Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Comfort

Last night, possum#4 was really croupy. All of the plants and trees, here, are blooming and donning their best cologne for nature's annual equivalent of prom night. Everything in nature is dressing up and smelling its best (well,... the best for "its" kingdom/phylum/etc.,.). Anyway, I digress, all of this "extra attire" is wreaking havoc on poor P#4's immune system. His allergies are spinning out of control. So, at three o'clock in the morning, I was holding him in a steamy bathroom, lit only by the soft, blue glow of a night light, rocking him (while perched, quite precariously, on the edge of the tub) and cooing to him.

As I was doing so, it occurred to me that, bathroom aside, the rocking-cooing motion is almost instinctual. I don't care what country you're in... rocking and cooing come with the hormones of motherhood. In fact, I'd even go a step farther than that and say: in most people, rocking and cooing are hardwired into our emotional response when we pick up an infant/toddler/child in need of care.

In middle school, I had a friend whose mother was blind and almost completely deaf. She'd been blind since birth and deaf since birth. AFTER the birth of her children, she had surgery and implants to restore some of her hearing. Anyway... I remember one night, when I was sleeping over, a neighbor had left her child with my friend's mother for a few hours. Now, despite being blind and deaf since birth, this woman picked up the child and commenced to rocking and cooing. At the time, I didn't think anything of it. But, last night...and all of today, I couldn't help but think about it.

This calming, soothing act is universal. You don't have to hear it. You don't have to see it. You just have it. I started wondering what occurs if a human is given NO human contact... do they still rock/coo as a calming instinct? The answer was, surprisingly, "YES!" In feral children, and children with other attachment issues, they SELF-COMFORT by rocking and cooing.

Now, I know you're thinking, "Possummomma! What the hell does this have to do with atheism?" Well... I've heard people say, "Well... God MUST exist because there are cultures, all over the world, that believe in some higher power. How can they all have "faith" in a similar "power" if there's no higher power?" My answer, up until now, has usually been..."well, there must be some biological imperative to foster the ability to "give-up" difficult concepts to something greater." But, I'd been struggling for an example of how we might observe such a universal phenomena. Now I have one.

You don't need to observe, hear, or even feel, rocking and cooing to know that it's calming. Does that make rocking and cooing supernatural? NO! It means that, at some level, that instinct is in our genetic code. And, maybe, from time to time, that code gets botched in some people. They don't have it or it's "broken". For the most part, though, like emotions,... there are just some things that are universal and there's nothing mystical about it... they're part of our survival mechanism. They help insure that the next generation gets what it needs to make it to maturity (and, thereby, perpetuate the gene pool). It doesn't need to be all mystical and "holy" to be awe inspiring. I was quite awed, and relieved, when possum#4 finally rested his little head on my shoulder and succumbed to the rhythm of my sway and the hum of my voice. His entire body relaxed and we both fell asleep: comforted and loved.

Give it up for DNA!

27 comments:

Maggie Rosethorn said...

P-momma--how true. Rocking and crooning are universal. I remember being in church as a little girl, watching how all the males stood still and every female swayed slightly when standing, like they were rocking a child, no matter how old the female was. And, at least for me, when I am upset, holding myself and rocking and crooning calms ME!

Sara (sassy) said...

I still automatically start rocking when I pick up a child...call it habit. ;)

I hope P#4 starts feeling better soon.

ceinwyn said...

Very interesting: we also instinctively speak to infants in higher pitched tones: they respond better.
Iincidentally; there is research being done on why a belief in the supernatural is so pervasive. There was a very interesting article about 2 current hypotheses in the NY Times Magazine, 3 or 4 Sunday's ago. It was called "Why We Believe." I get the magazine, but I did find also find it online.

shaun said...

I'm not sure I necesssarily agree with this view. Sure, feral children rock and coo to themselves, but they must have learned that this is what makes them feel better, even if it was via self-evaluation. You more than likely learned this behavior by mimicry and conditioned learning. One of my psychology professors told me that there is no such thing as the "maternal instinct" and I tend to agree with him, although I do believe that there are learned behaviors that have been proven through the test of time...

Carlie said...

I have no idea where I read it, so I can't corroborate it, but I remember reading that not only does everyone rock for self or other soothing, but everyone does it at almost the exact same speed and rhythm. It was a tempo related to heartbeat, but I don't think it was 1:1.

