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.

 

How Can We ‘Become Animal’? Challenging Otherness in Human/Animal Relationships through Art.

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Marvin. ©Linda Berman.

‘Art then is fundamentally a product of and for culture and one that points to foundational concerns regarding what it means to be human. Yet the artists working with animals… point to and cast bridges across the divides to the non-human worlds of animals. What a wonderful disorientation takes place in this gesture of reaching across spaces and times.’

Ron Broglio

This week we depart temporarily from focussing on humankind, to pinpoint  reductionist ways of thinking about animals,  as reflected in art and  photography.  I intend to consider new ways of thinking about non- human animals in this post.

The animal has been marginalised in art , reflecting rigid attitudes; thus he is often seen in profile, or as an adjunct to humans. He may be depicted in a group, lacking identity, or categorized in species taxonomies.

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Frida Kahlo. ‘Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird.’ © 2007 Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust.

In the painting above, the cat and monkey function almost as a decorative adornment to the artist; they are behind her, peripheral and omitted from the title.

Whilst animals may be marginalised in our society, this has not always been so. In the past, humans lived and worked with animals. Over time, however, the relationship became distant and people acquired anthropocentric attitudes; animals were taken from their rural habitats into captivity.

We invaded their countryside, but, ironically, humans now see animals as trespassers on their land. A split between nature and culture developed; animals were seen as ‘the other.’

I chose to challenge this through painting. I wondered: how could I represent animals and respect them as sentient beings? Could I understand the non-human animal or find a way of dissolving the boundaries between ‘us and them,’ and ‘become animal?’ (Urpeth, in Calarco and Atterton)

Becoming-animal is not about imitation or imagination. It is real, an interconnectedness, involving reciprocal respect. It precludes reductionist attitudes. It is a process of deep mutual finding, intensely feeling into the other’s being, requiring creative, joined-up thinking.

I was mindful, whilst choosing to paint wild birds, of the idea of hospitality, welcoming all living things who share the earth with us, before knowing or categorizing them. I referenced the portrait, as it usually privileges the human form, challenging human superiority over animals.

I photographed the Martial Eagle, Marvin. I grew to know him and I think he knew me; our relationship animated the painting process. Paradoxically, he grew more ‘real,’ as I painted, as if I were honouring him with a portrait.

The animal gaze was at the heart of my work.  This is no ordinary gaze; it is that of another being, asserting his right of agency. It challenges assumptions of human primacy. It is there in my paintings of wild birds, mugshot- style, challenging marginalization, facing us.

Painting the animal portrait, without objectification, accords the animal centrality, revering individuality and consciousness.  Painting allowed a reverie, a connection with the subject that cannot be adequately expressed linguistically. Through art and music we can create a ‘becoming other’:

‘No art can be imaginative or figurative. Suppose a painter “represents” a bird; this is in fact a becoming-bird that can occur only to the extent that the bird itself is in the process of becoming something else, a pure line and pure color….. imitation self-destructs, since the imitator unknowingly enters into a becoming that conjugates with the unknowing becoming of that which she or he imitates….The painter and musician do not imitate the animal, they become-animal at the same time as the animal becomes what they willed, at the deepest level of their concord with Nature.’ (Deleuze and Guattari)

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Baby Bald Eagle. ©Linda Berman

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Barn Owl. ©Linda Berman.

I reflected upon what animals might feel and the nature of our interconnections with them. Evidence that animals have feelings is strong, revealing a neurochemical basis for their emotions. Indeed, the appearance of frightened animals resembles ours: wide eyes, body in flight mode. Descartes thought animals were machines, that they lack consciousness and cannot feel pain.

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Startled Baby Owl. ©Linda Berman.

Descartes’ way of thinking contrasts with feminist philosopher Helene Cixous’ view of a ‘profound animal humanity.’ (Cixous.)

Buddhists also believe in the connectedness of all living things and many people close to animals experience this bond. Science shows that ‘cross-species intimacy penetrates to the tiny cells in the brain.’(Acampora) When humans empathise with animals, potential emerges for a real meeting.

Thus I entered the animal’s world and experienced how it might be to ‘become animal.’ This concept allows species boundaries to be elastic, enabling a shared experience of each other and the world.(Calarco and Atterton)

For Deleuze and Guattari, ‘flux, change and relation are….more real than permanence, stability and identity.’ (Urpeth, ibid). They recommend flexibility, uncertainty and connection with others, rather than rigidity. They advocate creative transience, instead of immovability, which prevents real contact, and the development of a state of ‘becoming animal’ that is mutually transformative, in relation to music and art:

‘Music takes as its content a becoming-animal… the birds find expression in staccato notes that transform them into so many souls….. the human musician is deterritorialized in the bird, but it is a bird that is itself deterritorialized , “transfigured”, a celestial bird, that has just as much of a becoming as that which becomes with it.’

