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Tag Archives: Effects Of Breakdown Of Maternal Bond

The ‘Still Face’ Experiment

still face experiment


As new born babies, we enter the world ‘hard wired’ (i.e. neurologically predisposed) and driven to form a powerful bond with our primary carer.

How well the quality of this bond (which psychologists normally refer to as ‘attachment’) develops has a critical impact on the infant’s psychological and emotional development.

Indeed, if the manner in which the bond develops is in some way significantly deficient then the actual physical development of the infant’s brain may be adversely affected which, in turn, is likely to lead to myriad problems in later life.

Factors that affect the quality of the bond between the infant and primary carer (usually the mother) include:

  • facial expressions
  • tone of voice
  • tactile interaction
  • gestures
  • postures

still face experiment

The ‘Still Face’ Experiment:

The ‘still face’ experiment, which can be painful to observe, involves, in the first stage, a mother interacting normally with her four-month-old infant. On a given signal from the experimenter, however, she ceases all interaction with the baby (both verbal and non-verbal) and, instead, just wears a blank expression (the ‘still face’).

The infant, of course, finds this deeply distressing and, usually, will redouble his/her efforts to interact/connect positively with the mother. For instance, the child may increase his/her smiling, eye contact, reaching out and cooing.

This desperate attempt to recapture the mother’s interest can go on for up to 3 minutes.

However, once (approximately) this time has elapsed, and the mother remains unalterably unresponsive, most often the baby will then become obviously distressed, upset, agitated, anguished and enraged.

In this distressed state, the infant may then attempt to ‘self-soothe’ and comfort him/herself; for instance, s/he may start to suck on his/her own hand.

This experiment is clearly controversial and upsetting for everyone involved; indeed, at this point in the experiment some researchers end it.

However, other researchers have let the experiment carry on beyond this point for a short time and have found that, in the next (and final) stage, the infant seems to fall into a state of withdrawal, despair, despondency. lethargy and hopelessness (mimicking, in some respects, symptoms of the adult clinically depressed state).


Whilst, as stated above, the ‘still face’ experiment is controversial and distressing to contemplate, it is a powerful illustration of the crucial importance of the quality of the bond between the primary carer and the infant  and its dramatic impact on the infant’s psychological and emotional welfare.


still face experiment

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).


What Studies on ‘Unloved’ Rats Tell us about Effects of Childhood Trauma


It is being increasingly recognized by research psychologists that the environment we are brought up in has a critical effect upon our later development and functioning. As in all areas of medical research, animal studies play a vital role in helping us to understand the possible causes of human psychological pathology.

Key studies on how early experiences can have adverse effects on psychological functioning have been conducted on rats. In one important study, it was found that baby rats who were raised by mothers who showed them little affection (affection in the rat world being demonstrated by licking) and were rarely licked by their mothers incurred damage to the way in which their brains developed (this was discovered by dissecting and examining their brains after death).

Baby rats who had been raised by their mothers in an affectionate way, however (i.e they received their fair quota of loving maternal licks), developed completely healthy brains; specifically, they had far more receptors in a brain region called the HIPPOCAMPUS – these receptors, greatly lacking in the ‘unloved’ rats, are considered to be crucial in the role of regulating (controlling and damping-down) stress responses (meaning they would be much better at tolerating stress in later life).

Further study has demonstrated that a deprivation of affection damages vital DNA strands in rats and it is a knock on effect of this damage which depletes the quantity of stress reducing receptors in the brain.


It can clearly be inferred from the above findings that the problems the ‘unloved’ rats developed with their ability to tolerate stress as adults was NOT caused by inherited genes, but by damage down to their DNA
by THE ENVIRONMENT IN WHICH THEY WERE RAISED (an environment in which they were deprived of maternal affection).

The perennial question may be raised in response to the above findings that that’s all very well, but can we extrapolate those findings to human beings? (my own view, for what it’s worth, is, not least because of our evolutionary history and the similarities between human brains and those of our furry, nose-twitching, be-whiskered little ratty friends, is that we can do so quite legitimately). However, for those who remain unconvinced, related studies have been conducted on human beings . I summarize one such study below:


– the study involved the dissection and examination of 36 human brains, post-mortem (obviously)

– of the 36, 12 had died of natural causes (GROUP A) and 24 had died by suicide

– of the 24 who had died by suicide, 12 had suffered serious childhood trauma (GROUP B). The other 12 had no (GROUP C).


GROUP B (those who had died by suicide AND suffered severe childhood trauma), like the ‘unloved’ rats, were found to have A GREATLY DEPlETED NUMBER OF BRAIN RECEPTORS RELATED TO STRESS REGULATION/CONTROL. This was not true of groups A and C.


These studies suggest that both rats and humans can incur serious damage to the way in which their brains physiologically develop, due to early life trauma, affecting their abilities to tolerate stress in later life.


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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).