I disagree with shaun; there are definitely genetically determined behaviors in other animals, so there's no reason to think we don't have them as well. Evolutionarily, animals with more protective maternal behaviors produce more successful offspring, so it's a positive feedback for those behaviors to spread through a species especially if they're genetically based.

David W. said...

Excellent post, possummomma. I've always thought that the "but so many cultures believe in a deity" argument to be specious. After all, these cultures were also facing the same questions. Where did the sun come from, what happens after we die, etc. These are monumentally huge questions, and with such limited scientific knowledge, people would certainly require a supernatural answer.

Allyson said...

One of my psychology professors told me that there is no such thing as the "maternal instinct" and I tend to agree with him

I am sort of in agreement, except for different reasons. I would actually be in favor of Carlie's post, that all animals, including humans, exhibit "maternal" behaviors. However, I reject the classifcation of these behaviors as specifically maternal in nature. I believe that all humans have the potential to nuture their children in the same way, and it's cultural differences which lead them to behave otherwise. I definitely see the possibility for "parental" behaviors to be ingrained with our psychology, but there is nothing specifically "maternal" or "paternal" about a single one of them.

shaun said...

I disagree with shaun; there are definitely genetically determined behaviors in other animals, so there's no reason to think we don't have them as well.

Except that I didn't say there wasn't. I'm just saying that the examples given are more of a learned behavior (rocking and cooing?) rather than instinctual. Secondly, if you isolated a girl for most of her life, then introduced an infant to her as an adult, she will not know what to do with it. Child-rearing is a learned behavior. Eating, on the other hand...

Carlie said...

Eating an infant? :)

That would be the appropriate test, to take a girl raised in a feral kind of way, apart from human contact, then give her a baby and see what she does with it. Better yet, have her get pregnant and have her own baby and see what she does with it, since there would be hormonal affects. Would she know what to do with it? Can't be answered, though, thanks to those morals we've evolved. ..

Carlie said...

Holy crap. Did I just write "hormonal affects"? I know English, really, I do. I, um, was thinking about how hormones affect the result, and that's why I used the wrong word. Honest.

shaun said...

Can't be answered, though, thanks to those morals we've evolved. ..

Damn you, empathy!

But seriously, this "not knowing" has been observed in other species. I think it not a far cry to extrapolate that to humans - you know, given evolution and such.

Wog the Bugger said...

1st time poster... Anyways... Re: why religion in seen in every culture...

I've had the idea that there is no evolutionary need for religion in specific. I know it's been suggested. I have instead considered that the human species is evolutionarily predisposed to examine, understand and explain this amazing universe we live in. Human beings have a large, powerful brain that needs feeding and asks the questions. Given the lack of modern scientific evidence, humans have been merely filling their immense brains with the best explanation they could create with their imagination. As science and humans continue to evolve I can only guess that religion will eventually go the way of the dodo bird. I'd like to hope so anyway.

chakolate said...

Another example of behavior that is universal is recognizing faces. We're hard-wired to see faces, even on the moon or sideways in punctuation in an email. Every culture on earth (or so I'm told) has some reference to the 'man on the moon'.

Atheist in a mini van. said...

I'm not sure I necesssarily agree with this view.
That's cool. :)

Sure, feral children rock and coo to themselves, but they must have learned that this is what makes them feel better, even if it was via self-evaluation.
Ok...I can see where you're going with this. But, how do infants "learn" to root for a breast or breathe? I know that rubbing an an injured body part can make it feel better... but, I also know that rubbing the effected area increases the blood flow, thereby bringing the needed repair chemicals and cells to begin the job of fixing my body. Did I "learn" that at birth?
I think I disagree with the term "learn", as in "learned behavior", with regards to this example specifically... sure, I guess you COULD do it and notate that it makes you feel better, but then we also have to consider the memory capacity of an infant. It's not very long. So... even if the infant started rocking and went, "Hmmmm...this makes me feel good." in their head...they wouldn't store it for next time in their memory. That suggests it's an instinct.

You more than likely learned this behavior by mimicry and conditioned learning.
How does a blind/deaf person mimic?
Who does a feral child mimic?
It's possible that the blind/deaf person "felt" the rocking...but the feral child...who's rocking him/her?


