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Remembering Daniel Stern

By Colwyn Trevarthen


Daniel N. Stern, a New Yorker, died in November 2012 after a long illness. A distinguished child psychiatrist and psychoanalyst and a world-famous developmental psychologist, he transformed ideas of human nature in infancy and he made important contributions to his last days. He gave us a theory of how we create and share imaginative stories by rhythmic movements, which he called ‘forms of vitality,’ a domain that draws satisfaction and regulation from all sensory modalities in a consciousness of movement, and which, “distinct from the domains of emotion, sensation, or cognition,” gives life to all our ventures.

Daniel Stern
Daniel Stern

As a child Dan was, by his own account, observant of people. When he was seven years old, he saw that non-verbal expressions of a baby that were clear to him could be invisible to a talkative parent. He conceived the idea of two languages, one of which, awareness of embodied movement, may become dismissed with age. After studies at Harvard of the 1950s, he graduated from Einstein Medical College with MD in 1960. He turned to psychiatry, and then psychoanalytic training at Columbia University, hoping to gain knowledge of how the mind works. Dissatisfied with the theory of instinctive drives and their complexes, which he could not relate to everyday experience or clinical work, he was drawn to research in child psychology, then a very active field. Inspired by the discoveries of ethologists who demonstrated how signals among animals guided their social lives, he tried a different approach. He became part of a group at Columbia who adapted micro-analysis of natural communication by gesture and expression when words are inadequate or misleading, and this led to curiosity about how infants share ideas without language.

Dan wrote seven books, each a step in a journey of discovery of the human ‘self in relations’. In 1977 The First Relationship: Infant and Mother summarized work at Columbia on the fine timing of expressive movements by which a mother and baby share a game. His first scientific paper, ‘A micro-analysis of mother-infant interaction: Behaviors regulating social contact between a mother and her three-and-a-half-month-old twins’ in the Journal of American Academy of Child Psychiatry, appeared in 1971. It was followed by others on how gaze, facial expressions, and vocalizations controlled the ‘stimulus world’ of playful interaction between an entertaining baby and a loving mother. As Professor of Psychiatry at Cornell University Medical Centre and Chief of the Laboratory of Developmental Processes, Stern did not see the infant as a mindless organism dependent on maternal care for bodily pleasure or comfort, and needing to learn a separation between a Self and any Object. From an approach assuming personal powers for the baby grew a new conception of the mother’s role and her experience of being with her baby, which in time became a model for a different way of conceiving psychotherapy for adult patients.

In his famous 1985 book The Interpersonal World of the Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Development Psychology, translated into many languages, Stern presented the infant as a human being from the start, especially gifted for attracting communication from a mother. He portrayed the emergence of awareness of self and other as a layered model like a building, in which initial talents remain a foundation for later advances. Dan’s book excited critical responses from followers of the modern authorities on the infant mind, Freud and Piaget, but the new vision was welcomed and strongly supported by psychologists who had been collecting evidence for 20 years about young infants’ clever powers of communication, and instincts for cultural learning. In his book Dan introduced new terms: ‘affect appraisals’, ‘core relatedness’, ‘intermodal fluency’, ‘intersubjective relatedness’, ‘relational affects’, ‘selective attunement’, and so on, to capture what was expressed in the infant-mother relationship from the start. Stern’s new terms became the language of a different developmental science for the baby in their interpersonal world.

In 1990 Stern, retaining the post of Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry at Cornell University Medical Centre, New York Hospital, had moved to the University of Geneva as Professor of Psychology and gained a new group of collaborators who shared a particular interest in the mother’s contribution. Her experience of pregnancy, birth, and new motherhood became a topic for in-depth research, and three books: a fanciful Diary of a Baby (1990) expressing a richer view of growing self-awareness; The Motherhood Constellation: A Unified View of Parent-infant Psychotherapy (1995); and in collaboration with his wife Nadia Bruschweiler-Stern, a developmental pediatrician and child psychiatrist, and with a professional journalist Alison Freeland, The Birth of a Mother: How the Motherhood Experience Changes You Forever (1998). This last is a guide for expectant and new mothers to give support for their extraordinary experience. Dan also joined work on the relationships of the infant to with mother and father together, and with other persons. The sociability of the young human person assumed a much wider purpose, to become a conscious actor in a collaborative community.

In 2000 Dan presented a new paperbook edition of The Interpersonal World of the Infant. He made no changes to the 15-year-old text, instead adding a 26 page Introduction, which is an important addition to his writings. He reviews advances to his thinking, and gives thoughtful response to criticisms received, mainly by psychotherapists defending the classical psychoanalytic model of neuroses and therapy for patients who are able to speak, denying relevance of the research on infancy. He says:

“One consequence of the book’s application of a narrative perspective to the non-verbal has been the discovery of a language useful to many psychotherapies that rely on the non verbal. I am thinking particularly of dance, music, body, and movement therapies, as well as existential psychotherapies. This observation came as a pleasant surprise to me since I did not originally have such therapists in mind; my thinking has been enriched by coming to know them better” (p. xv)

In the last decade of Dan’s life he felt committed to a dynamic and generative view of the conscious self-as-agent with an experience of time in movement, in the ‘present moment’ of vivid awareness, and in ‘narratives’ of personal ambitions and affective engagements. New terms in the theory include ‘dynamic emotional states’, ‘forms of feeling’, ‘forms of vitality’, ‘present moments of meeting’, ‘proto-narrative envelopes’. Two books present these ideas. The Present Moment: In Psychotherapy and Everyday Life (2004) opens the way to a more sensitive and collaborative way of exploring a patient’s distress and its manifestation in all expressive actions, and in responses to an open reception by a person trained to sense the feelings behind their dynamics. The Boston Change Process Study Group, adopting Stern’s layered model of developmental change in relationships, promoted of this in practice and produced Change in Psychotherapy: A Unifying Paradigm (2010). The same year brought Dan’s final masterpiece, Forms of Vitality: Exploring Dynamic Experience in Psychology, the Arts, Psychotherapy and Development, published by Oxford University Press. Here we have an eloquent presentation of a theory of all human creativity, which depends on the creativity and sympathy for the poetic motives of body and mind which seek to discover two worlds, the physical aesthetic one of objects with beautiful properties that may be profitably used, or horrors that must be avoided, and the animated human one that senses one’s hopes and fears for relationships and may offer sympathetic moral companionship and collaboration.

This is a psychology to build not only practices to strengthen care for those in distress, but also encouragement for education of the young, and the development of laws and social industries and institutions of government that will benefit more people and reduce injustices. Dan Stern’s thoughts are with us, and will last.

Colwyn Trevarthen is Professor Emeritus of Child Psychology and Psychobiology at the University of Edinburgh, UK, and a close colleague of Daniel Stern for over forty years. He is co-editor of Communicative Musicality: Exploring the basis of human companionship published by Oxford University Press.

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