The Importance of Early Experience and Social Relationships in the Development of Thinking

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‘The Bee sucks the sweets from wild thyme & marjoram; now it is honey & neither marjoram nor thyme.’

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The metaphor of the bee producing honey expresses much in relation to how human beings absorb and take in what they need from others. What we have learned from other people becomes our own through a psychological process called internalisation. It involves a kind of transformation of others’ ways of being, taken into the very fabric of ourselves. From our earliest beginnings, we have introjected, assimilated into our personalities, aspects of those around us. From this process we come to produce for ourselves authentic thoughts; these originate from the stimulation of others as we learn from their incentives and encouragement.

The psychoanalytic theory of object relations suggests that our early experiences of those who look after us are paramount in terms of future development. The term ‘object’ is a little misleading, as it actually refers to a person. For example, a parent is usually a ‘primary object.’ The perceptions we have of these early relationships and their internal representations, will colour and shape our future lives and relationships.

Ways of thinking about ourselves develop from early experience with our primary caregivers. The responsiveness of the other person to the child, the way in which the child’s image is mirrored and reflected in the mother’s eyes, crucially influence the child’s self image. A significant other who is not empathic, who cannot attune to the child’s needs, will not be able to help that child develop a sense of self that is cohesive and sustaining. The way the mother thinks about her child will form and affect the manner in which the child thinks about herself:

‘The mother gazes at the baby in her arms, and the baby gazes at his mother’s face and finds himself therein… provided that the mother is really looking at the unique, small, helpless being and not projecting her own expectations, fears, and plans for the child. In that case, the child would find not himself in his mother’s face, but rather the mother’s own projections. This child would remain without a mirror, and for the rest of his life would be seeking this mirror in vain.’
D.W. Winnicott

Thoughts do not evolve out of seclusion; interaction with others is essential in relation to the formation of thoughts.  In Thinking in Literature, Anthony Uhlmann points that, according to Spinoza:

‘Thought itself involves, or is, the relation between elements; the ratios which measure and identify things as networks of relations.’

Thus the thinking process itself involves making links and connections; in etymological terms, the words relation, ratio, rationale, reckoning, reason, reasoning and thought are all connected, all come from the same root.

In his book The Cradle of Thought, Peter Hobson suggests that it was ‘social engagement’ that originally produced thought in early human beings and that the development of thought in the infant mirrors the beginnings of thought in the history of the human being:

‘Before language , there was something else – more basic, in a way more primitive, and with unequalled power in its formative potential, that propelled us into language. Something that could evolve in tiny steps, but suddenly gave rise to the thinking processes that revolutionised mental life. Something that (unfortunately) no fossil remains can show us. That something else was social engagement with each other. The links that can join one person’s mind with the mind of someone else – especially, to begin with emotional links – are the very links that draw us into thought. To put it crudely: the foundations of thinking were laid at the point when ancestral primates began to connect with each other emotionally in the same way that human babies connect with their caregivers.’

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The importance of social relationships in relation to thinking is thus paramount; Hobson also describes how infants develop their thinking processes in response to others and he emphasizes the importance of what occurs ‘between people’:

‘The roots of thought are embedded here, in what happens by virtue of one individual’s experience of someone else.’

This connectedness with others is significant throughout our lives. As adults, we continue to be influenced by the thoughts and feelings of those around us. Indeed it is important that we are affected by other people, in terms of our own self-development.

The psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut developed the model of self-psychology, seeing significant others in early life as self-objects, who could provide empathic sustainment for the development of the self. Although the need to depend on others for one’s sense of self does decrease during adulthood , in his work The Restoration Of The Self, Kohut emphasised that fact that adults do continue to use others as self-objects throughout their lives.

As adults, we can continue our psychological development, then, through interactions with others who inspire us. Hopefully having internalised some good-enough self objects during childhood, we can continue to make new connections which stimulate and motivate us.

We can develop our thinking and continue to gain self-esteem from others in adulthood, such as our spouse, partner, therapist, work colleagues, friends, educators. What we need, throughout the life cycle, is other people who can respond to us with understanding and care:

‘Man can no more survive psychologically in a psychological milieu that does not respond empathetically to him, than he can survive physically in an atmosphere that contains no oxygen.’

Heinz Kohut.

 

2 comments

  1. This makes me think of how we need others from birth not only for physical and emotional support; but also for the development of a sense of who we are through our relationships and contact with others.

    Liked by 1 person

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