One of my psychology professors told me that there is no such thing as the "maternal instinct" and I tend to agree with him, although I do believe that there are learned behaviors that have been proven through the test of time...
I think "maternal instinct" is an overused term and doesn't apply to this. As I pointed out, this behavior isn't limited to mothers. Most ALL humans rock/coo when they are presented with an infant in need of care.

But... I'm willing to consider your position if you have some more thoughts.

Atheist in a mini van. said...

I have no idea where I read it, so I can't corroborate it, but I remember reading that not only does everyone rock for self or other soothing, but everyone does it at almost the exact same speed and rhythm. It was a tempo related to heartbeat, but I don't think it was 1:1.

That is interesting. Although, I don't know about the heartbeat thing... I have persistant tachycardia. If I rocked according to my heart beat, my kids would have whiplash! LOL

I wonder if it has more to do with our stride?? Meaning: when the baby is in utero, it is rocked in the pelvic cavity whenever the mother walks. Our normal stride might be on par with a certain tempo... and since a human stride falls within certain limits of possibility, there might be something to that. Hmmmm...that sounds like an interesting hypothesis for one of my kids' future science experiments. ;)

Atheist in a mini van. said...

Secondly, if you isolated a girl for most of her life, then introduced an infant to her as an adult, she will not know what to do with it

Actually, Sean, I hope you will consider the evidence gathered from studies on feral children (which is why I mentioned this). Often, when presented with a doll (human, baby), they will rock and coo. I did some reading today and found some observations (now...I do allow for the fact that the observation of what constitutes "rocking and cooing" might be subjective), by scientists studying feral children, who performed this experiment and saw the same behavior in four feral children. These four children were from Russia, the United States, Lithuania, and Vietnam.

shaun said...

But, how do infants "learn" to root for a breast or breathe?

I don't think it's fair to compare the two: rocking and cooing being soothing (arguably a non-necessity) versus eating and breathing. Also, breathing is an involuntary function. One could "voluntarily" stop it, but our bodies just breathe on their own.

I know that rubbing an an injured body part can make it feel better... but, I also know that rubbing the effected area increases the blood flow, thereby bringing the needed repair chemicals and cells to begin the job of fixing my body. Did I "learn" that at birth?


No - you probably learned that rubbing the affected body part felt good early in life (this is called conditioned learning - negative reinforcement of a behavior) and then learned later in life why that was. This is still a learned behavior.

I think I disagree with the term "learn", as in "learned behavior", with regards to this example specifically... sure, I guess you COULD do it and notate that it makes you feel better, but then we also have to consider the memory capacity of an infant. It's not very long. So... even if the infant started rocking and went, "Hmmmm...this makes me feel good." in their head...they wouldn't store it for next time in their memory. That suggests it's an instinct.


Sure, infants don't have this capacity. But are we talking about feral "infants?" Probably not.

How does a blind/deaf person mimic?
Who does a feral child mimic?
It's possible that the blind/deaf person "felt" the rocking...but the feral child...who's rocking him/her?


A blind/deaf person still interacts with the environment around them. They also have the capacity to read (braile). And as you pointed out, they could have "felt" the vibrations of the rocking. A feral child also interacts with it's environment, including what it sees in other species.

Actually, Sean, I hope you will consider the evidence gathered from studies on feral children...

Hm. I'll have to do some more reading on this, but I still believe that feral children have learned this behavior, either a) via the minimal human contact they have had or b) from watching how other species react to their young. I'd also be interested in knowing who was actually being consolled with the doll. Was the child consoling itself with the rocking and cooing (since the doll is obviously not alive, and I would imagine that a feral child could deduce that rather quickly)?

Atheist in a mini van. said...

I don't think it's fair to compare the two: rocking and cooing being soothing (arguably a non-necessity) versus eating and breathing. Also, breathing is an involuntary function. One could "voluntarily" stop it, but our bodies just breathe on their own.

I see your point on the first (non-necessary action versus necessary). I made a poor analogy.
*thinks* I shall think on this a bit more and see if I can come up with a better analogy. Maybe there isn't one.

