How Would Harry Harlow Model You?

This week to explain how I feel, I have to give you a quick psychology lecture.

I was listening to an episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain at work.  The podcast explores “unconscious patterns that drive human behavior, the biases that shape our choices, and the triggers that direct the course of our relationships.”

Pretty dope, right?

I found myself listening to the episode about Creature Comforts and when the host Shankar Vedantam and writer Deborah Blum got on a Harry Harlow kick- my world froze.  Harlow is known for his research on social behavior and most commonly known for his experiments on infant rhesus monkeys that he separated from their mothers.  Every general psychology student probably has a faint memory of the Wire and Cloth Mothers.

The real question we’re getting to is what kind of mother are you?

While both “moms” were heated with a light bulb to mimic a mother’s warmth, Wire Mom fed the baby monkeys while Cloth Mom provided a sense of comfort by being soft and cuddly.  The most enlightening part of the experiment was that the baby monkeys would cling to Cloth Mom for contact comfort and only lean towards Wire Mom when the baby was hungry.

Harlow discovered what the scientific community until that point had always rejected: that touch actually matters and that the nature of love is being there, every day.

Now, isn’t that something?

What Harlow is lesser known for is his depression experiments- most notably his “Pit of Despair” and various versions of the “Evil Mother.”  The Pit was an inverted pyramid where only food and water could be dropped down to the lone, infant monkey.  One of the Evil Mothers was a take on Cloth Mom.  Since Cloth Mom never rejected the baby, one evil version in particular shot out spikes as the baby monkey came in for an embrace.

Dubbed cruel and torturous, these experiments explored the nature of isolation, neglect, and abuse.  Harlow became one of the most hated scientists by the animal rights community.

Which isn’t shocking, right?

Harlow’s goal of the darker experiments was to find out if an individual can come back from dramatic isolation.

Harlow created the various contraptions to isolate the infant monkeys from any form of touch and he would leave them there for extended periods of time.

Then Harlow wanted to see if the monkeys could recover or if the they would become psychotic.

The results of his experiments were that some of the monkeys were able to recover and some of them were permanently damaged.

The most enlightening result came directly from the Spiked Evil Mother experiment.  The baby monkeys would constantly return to the Evil Mom once the spikes retracted in the hope of repairing that relationship.

“They would come back and try to fix the relationship,” says Blum.  “As soon as the spikes retracted, they’d come back and try to make her love them.  And they’d hold on and they’d coo and they’d cling and they’d flirt and they’d do everything babies do.”

Essentially the monkeys are saying, “Love me.”

She continues, “They would abandon all their other relationships to fix this (relationship).  Just give up, wouldn’t hang out with their friends.  They needed to fix that first fundamental relationship.”

So I’ll ask you again: What kind of mother are you?

NPR should have had some sort of trigger warning because that episode knocked the wind out of me as I sat at my office desk.  Tears welled up in my eyes as the show ended and I paused for reflection.  In my mind, I know I’m waiting for the spikes to retract beneath your cloth frame.  In my heart, I desperately want to repair that first fundamental relationship- our relationship.

The thing is, the spikes never retract.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an addiction, there are ways you can seek help.  I created a new Resources Page where I will add material that has helped me cope with being the adult daughter of an addict.

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