© 2002, 2010 Susan Rich Sheridan
Saving Literacy: A New Book by Susan Rich Sheridan!
The Importance of Maternal Gaze
The closing research question targets mother/child interactions around attention. To what degree does the mothers ability to pay attention to the infant and child determine the infant and childs ability to pay attention? How does the quality of maternal gaze influence the infants ability to attend? Are there levels of attention, which the mother gives to the child and which the child learns to return to the mother and, thereafter, to use throughout life?84,85 This research should shed light on which elements in one-on-one interaction between mothers (and/or maternal substitute caregivers) and infants contribute to normal emotional, social and cognitive development.
The ability to pay attention is fundamental to survival. An organism orients toward nutrients and away from toxins. To do so, the organism must recognize nutrients and toxins. Recognition requires attention.
The thoughts of a person in shock or suffering trauma or finding herself in the throes of mental illness are scattered. That person is distracted. She can not pay attention. Her thoughts go everywhere or remain stuck on one disturbing theme. Attention is the brain mechanism by which we control and organize our thoughts and our brain waves. Without attention, our brain waves go helter skelter. Like gravity, attention is an illusive, pervasive, comprehensive force in the TOE, or Theory of Everything, of mental health. Attention is at the heart of mom binding,7 and time binding,73 the glue of social and time/space coherent experience. As mindfulness, attention is the portal to the experience of timeless unity, where everything is bound together, seamlessly. Both kinds of attentive consciousness - the time-full and the time-less - are necessary to effective, satisfying, illuminating thought and action over a lifetime.
The mother/child relationship, including shared gaze and directive, instructional attention, as well as mindful, non-directive attention, would not exist unless these qualities of attention were necessary to the mental/emotional well-being of mother and child. Shared gaze and shared attention are mutually therapeutic. Both mother and child thrive on shared attention. This human element in childcare is critical to the normal unfolding of the child. At the heart of this human experience is one-on-one attention --- the giving, the sharing, the learning of attention.
Research has shown that the temperament of the child influences the mothers ability to care for the child. Difficult children are harder to bond with and attend to.86 The importance of the child's potential contribution to parent/child interaction is considerable.87 Child temperament also determines how susceptible a child is to parenting,88 including responses to "maternal bids" for joint attention and communication. Autistic sons are often unaware of such bids.89 Maternal depression restricts the level of interaction between mother and child, to causing the child to expect less interaction from her during play sessions and to show less discomfort over this lack of engagement, even at two months of age, while demonstrating shorter attention spans for a larger number of objects because depressed mothers themselves initiate and terminate short attention spans to a range of objects.90,91 There is a direct relationship between the mothers attentional, social and didactic influence on the child and the childs ability to attend and to interact socially, as well to acquire and develop and express cognitive skills.84,85 If the mothers ability to pay attention to the child sets the stage for the development of social and cognitive skills, then maternal attention is a fundamental issue.
Research with four month-olds shows that human infant brains more than other primates -- specialize in recognizing gaze, frontally or even from the side. This ability to perceive face-to-face, directed gaze, including lifted eyebrows and smiles -- as cues to communication -- are essential for infants interactions with, and learning from, others. The human eye is unique in the size of its exposed sclera, or white areas, which surround a darker iris, creating the kind of light/dark pattern which provides a strong stimulus to the infants immature visual system. Infants not only prefer to look at faces with open eyes, but they have a strong tendency to attend to faces that engage them in mutual gaze when compared with averted gaze It has been argued that an early sensitivity to eye gaze serves as a major foundation for later social skills. Indeed, an impairment of the sensitivity to eye gaze in general, and mutual gaze in particular, might be one of the early signs of a typical social development manifested in neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism.92,93,94
Research with children with attention deficits and learning disabilities, including autistic children,93,94,95 underscores the importance of trained sustained (visual) attention, starting with a sensitivity to shared gaze. If the quality of the attention of the mother or other primary caregiver is critical to the normal development of this basic ability to attend and to recognize communication cues in the infant brain and if such attention and recognition is the neurological bedrock for social and cognitive development thereafter, including the development of expressive language,96 then we need to focus on, analyze, define and support the range of growth-promoting attentional cues provided by mothers and other primary caregivers.
