IMPORTANCE OF EARLY EXPERIENCES
We are becoming increasingly self-conscious about the importance of harmonious parent-child relationships as more and more evidence is collected about the ill-effects of family disruptions on the emotional development of the young child. Prof. Clarke, however, believes that the emphasis in studies of the long-term effects of early experience is misplaced.
In his Maudsley lecture, last ‘ week, to the Royal Medico-Psychological Association, he suggested that experiences in the first few months of life (generally believed to be the critical period for emotional development) will have no long-term effect unless they are continually reinforced, and this hypothesis, he said, is supported by much published work that at first sight seems to contradict it.
One of the most famous studies on maternal deprivation is the Harlows’ work on motherless monkeys. Infant rhesus monkeys reared in isolation were unable to make normal social contacts in adult life, and few succeeded in reproducing. The females which did produce offspring were either indifferent or hostile towards their young.
Deprivation of maternal care certainly had a deleterious effect on the development of the monkeys’ behaviour, but an important point that has been overlooked, said Professor Clarke, was that the females became better mothers in successive pregnancies: their behaviour could still be modified by experiences in adult life.
In human beings, too, the formative years probably last much longer than was previously supposed. Studies of the association between the death of a close relative and subsequent depressive illness in children, for example, showed that those aged 10-14 years were the most vulnerable. Some years ago, two distressing cases in the USA gave psychologists an opportunity to study the effects of isolation in children.
Two young children, in different parts of the country, were discovered to have been kept locked up for several years, almost since birth. Deprived of human contacts, neither had learned to speak, but within a few years of their release, one of these children, who had been given more encouragement and expert teaching than the other, had learned to speak and read, her I.Q. was normal, and she seemed to be emotionally stable.
Severe sensory deprivation in early life had not so far seriously affected her later development. In America, Burt carried out a simple experiment to test the extinction of memory and the significance of reinforcement in learning. When his son was 15 months old, he began to read to him a short passage in Greek and he repeated the passage at frequent and regular intervals until he was 3 years old.
This material was reinforced at the age of 5, 8, and 14 years, at which time the boy’s powers of recall were compared to newly learned material. At 5 years, he relearned the prelearned passage considerably faster than the new material, but by the age of 14 the effect of prelearning was extinguished.
Our views on the importance of early experiences have been influenced to some extent by animal studies. Some birds, for example, become attached to the mother at a very early age; if the mother is not there, the young may become attached to a human being, a bird of a different species, or an inanimate object. It is commonly believed, Professor Clarke added, that human babies show a similar sensitive period of fairly short duration but ending less abruptly than in geese or ducks.
But when we come to think of it, it seems much more likely that behaviour in a slowly maturing species such as ours should remain plastic for a long time.
Mark the best choice.
1. It is evident that .
a) parent-child relationships are harmonious
b) disturbance in the family affects children negatively
c) people are getting more self-conscious
d) emotional development of children is determined* by parents
2. According to Professor Clarke, experiences in the first few months of life
a) have no long-term effect on emotional development
b) should be continually reinforced
c) may affect emotional development
d) Both (b) and (c).
3. There is a lot of published work which Prof. Clarke’s hypothesis.
b) seems to support
c) is based on
4. People had not noticed before that the Harlows’ work proved .
a) the monkeys got worse and more hostile as they got older
b) the behaviour of female monkeys could be changed for the better
c) being reared in isolation led to inability to make normal social contacts
d) females reared in isolation were not loving towards their young