My colleague lamented. She was finding it very hard to shift the deeply entrenched beliefs that food, water and shelter are all children need to grow up well.
It’s a belief that harks back to the1950s, a time in which the emerging field of psychology believed that children only needed their mother for sustenance and other physical needs. The most prominent behavioural experts thought that love and affection simply didn’t matter and had no bearing on a child’s development.
The interesting and controversial figure who eventually overturned these ideas was a psychologist named Harry Harlow. Harlow devised a set of experiments that set out to prove that love is important and critical to healthy development in children. Harlow’s experiments involved separating infant monkeys from their mothers. They were put in a cage with two kinds of surrogate mothers – one made of wire that was equipped to dispense milk and the other covered with soft terry-cloth.
At birth, Rhesus monkeys have the brain and nervous system of a five-month-old human baby. So based on psychological theories of the time, the baby monkeys should have bonded to the wire mother who was feeding them. That’s not what Harlow found. The baby monkeys spent almost their entire time attached to the terry-cloth mother
In subsequent experiments, Harlow found that baby monkeys learned to self-sooth and regulate their emotions through bodily contact with their terry-cloth mother, what Harlow called ‘contact comfort’. He found that baby monkeys who were raised solely with the wire mothers, would scream, hold themselves and rock back and forth in terror when scared, unable to self-sooth. They demonstrated behaviours that looked a lot like the ones observed in children raised in orphanages.
He concluded that the impact of early maternal deprivation was irreversible, that no amount of exposure to a mother-figure could make up for the emotional damage that had already occurred.