Marvin’s portrait has something of me in it ‘deterritorialized,’ perhaps the part that likes to ‘fly free.’ As I painted, I lost myself in another; I was becoming bird. Marvin’s ‘becoming’ resides in his ‘transformation’ into a bird worthy of a portrait, like a revered ancestor.

In representing ‘Marvin’ like this, I challenge animal alterity. As I brought the birds into being on canvas, I translated across vernaculars, from the photograph. What emerged was a commonality, human traces in my birds’ eyes. As the birds emerged, I found myself greeting them, welcoming them to the world. I felt part of them, for I had internalised something of their essential nature.

Thinking twice about Relationships: How Can we Learn to See the Whole Picture?

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Tony Bevan. Heads Horizon. Copyright Tony Bevan.

Courtesy Ben Brown Fine Arts, London

 

‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.’

F. Scott Fitzgerald

 

Keeping two opposite, contradictory views in mind at the same time is a difficult task; however, if we are able to do this, the rewards are manifold. Such thinking is surely situated at the heart of creativity. Yet, so often, people opt for one side or another, choosing to ignore the fact that the world, and life, are just not that simple.

For example, when a couple divorce, how often do friends and family take sides? In actuality, marital breakdown is about two people; it is an interaction. Even though it might appear as if one partner is ‘at fault,’ that partner is always unconsciously expressing something for the other. 

The couple represent two parts of a whole; they created the entity of the marriage and they both have a part in its demise. Apportioning blame to one partner or another represents a way of thinking that is limited and incomplete. It is the product of a one-sided mindset, a way of thinking that cannot recognise the validity of two different viewpoints. The result is half-truths and biased versions of reality.

‘My experience with couples in conflict over divergent subjective experiences inspired what I call the “You’re Both Right Intervention”: The therapist points out that while both people seem to assume that there can be only one correct way to see a situation, in fact, both can be simultaneously correct. When making this postmodern point, I mention a situation, familiar to all, of two people reacting very differently to the identical movie.’

(Nielsen)

Partial ways of thinking have their roots within our own minds, acknowledging only one side of ourselves and denying the existence of the ‘bad’ side. Jung called this our ‘shadow’ side, a part of us all:

‘Everyone carries a shadow and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.’ Jung’s shadow refers to the darker parts of the personality of which we tend to be unaware.

If we are remain in denial about the existence of our own shadow, we will tend to project that darkness onto others.

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Rubens. ‘Old Woman and Boy with Candles.’

‘When you light a candle, you also cast a shadow.’ Ursula Le Guin

Such paranoid ways of thinking involve unconscious projection onto the other of one’s own unwanted or unacceptable fears. This involves the mechanism of splitting, of black and white thinking, where the world is divided into people who are wholly good, (often great, powerful leaders), and the utterly evil, who will be vilified and scapegoated as outsiders.

Condemnation of another as dishonest, grasping or lazy might, for a short time at least, leave one feeling smugly virtuous. However, the negative feelings inside, unresolved and ignored, will return, ready to be projected out onto some other unwitting victim.

This way of thinking abhors difference, hates, yet needs ‘the enemy.’ Then we are unable to see the self in the other, cannot recognise that in all of us lies the potential for evil.

There is an old saying which urges us to remember that ‘when you point the finger at someone, remember that there are three fingers pointing back at you.’

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‘The Gossips.’

Thus, instead of regarding the other as all bad and the self as good or faultless, we might pause a moment to look at how easy it is to denounce another, rather than to admit that all is not perfect inside oneself. The Spanish proverb ‘An optimist is a person who has a depressed friend’ illustrates my point perfectly. It is easier to deny one’s own pessimism if one can focus on another’s depression or misery.

If we can first make a connection between the various inner aspects of ourselves, begin to admit into consciousness thoughts and feelings previously repressed and denied, then we might get in touch with the stranger inside, the part of ourselves hitherto unconsciously regarded as alien.

 

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In his book, Strangers, Gods and Monsters,  Kearney refers to the fact that ‘foreigners’ and strangers are most liable to be burdened with the negative projections of others:
‘The ‘alien’ is revealed accordingly as that most occluded part of ourselves, considered so unspeakable that we externalise it onto others. The more foreign someone is the more eligible they are to carry the shadow cast by our unconscious. Strangers become perfect foils since we can act out on them the hostility we feel towards our own strangers within.’ (Kearney)

In next week’s post, we will continue to develop this theme, with special reference to hospitality, immigrants and ‘the other.’

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