No - you probably learned that rubbing the affected body part felt good early in life (this is called conditioned learning - negative reinforcement of a behavior) and then learned later in life why that was. This is still a learned behavior.

I don't know that I agree. I mean, on some level, I see what you're saying (at a certain point, we DO continue to do what feels good because we remember it feels good/gives comfort). But, I'm thinking, and this is purely anecdotal, of my children when they received their immunizations. and other infants who I observed in NICU, whose tiny fists immediately go to the injured area after they are immunized. It's an instinctual response. Surely, neonates can't have "learned" that behavior? Now... obviously, I have not performed any study beyond observation, but... I think there's more to it than just observation. I think it could be something coded into our "stimulus/response" or instinct pattern.
I think we ABSOLUTELY continue to perform such self-comforting tasks as we age...and your point stands there. But, why do infants do it as well?


Sure, infants don't have this capacity. But are we talking about feral "infants?" Probably not.

Yes, actually...I was speaking about them too (with regarding to self comforting by touch and rocking/cooing). If you like, I can go through my history (on my lap top, in the A.M.) and link some information for you?


A blind/deaf person still interacts with the environment around them. They also have the capacity to read (braile). And as you pointed out, they could have "felt" the vibrations of the rocking. A feral child also interacts with it's environment, including what it sees in other species.

Surely they interact.
However, while mother's might read braile... how do they know what a coo sounds like if they've never heard another human voice? That was what I found intriguing. My friend's mother didn't hear a human voice until her children were much older. She communicated very well through signing and braile, but...if you can't hear what a "coo" is, is it not interesting that the sound would be produced in the appropriate situation? I'm not claiming it's proof, but it is an interesting question. This woman could barely speak when I met her, but talking to her husband today, he said he recalled her making humming/cooing noises with their daughter and it amazed him, at the time, that she could do that, but couldn't form words. Again... I might be completely wrong, but it is interesting.


... but I still believe that feral children have learned this behavior, either a) via the minimal human contact they have had or b) from watching how other species react to their young.
I have to admit that this is a very good point.
This is very possible. Most feral children, with the exception of the California case, were raised with other animals (in the Russian case, it was a pack of dogs). Dogs DO have a "coo-similar" (that term probably exists nowhere but in my brain) vocalization, so you may be correct. Maybe it's a cross-species instinct?

I'd also be interested in knowing who was actually being consolled with the doll. Was the child consoling itself with the rocking and cooing (since the doll is obviously not alive, and I would imagine that a feral child could deduce that rather quickly)?

In the case that mentioned the doll, the feral child (who was 9 at the time of the discovery) was led into a hospital in which there were a variety of toys. He (interestingly a male, "raised" by dogs)was observed for a few hours, curled up in a corner, non-responsive to any attempt to engage him in communication. But, as the study stated, "At 0300, the child perked up and began to roam the room. He stopped at a pile of stuffed animals and quickly attached himself to a stuffed dog. He retreated to the corner of his origination and tucked the puppy behind him in the corner. A few moments later, he spotted a clothed, gender non-specific doll. He approahed the doll and picked it up in his teeth. The subject returned to the corner and carefully washed the doll with his tongue and then began rocking in a back and forth motion..."

Like I said, my thoughts are IN NO WAY to be considered a serious, scientific epiphany. I just find the instinct univesal. :)
Thanks for the great discussion points.

shaun said...

But, I'm thinking, and this is purely anecdotal, of my children when they received their immunizations. and other infants who I observed in NICU, whose tiny fists immediately go to the injured area after they are immunized. It's an instinctual response. Surely, neonates can't have "learned" that behavior?

Oh, I agree wholeheartedly - this response, in my opinion, is instinctual. As you mentioned, it's a stimulus-response thing. However, I don't think that infants know that rubbing the affected area would induce a comfort - that part, I believe is learned.

If you like, I can go through my history (on my lap top, in the A.M.) and link some information for you?


I'd be extremely interested in any information you have on this! *Grin*

However, while mother's might read braile... how do they know what a coo sounds like if they've never heard another human voice?

Although an actual "coo" might be hard to discern (and actually define, to some, I suppose), sound is merely vibration. The more forceful (or active) the vibration, the louder the sound. I would imagine short, soft vibrations without any discernible change in frequency might be a close approximation of a "coo." Maybe she learned it that way? I would imagine that she had experienced the "rock and coo" as a child. It's very interesting to me...

