Farewell and thanks to the great Daniel Stern

by Nov 18, 2012Infants1 comment

Approx. Reading Time: 5 minutes
This week saw the demise of one of the greatest figures ever in infancy research, and the person who really begun the process of linking developmental science and therapeutic practice. News of Daniel Stern’s death has shaken all who came into contact with him and who knew of his work. I am sure I am not the only person whose world was turned upside down when I first read what is still his best known work, The Interpersonal World of the Infant [1]. It is quite extraordinary how far the field has come since the publication of that seminal book. Looking back at that text, it was clearly a work of genius, so far ahead of its time, and in it Stern put into words so much that so many people had faintly intuited but could not make explicit. It was Stern who first taught us about affect attunement, a concept we take for granted now but which he had to persuade us of. He did this using research and videos about real babies, showing us how they were born primed to interact, to seek out faces and voices, born ready to be understood, feelingful beings who were also extremely intelligent. Stern’s baby was a real baby, alive, flesh and blood, and researchable, and those of us working therapeutically needed the evidence he brought to put alongside the theoretical psychoanalytic babies we had been taught about, by Freud, Klein, Winnicott, Lacan and others. His was a mind which would not be confined and he embraced not only psychoanalysis and infancy research, but creative arts and especially music, to help make sense of processes of change and development.

Since his time infancy research has exploded, but no-one has ever done quite what Daniel Stern did. He did not simply present his research, but he used the findings to build a deep understanding and finely nuanced theories about how children develop, always interested not just in an infant and child’s behaviours, but always also in their states of mind, their feelings and internal representations. Here infancy research and psychoanalytic thinking met as equal partners in an extraordinarily fertile relationship. We learnt, for example, how the self begins in a very much emergent form, how it slowly forms more of a ‘core’ sense of self, then the subjective self and later, with luck, the verbal self. Indeed later editions brought in more sophisticated capacities in the form of narrative selves and envelopes and other sophisticated interpersonal skills. He was a consummate clinician and was very aware of the effects of a child’s human environment. Early on, with Beatrice Beebe, research was done with babies with intrusive mothers who were filmed in ‘chase and dodge’ sequences, and he showed how even young babies develop not only defensive manoeuvres but also personality traits in response to the kinds of early relationships they are enmeshed in. He was one of the first to suggest that traumatic and unsatisfactory early relationships could, surprisingly, lead to more not less attunement, but attunement of an anxious rather than relaxed kind.

He understood deeply how babies learn about relationships early on and form templates of relationships which then guide them in later interactions. Maybe his description of these templates, RIGS (Representations of Interactions Generalised) was not the easiest term to use, but he had again explained something rich and potent about human development, and as ever had backed it up with research. His idea of ‘vitality affects’ was maybe one of his most important concepts, describing “dynamic shifts or patterned changes” in the self or others which involve qualities of feeling that cannot easily be pigeon-holed by the vocabulary we use to describe what he terms categorical affects, such as sadness or joy. Indeed a poetic sensibility ran through his work, an awe about human development, so that there always seemed to be a creative tension between the wish to put something into words and the wish to keep alive the mystery of developmental processes and human life. Indeed he argued forcefully that there were gains and losses in language, in a baby, for example, being bathed in sunlight with all its sensory inputs, the feel of warmth, the colours, the light, for example, and how words like ‘that’s a yellow sun’ somehow close down the wonderment of the experience. This poetic sensibility stayed with him in all his writings, maybe   in later books such as The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday life [2] and towards the end of his life, Forms of Vitality: Exploring Dynamic Experience in Psychology and the Arts, Psychotherapy and Development [3].

To my mind, clinical work with both children and adults has never been the same since Stern came on the scene. Indeed the whole world of Infant Mental Health, now an international movement, is barely imaginable without his pioneering ideas. As part of the extraordinarily innovative Boston Process of Change Group, all manner of new ways of conceptualising clinical work were opened up, using the findings from developmental psychology, attachment theory and neuroscience [4], and applying them in ongoing clinical work with adults and children. Along with some of the greatest minds in both infancy research and psychoanalysis, such as Ed Tronick, Lou Sander, Karlen Lyons-Ruth, new ways of approaching clinical work were being conceptualised, I think well ahead of their time, such as the centrality of what they called ‘implicit relational knowing’ [5], what they called ‘now moments’ and focussing on micro-moments  [6], and with Ed Tronick [7], the important work on expanding dyadic states of consciousness. He and his colleagues of course had their critics, maybe in psychoanalysis most notably Andre Green, also sadly recently departed, who saw little use for developmental understandings, real babies and research in psychoanalysis. However criticism is to be expected when new ideas come on the scene. Daniel Stern was a one-off. Probably  his greatest impact was made with his earliest book, but his ideas were always eagerly awaited, and his presentations and lectures sought out and coveted. It is hard to believe that he will not be seen again on a stage, and worse, that we wont be awaiting his next book, not knowing what to expect, but knowing that it will have something very new and different to say. Farewell Daniel Stern and thank you.

[1]        D. N. Stern, The interpersonal world of the infant. New York: Basic Books, 1985.

[2]        D. N. Stern, The present moment in psychotherapy and everyday life. New York: Norton, 2004.

[3]        D. N. Stern, Forms of vitality: Exploring dynamic experience in psychology, the arts, psychotherapy, and development. Oxford University Press, 2010.

[4]        Boston Process of Change Group, Change in psychotherapy: A unifying paradigm. New York: WW Norton & Company, 2010.

[5]        K. Lyons-Ruth, N. Bruschweiler-Stern, A. M. Harrison, A. C. Morgan, J. P. Nahum, L. Sander, D. N. Stern, and E. Z. Tronick, ‘Implicit relational knowing: Its role in development and psychoanalytic treatment’, Infant Mental Health Journal, vol. 19, no. 3, pp. 282–289, 1998.

[6]        N. Bruschweiler-Stern, A. M. Harrison, K. Lyons-Ruth, A. C. Morgan, J. P. Nahum, L. W. Sander, D. N. Stern, and E. Z. Tronick, ‘Explicating the implicit: The local level and the microprocess of change in the analytic situation’, The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, vol. 83, no. 5, pp. 1051–1062, 2008.

[7]        E. Z. Tronick, N. Bruschweiler-Stern, A. M. Harrison, K. Lyons-Ruth, A. C. Morgan, J. P. Nahum, L. Sander, and D. N. Stern, ‘Dyadically expanded states of consciousness and the process of therapeutic change’, Infant mental health journal, vol. 19, no. 3, pp. 290–299, 1998.

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