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Origins of Interest

Enhancing or Inhibiting Curiosity

Origins of Interest

Enhancing or Inhibiting Curiosity

During the past year, we have been exploring the three pillars of development: feelings, language, and cognition. We are currently examining feelings, with a focus on the affect of interest (curiosity).

In the various models of emotions, then, we see most make some reference to interest, or attention, or curiosity. This is true regardless of whether or not the model is more psychological or biological or integrated. The affect of interest is crucial. It is in the basis of our learning, gathering information, and adapting.

How is it enhanced? How is it restricted? Some people seem self-directed, passionate and excited about what they are doing. They may have known what they wanted to be and do from the dawn of their memory—perhaps a veterinarian or lawyer. Or possibly the feeling developed later. They are curious, wanting to learn, playful.

Donald W. Winnicott and the Concept of the True Self

Let’s go back to our patients, those in their 30’s or 40’s or 50’s, who sadly have little sense of their own passion, or interest, or curiosity. They have spent much of their lives complying with the interests of others. The early focus was not on who they were, or what their interests were. They did not learn about themselves.

Donald W. Winnicott, pediatrician turned psychoanalyst, described these people as having a False Self, motivated by compliance and lack of self-directedness. People able to tap into their own authenticity, their spontaneous gesture, and creativity, were closer to what he called the True Self.

“Whereas a True Self feels real, the existence of a False Self results in a feeling unreal or a sense of futility” (1965, p. 148). Winnicott described the treatment of one such patient and summarized: “My patient to whose case I have referred has come near the end of a long analysis to the beginning of her life. She contains no true experience, she has no past. She starts with fifty years of wasted life, but at last she feels real, and therefore she now wants to live” (1965, p. 148, emphasis in original).

One’s interest and passion are so important to career, choice of spouse, and overall sense of self and contentment… how is it supported? ... how does it go so awry? How can development proceed well and how can it become so derailed?

We know infants manifest interest very early in their lives. This interest appears innate, built into the neurophysiology of the brain. Where does it go? How does it become constricted, inhibited? What has happened to these adults?

Curious Babies

The interest/excitement affect can be seen fairly readily within the first few weeks of the baby’s life, but older babies show even more clearly these facial, bodily, and vocal signs. Interest is marked by the baby’s eyes looking and tracking; the eyebrows are a bit raised or a bit lowered; the mouth may be slightly open. An older baby may make somewhat excited vocalizations as she sees or plays with something interesting. Older babies will also lean or crawl toward an object of interest.

Young babies have a particular interest in faces. The human face seems to be an innate stimulus for the infant’s interest. She will focus on a face over other options. Not only that, but research shows the baby will spend most time looking at the eyes, and second most time looking at the mouth. This may be due to the importance of the facial signaling system itself. Remember there are many small muscles in the face which make up the facial signaling system, and the eyes and the mouth have a high percentage of these muscles.

So the baby seems to be programmed to focus on the face – that is, the use of facial expressions as a signaling system between baby and caregiver appears to be part of our biological programming. And the affect of interest is used by the baby as a way to gather the information.

How do somewhat older babies show interest? They play with mobiles in their cribs; they play with their fingers and toes, exploring their bodies; they play with noises, gurgling and cooing; they play with their caregivers through touch and vocalizations and facial expressions. These are all manifestations of the interest/excitement affect. And – these babies are learning about their environment and themselves.

As infants get a bit older, their interest affect may get expressed in slightly more sophisticated ways. They will pick up things, examine them with their hands, put them in their mouths, crawl towards them, listen intently to them. They will use all their senses: touch, taste, sight, hearing, smell.

Amy, Salim, and Brianna

  • Amy A baby sitting in a high chair spots her cup of milk in the tray. She bumps her hand against the cup, some milk spills on her hand, and she tastes it … mmm, good! She picks up the cup, it wobbles, some milk spills out, exciting white milk patterns fly through the air and hit the tray, making neat splashes, droplets, and noises to go with them. All her senses are engaged: her taste, vision, hearing, smell, and touch. She picks up her cup again, higher this time. She tilts it slightly, and sends a long cascading ribbon of milk weaving toward the tray and floor.
  • Salim An eight-month-old boy crawls toward a package his mother just finished wrapping for a friend of hers. Mother leaves the room to get something, and the little boy reaches out to the sparkling blue and green ribbon. He pulls a part of the ribbon, and not only does his end move, but a loop of ribbon on the other side of the package moves and gets smaller. He puts a piece of the ribbon in his mouth, tastes it, and feels the texture. He pulls harder, and more movement occurs all over the ribbon. A piece of pretty red wrapping paper is now visible, sticking out a bit from where it had been held by the ribbon. He pulls on the red piece, and hears an interesting ripping noise as a piece of wrapping paper and the whole box starts coming toward him. He gets even more interested and excited, and pulls again on the wrapping paper.
  • Brianna A 1½-year-old girl, whose parents are pharmacists, sits on the floor with a book her caregiver had been reading to her. A cup of dry Cheerios is next to her—a morning snack she is munching one by one. Her caregiver goes to answer the phone. Brianna takes a few Cheerios in her hand, and a few spill onto the paper of the book. She closes the book. She hears a crunching noise. She opens the book. The Cheerios have disappeared! Or … not quite. There is a kind of dust scattered everywhere. She giggles. How neat! She takes a handful of Cheerios this time, closes the book again, more crunching, lots more dust. She tastes the dust … mmm, good! It tastes just like Cheerios! She reaches for an even larger handful.

These scenarios occur many times a day, at all ages, and with all sort of different objects. Pens, pencils, paints, pots, pans, wires, books, clocks, bodily products such as urine and feces, scotch tape, food, and on and on—all can be objects of the baby and child’s interest. This is one way the baby learns. The baby is exploring, examining, adapting, finding out about herself and her world. A wonderful book, Scientist in the Crib, shows how and what the baby and young child learns in these activities.

However, needless to say, one cannot just let the baby run amok, wreak havoc, and, in the vernacular, “trash the place.” What is one to do? How important are these activities? What do they mean in terms of the child’s internal world? Can we enhance curiosity without having an out-of-control child?

We’ll deal with this conundrum next month when we will explore “Enhancing Curiosity.”

References for Interested Readers

Gopnik A, et al (1999). Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains, and How Children Learn. New York: William Morrow and Company.

Winnicott DW (1965). The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment. New York: International Universities Press.

Article of the Month

Österman K et al (2014). Twenty-eight years after the complete ban on the physical punishment of children in Finland: Trends and psychosocial concomitants. Aggressive Behavior (online, Wiley Periodicals, Inc.).

The “take-aways” from this study of over 4,500 people?

  1. The decline in physical punishment was associated with a similar decline in the number of murdered children.
  2. Higher amounts of physical punishment were associated with greater alcohol abuse, depression, mental health problems, divorce, and suicide attempts.

Dr. Holinger's Recommended Book of the Month

The Drama of the Gifted Child (revised edition, 1997) By Alice MillerFirst published in German in 1979; first translated and published in English in 1981 as Prisoners of Childhood. This classic book deals with the problems of true and false self as developed in childhood.

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