November 2016 Newsletter | Encouraging Curiosity
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November 2016 Newsletter

Child playing & showing interest/curiosity

Silvan TomkinsIt is interest… which is primary… [Interest] supports both what is necessary and what is possible.
Silvan Tomkins, 1962
(Affect Imagery Consciousness, Volume I, pages 342, 345)

Encouraging Curiosity…
Or Squashing Curiosity: Interest (Curiosity) In Infant and Child Development

Might one consider eliciting the child’s interests, rather than imposing interests upon the child?

Baby Showing InterestIn the various models of emotions, 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 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.
Darwin and His Curiosity
Darwin was known for his limitless curiosity. He wrote thousands of letters to colleagues all over the world, requesting information on plants, animals, birds, human expressions and behaviors, and so on. Many sent him specimens. For example, he became intrigued with plants which ate insects, e.g. Venus fly-trap. He gratefully received an unusual bladderwort from Lady Dorothy Nevill, and as he wrote her in his thank-you letter:
I felt confident I should find captured prey. And so I have to my delight in two bladders, with clear proof that they had absorbed food from the decaying mass. For Utricularia is a carrion-feeder, and not strictly carnivorous like Drosera… I have hardly ever enjoyed a day more in my life than I have this day’s work; and this I owe to your Ladyship’s great kindness. (Browne, 2002, p. 411)

In 1875, when Darwin was 66, he published his book titled Insectivorous Plants.
For years, Darwin was intrigued with and studied earthworms—their movements and earth-moving capacities, habits, eating, and the like. Janet Browne (2002) describes his remarkable and humorous interest and curiosity just a year or two before he died in 1882:
More and more, he enjoyed the company of worms. He spent a good deal of time thinking about them during 1880 and 1881.

Darwin made a thorough survey of annelid behavior and activities, potting up worms from his flower beds as if they were plants, and keeping them in his study for observations, once again transforming his house and garden into nature’s observatory. He and Francis would creep downstairs at night to see what the worms were up to in their flowerpots, or stealthily move through the moonlight to spy on them under the lime trees or at work ejecting casts on the surface of the Sandwalk. In the daytime, if it was fine, Darwin dug for burrows. He discovered that worms lined their holes with leaves and that they often plugged them at the top as well. One morning he removed 227 leaves out of a series of burrows, seventy of which came from the row of lime trees near the house. If the weather turned rainy, so much the better for his researches. He tracked the worms’ trails across the damp paths, wondering how far their ambitions had taken them. Unfailingly curious, he pursued what he called “fool’s experiments” by asking Francis to play his bassoon close to worms in pots to see if they detected sound. He blew a whistle, breathed tobacco fumes, and waved a red-hot poker over them. Finally, with an embarrassed laugh, he put them (in their pots) on top of the Broadwood piano and requested Emma to play the keys loudly. He “has taken to training earthworms,” she said resignedly… (p. 478)

Now 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 WinnicottDonald W. Winnicott, M.D., pediatrician-turned-psychoanalyst, wrote brilliantly about such issues in the 1950s – 1960s. He 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 Infants
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. Let’s explore some examples.
Amy, Salim, and Brianna


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.


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.


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.

The Scientist in the CribThese 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 (Gopnik et al., 1999), 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?
Next Month
We will tackle this issue of enhancing curiosity, and we will see what happened to Amy, Salim, and Brianna!

Browne J (2002). Charles Darwin: The Power of Place. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Demos EV (1994). Links between mother-infant transactions and the infant’s psychic organization. Paper presented to the Chicago Psychoanalytic Society, May, 1994.
Geisel TS (1960). Green Eggs and Ham, by Dr. Seuss. New York: Beginner Books (Random House).
Gopnik A, Meltzoff AN, Kuhl PK (1999). The Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains, and How Children Learn. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.
Gould SJ (1993). Eight Little Piggies: Reflections In Natural History. New York: WW Norton.
Holinger PC (2010). Small steps. Amer J Psychiatry 167: 752-753.
Tomkins SS (1962). Affect Imagery Consciousness (Volume I): The Positive Affects. New York: Springer.
Winnicott DW (1965). The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment. New York: International Universities Press.

Redirecting Children's BehaviorRedirecting Children's Behavior (Third Edition)
Kathryn J. Kvols
Seattle, WA: Parenting Press, Inc. 1998
This is a very user-friendly and helpful book, focusing on emotions, communication, and behaviors. The author highlights the feelings which underlie actions, allowing for understanding the child and creating an effective atmosphere for change.

AnxiousAnxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety
LeDoux J
New York: Viking 2015
This is Joseph LeDoux’s most recent book on the neurobiology of various psychological states, especially anxiety and fear. The strengths of the book lie in his review of various theories of anxiety and fear and his updating of the neurobiological research in these areas. The weaknesses include some misrepresentations of some ideas (especially primary affects and the work of Tomkins and Ekman) and the lack of sophistication in discussing clinical issues and the efficacy and research in psychodynamic treatments.



Paraguay Flag

Paraguay prohibits all physical punishment of children!
Paraguay thus becomes the 50th country worldwide to prohibit physical punishment of children in all settings.

Over 100 countries have now banned physical punishment in the schools. The United States is not one of them: in fact, 19 states in the United States still permit physical punishment in schools.
Dr. HolingerAbout Dr. Paul C. Holinger 
Dr. Holinger is the former Dean of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis, Professor of Psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center, and a founder of the Center for Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy. His focus is on infant and child development. Dr. Holinger is also the author of the book What Babies Say Before They Can Talk.

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Copyright © 2016 Parenting & Child Resources with Paul C. Holinger, M.D., All rights reserved.

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