An infant babbles, but he is taught/learns to speak. A toddler scribbles but he is taught/learns to write and read. An infants eyes are drawn to lights and darks and edges, to open eyes, and to faces which offer an attentive gaze, but a child learns to attend. If there is no face to offer shared gaze, what happens to the visual/emotional development of the child? Evidently, something in the brain wiring of the actually or potentially autistic infant fails to respond to the maternal gaze. In the cases of acquired autism, as opposed to genetic autism (if such a category as acquired autism exists), the gaze shared between mothers and infants becomes of critical importance as an influence and as a predictor in terms of normal infant and child development.
The lighted screen does not provide maternal gaze. Parents need to know what stimuli are appropriate in terms of encouraging an infant's "amazing" capacities for alertness and attention.86 If there is a supportive environment, the appropriate kinds and levels of attention will develop naturally between mother and child. Many mothers, for a host of reasons (often economic, and/or health-related), can not provide attentive gaze nor extended mother/child interaction. This absence or inability in the mother or primary caregiver to provide a loving gaze and other levels of instructional and/or directive and/or mindful attention has long-term consequences for the child in terms of the ability to attend as well as to expect attention.
In Dr. Sigmund Freuds practice as it developed over time, as well as in contemporary psychoanalytic practice supported by Buddhist meditation, a quality of nonjudgemental, mindfulness in the therapist is important to the the patients ability to recover information and achieve understanding.97 This mindfulness model is provided by mothers, too, as a non-interfering, yet attentive presence.97 This quality of mindful attention - without franticness, without the distraction of multi-tasking, without any need for constant entertainment is the kind of attention which the child needs, later, to flourish, from about the age of 4.84 It is enough to be together in the sunshine while the child plays. From birth until about 3.5 years of age, the child needs shared gaze and directive, instructional attention. This is the optimum stage for introducing Scribbling/Drawing/Writing as a strategy for encouraging maternal/caregiver interaction around visual and verbal attention on a one-to-one basis in a consistent manner. After age 4, the open-ended, non-directive aspects of Scribbling/Drawing/Writing have attentional value, too.
We can revisit Dr. Jaak Panksepps description of basic emotions, with a small change: PANIC, FEAR, RAGE, AND ATTENTIVE/SEEKING. Feeling the emotion, attending to it, but not reacting to it is an important tenet of Buddhist psychotherapy.97 The child who can recognize and identify her own PANIC, RAGE AND FEAR but also learn to meet strong emotion with a non-reactive attentiveness will be able to move into the positive mind/body benefits of the SEEKING mode more easily. Again, the Scribbling/Drawing/Writing program promotes a committed, patient attentiveness which can be transferred to experience, teaching the child how to hold herself apart from destructive emotions. This kind of emotional coaching in childhood has important benefits in adult life and in society in general. Society would benefit by being more astute and more capable emotionally.
The ability of the child to pay attention does not develop overnight. It grows from the moment the child is born. The mother reads the childs level of attention, attunes to it and encourages it, helping the infants attention span to grow. The child learns to respond to different kinds of attention from the mother, from the less intense to the more intense, mirroring and matching these levels. Autistic brains experience mirror neuron dysfunction,98 which interferes with the childs ability to receive and reflect other's emotions.
One of the simplest games invented to match and mirror and encourage and extend attention between mother and child is the game of Peek-a-Boo. The following Peek-a-Boo Principle underscores the importance of this attentional, lovingly emotional, increasingly language-based, give-and-take, call-and-response relationship between the mother and the child.
PREDICTION: The mothers/primary caregivers ability to pay attention, to interact via shared mutual gaze with the infant and to provide didactic and social instruction throughout early childhood, determine (in general, with the exception of the diagnosed autistic child) the childs ability --- from early infancy --- to pay attention, to interact emotionally and to think. The social and mental abilities of the child as that child is influenced early in development by mothers and/or substitute caregivers in the context of the intuitive and intentional development of sustained attention, including the ability to delay gratification, provide important topics for longitudinal research.85
7Sheridan, S.R.. 2005. A Theory of Marks and Mind: the effect of notional systems on hominid brain evolution and child development with an emphasis on exchanges between mothers and children, Medical Hypotheses Journal, V64(2):417-427. This article is downloadable in on-site version at www.marksandmind.org by permission by Elsevier. Hypertext link to Medical Hypotheses ScienceDirect Page att:http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/03069877
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