all domains are available, there is no assurance that any one domain will necessarily claim preponderance during any particular age period. None has a privileged status all of the time. Since there is an orderly temporal succession of emergence of each domain during development— first emergent, then core, then subjective, then verbal— there will inevitably be periods when one or two domains hold predominance by default. In fact, each successive organizing subjective perspective requires the preceding one as a precursor. Once formed, the domains remain forever as distinct forms of experiencing social life and self. None are lost to adult experience. Each simply gets more elaborated. It is for this reason that the term domains of relatedness has been chosen, rather than phases or stages. (13)

(Stern, Kindle Locations 571-589)
Stern concludes his overview of the stage model with this summary of how the model operates within the subjective experience of the infant.
In summary, the subjective social life of the infant will be viewed as having the following characteristics. The infant is endowed with observable capacities that mature. When these become available, they are organized and transformed, in quantum mental leaps, into organizing subjective perspectives about the sense of self and other. Each new sense of self defines the formation of a new domain of relatedness. While these domains of relatedness result in qualitative shifts in social experience, they are not phases; rather, they are forms of social experience that remain intact throughout life. Nonetheless, their initial phase of formation constitutes a sensitive period of development. Subjective social experience results from the sum and integration of experience in all domains. The basic clinical issues are seen as issues for the life span and not as issues of developmental phases. A different contribution is made to the ontogeny of the developmental lines of all clinical issues as each domain of self-experience emerges.

(Stern, Kindle Locations 605-612)
I like Stern's model, but I find myself qualifying the whole thing as I read - for me, based on the available evidence of both neuroscience and contemplative practices, self is a process not a static entity. Self exists in context but not in any absolute sense.



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