The subject returned to the corner and carefully washed the doll with his tongue and then began rocking in a back and forth motion..."


Interesting! I think this goes back to my point of mimicry, since the washing of the stuffed animal dog was obviously learned by observation. Maybe "Puppymomma" also rocked her pups with her muzzle at some point?

Carlie said...

This gets at some interesting issues - what is learned v. instinctual, on an evolutionary scale? The learned explanation says that it feels good, so we learn to do it because it feels good. But it feels good because it's doing something useful, and the capacity to recognize that and act on it could be a genetic trait that has been selected for and honed; most evo psych people say that "feeling good" is the body's way of creating a positive feedback for the beneficial behavior (see: sex).

This makes me think of the monkey studies that are so sad; they were given either a wire mesh "mother" and no other company, or a cloth-covered "mother". Both sets clung to the thing, but the wire mesh group did more self-soothing rituals because of the lack of good tactile response from "mom".

shaun said...

The learned explanation says that it feels good, so we learn to do it because it feels good.

In a roundabout way, I guess you can say that. Any response that continues due to reinforcement is considered a learned behavior.

But it feels good because it's doing something useful, and the capacity to recognize that and act on it could be a genetic trait that has been selected for and honed

But sometimes it feels good to NOT do something useful. I know I feel that way sometimes :)

AlisonM said...

This is interesting - I was talking about this yesterday with my two best friends. One of them was talking about animals that instinctively know how to migrate from their nests to their eventual homes without any adults to guide them. She used the example of a variety of turtle that hatches in a nest away from the ocean and how the babies know how to get to the sea shortly after they're born. She's a very spiritual person, and felt that it was possibly reflective of a collective unconscious or soul experience. I'm not of that bent (although I did explore the philosophy for a while) but I've been reading a lot of V. S. Ramachandran, who's a fascinating neurologist who studies the functions of specific parts of the brain and what happens to people who suffer injuries to these parts. He makes a lot of connections through his studies to evolutionary brain development. Because of my reading, I proposed that perhaps there was a specific part of the brain that gave the turtles a sense of direction towards the ocean, and the ones who had developed this would survive to breed (many of the turtles don't make it, even with all those brothers and sisters to follow!)

In the human brain, there are sections that recognize familiar faces, and a separate section that provides an emotional response to these faces. People who are injured in that first part will look at familiar faces, know somehow that this person is a loved one, but have no idea who it is (although they might recognize the person by looking at his hands or an article of jewlery!) People who are injured in the second part will recognize their loved ones, but be absolutely certain that the person they're seeing is an impostor because they feel no emotional response to the familiar face.

Clearly, the ability to comfort a child is a survival skill, and if a developmental shortcoming or injury causes a parent to be incapable of feeling a nurturing emotion towards an infant, that parent might not produce any offspring that survive. As well, infants that respond positively to familiar faces, voices, and comfort actions will produce a nurturing feeling in adults - and an infant born without the ability to respond might well be rejected by caregiving adults and not survive. It is not inconceivable that these responses are indeed controlled by a particular heritable characteristic in the brain (because the humans who had it nurtured/were nurtured and passed on their genes, while the nonresponsive humans didn't) and really do come as part of the package of being human.

Krystalline Apostate said...

I started wondering what occurs if a human is given NO human contact... do they still rock/coo as a calming instinct?
Perhaps, but I recall seeing a 60 minutes special about a child that had been put in the child services system. She was reunited w/her biological mom (mom had cleaned up considerably).
The child, however, had been deprived of affection & the normal sequences most children have w/parental contact. As a result, the girl was extremely w/drawn, taciturn to the point of silence, & very obviously unused to interaction w/other human beings.

Matt D. said...

You see, here's a very interesting discussion with a number of ideas. A puzzle which helps us describe and understand the world we live in - and the pursuit of that answer may be even more useful than the answer we find.

And this entire discussion is halted by the simple assertion "because that's the way God made us".

I'm well aware that not every religious person allows such assertions to halt their investigation - but the point is that it can, does and (from the point of view of many devout adherents) should.

