Monkey See Monkey Do

Starving For AffectionThe pain in their eyes is chilling. The baby monkeys cling desperately to their mothers-made-of-wire for up to eighteen hours a day. They barely have appetite for food; they are starving for affection and warmth. If you search YouTube for “Harlow monkeys,” you can view the old videos from the 50s and see what I mean.

When Dr. Harry Harlow began his work in the 1930s, he set out to conduct experiments on the nature of love. Child rearing practices of the time maintained that too much physical touch would spoil children. Dr. Harlow’s research was controversial, but at least that harmful theory was discarded.

Dr. Harlow created “mothers” out of wire and wood. Some were wrapped in terry cloth while the others were left as bare wire. The baby monkeys clung for comfort to the cloth mothers, and even when the wire mothers were equipped to feed the babies, the infants still preferred to cuddle against the soft terry cloth. Harlow concluded that “contact comfort” was essential to the psychological health of infant monkeys and children. He also believed that either fathers or mothers could provide this comfort, which was a revolutionary idea at the time.

The animal liberation movement was begun as a protest against these experiments, and critics don’t see them as having anything to do with love. Dr. Harlow defended his research by saying, “What do we mean that a child loves its mother? We mean that he experiences great feeling of security in her presence, and when frightened he runs to his mother to touch her to drive away his fears. This contact with the mother changes his entire personality.”

I saw these monkey experiments at the Seattle World’s Fair when I wasn’t much more than an infant myself. I can still feel the heartbreak when I remember the babies trying to get love from such impoverished mothers, or when I re-watch the videos. It makes me consider all the people who go through life having only had “wire mothers (fathers)” who are desperately craving the warmth we mammals need to survive. In my practice, I see many people who didn’t get enough “contact comfort” in childhood, and this lack of love has damaged their lives.

We are living in a culture where an increasing number of people are suffering from loneliness and lack of human touch. Humans (and monkeys) can actually die for want of love, of warmth and cuddling. Harry Harlow’s research “demonstrated the importance of care-giving and companionship in social and cognitive development,” but what it means for us is that we all need to give each other more touch. As we see monkeys do, we need to do: admit how much we need it and offer each other the comfort of our contact.

© 2014 Catherine Auman This article is an excerpt from Catherine’s book Shortcuts to Mindfulness: 100 Ways to Personal and Spiritual Growth

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Catherine Auman is a Los Angeles psychotherapist specializing in transpersonal psychology, also known as spiritual psychology.

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