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Discovering Our Selves: The Science of Emotion
Executive Summary

Special Presentation

"Emotional Origins Of Intelligence"

Stanley Greenspan, M.D., is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Behavioral Sciences, and Pediatrics at George Washington University Medical Center. He is the author of more than 27 books including, most recently, The Growth of the Mind and the Endangered Origins of Intelligence.

Our emotions are the basis for our intelligence--as well as our morality and self-esteem--because all the mind's higher functions require affect or intent-and-affect-mediated generative thought.

By observing emotional patterns over many years in both normally developing and challenged babies and children, we have identified steps leading to intelligence and emotional health.

Initially, a baby responds with attention, interest, and pleasure to sensations such as touch and sound provided by a familiar caregiver. These emotions help babies organize their senses and motor responses and develop a sense of security. When a baby is deprived of touching and talking, or when the touching and talking is negative, the baby responds with apathy and despondency.

As the baby develops, emotions go from being simply organizers to relationship builders and social communicators. By four months, the baby is exhibiting organized, joyful engaging and by nine months, we can see two-way, affect-based communication: with a look of surprise, mother talks; baby vocalizes back with a tone of curiosity. Complex emotional negotiations through the "intent" of interactive affects mobilize and coordinate the senses and motor patterns and initiate early forms of communication and thinking.

In this way, logical emotional cuing precedes "sensorimotor" logic by many months. Babies have more control over their facial muscles, which communicate affect, than over their arms and legs, which they need to perform tasks--such as pulling a string to ring a bell--that Piaget marked as the first lesson in logical thinking.

By 12 to 18 months, these emotional cues and responses become the building blocks of increasingly complicated problem-solving as the toddler figures out how the world works. Taking Dad by the hand and pointing to the desired toy on the shelf and gesturing for him to get it exemplifies both early scientific thinking (for example, understanding patterns) and the ability to negotiate social relationships.

Toddlers who do not initiate complex circles of emotional cuing may not learn how to negotiate dependency (for example, complex flirtation games), assertiveness, or limits. Through chains of affect cuing, these capacities are learned long before children use words to any significant degree.

At the next levels of emotional organization, affects are linked to symbols to give the symbols purpose and meaning. This is seen in pretend play--hugging or fighting with dolls--or verbal expressions of wishes such as "I want juice!"

And finally, the child is able to combine her emotional ideas with someone else's. "I want to go out." "Why?" "Because I like to play out there." The child learns symbolic cause-and-effect thinking through bridging his own emotions and intent with the ideas of someone else. This is the basis for reality testing, impulse control, concentration, and judgment.

We have discovered that children vary in how they experience these critical affective interactions, depending on how their nervous systems respond to and process physical sensations. Children who are overreactive to sensation experience many affects very intensely and require extra protection and soothing, whereas children who are undersensitive to touch and sound require energized, intense interactions. Some infants have strong visual, but weak auditory, abilities; others have the reverse. These differences change how they experience their affect and world, as well as learn.

By understanding a child's individual differences and developmental level, we can help the child negotiate the emotional interactions that lead to emotional health and intelligence rather than apathy, self-absorption, impulsivity, concrete and disorganized thinking, and/or language and learning problems.

Even when learning and behavioral problems are present, however, tailoring our approach and working with the child's unique interactive affects can foster normal progress. Many children--even those with severe disorders such as autistic spectrum disorders--can progress through the above stages and learn to relate to others, read and understand emotions, and eventually create new ideas and think.

We are now able to subdivide children with autistic spectrum disorders, attention-deficit disorder, conduct disorders, depression, and schizophrenia based on their individual differences and functional emotional developmental levels.

These insights about the role of emotions have led us to a new perspective on how intelligence develops. The six types of emotional interactions described above are necessary both for generating new ideas as well as giving them meaning. Intelligence involves this generative component as well as a gradually growing, reflective component. Without the generative component, which depends on affective interactions, thinking will remain concrete and, not surprisingly, computer-like.

Learning about the emotional foundations of intelligence and mental health, however, raises a grave concern. Societal patterns are eroding rather than strengthening these critical emotional building blocks. Impersonal group-oriented infant and child care (the case in many day care centers), decreased human interaction in play and education, growing family problems, and decreased adult-to-adult interactions: all erode the emotional interactions necessary to abstract thinking, moral judgment, and intimacy with others.

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February 8, 2022