How deeply rewarding it is to be free of the shackles of dogma and certainty, free to explore, inquire, investigate, hypothesize and discover, without fear that ones thoughts might be a sin or that the answer is "meant" to be beyond us.

Russ said...

PMomma,

Thank you so much for this wonderful post. I've held off commenting on it because it moved me so very much. On first reading, it brought to mind one vivid interlude with my grandmother more than forty years ago that still gives me great joy and comfort every time I think of it.

Gramma was from Appalachia with all the material and educational impoverishment that implies, but Gramma knew things that moved people, especially little boys like me. Gramma knew some things that money couldn't buy. Mom and Dad had split up which caused Gramma and I to be apart for several years. When at last we were together again, Gramma hurried over to me, and did what seemed so natural to her: she picked me up, rocked me, and sang. Harkening back all those decades, I still smell the baking bread, I still feel Gramma's neck against my cheek, I still hear "Just as I am, without one plea, but that ...," and I still feel the gentle motion of Gramma's sway. Though my world was falling apart, my little heart knew my Gramma loved me. I cherish the thought to this day.
--------------------

PMomma, you capture well the idea that many of our sources of comfort are biologically ingrained.

Sadly, religions have for all of human history forced people to misattribute the emotional phenomena that are commonly called "spirituality" to some source outside of the person themselves. Ignorance really does have its drawbacks.

But, the "spiritual" - I actually hate the word because of the inherent otherworldliness connected with it - is demonstrably an innate part of who we are as biological entities known as humans.

Realize that we rely on specific information in order to know what response is appropriate.

Example: Consider the following sentence: "The man took it to the driveway, set it on the concrete and repeatedly stomped it with his heavy boots." Think about it for a moment, then ask yourself how it makes you feel. In the absence of specific information you don't know how to feel, do you? If "it" were a puppy, you would feel quite different than if "it" were a laptop computer. Your emotional response depends on what "it" is.

Indeed, for you to satisfyingly respond, "it" must be defined. The difference in response based on what "it" is, could be as different as humor and moral outrage.

Also, the absence of information drastically effects your emotional systems. I was of a different emotional state before I knew the tragic events of 9/11 than I was after, and the only difference was knowledge of those events.

PMomma, we are amazing beings with wonderful psychological and emotional states that bind us together as a human family. By denying that the "spiritual" sense is part of our very being, as opposed to being some imagined gift from on high, religions have diminished the human experience by separating mankind from the natural world of which he is so much a part. These feelings and emotions have very real evolutionary roots; they are very much a part of what it means to be human; and, they require no goofy supernaturalism to explain them.

Occasionally, I'm brought to tears thinking about some long ago PMomma, a few thousand generations back, doing her best to make sense of her world - no doubt terrifying by today's standards - and bring comfort to her little Possums. That PMomma was my ancestor, and quite possibly yours. Her struggles were literally life and death, for herself and her family and, yet, I can share this with you only because she won out. I as well as all the generations between us, stand as testament that she did not struggle in vain.

My tears come in celebration of our human ancestry shared down the generations; my tears come in sincere appreciation of all PMommas throughout the ages; and, my tears come because here, now, during my brief patch of time, I live only because - like you Possummomma - she was a good PMomma. I'm not proselytizing for some sort of ancestor cult, but, for me there is no conception of my human family more fulfilling than this.

Thanks again, PMomma, for sharing your special moment with P#4, for your insights gained, and for revitalizing some fond personal memories.

Mattias said...

So... there are genes, memes, and instincts, which come somewhere in between. As suggested by your post, that the fact that different cultures share faith in god is because of genes, this is technically not true. The rocking of a baby is an instinct. Noone has to teach you that, so basically, yes, it is coded into our genes. But believing in a god(s) has to be taught, one way or another. Even at a most basic level. Because while people can wonder how they got into this world and what their purpose is on themselves, not finding the answers does (as a rule) not lead them to believe, automatically, in a god, gods or even a higher power. That is because the idea of god is not entirely normal, and our little brains usually cannot make up something that does not make sense by himself... he needs help. That's where the parents of the child usually come to play.
I hope you caught my drift.

Patrick Quigley said...

This is an interesting observation. Given the universality of such impulses, it isn't surprising that one of the most popular and comforting scenes in religious art is that of a mother holding her child as you describe.