Advanced Psychopathology

Saturday, April 22, 2006


Sara's Reaction Paper- Vitality Affects and Amodal Perception

How does a caregiver communicate (or shall I say ‘commune’?) to her prelinguistic baby that she understands and is attuned to her baby’s subjective inner state? And perhaps more importantly, how does the infant extract meaning from this interaction? The intersubjective exchange of affective states, according to Stern, requires the caregiver to grasp the baby’s feeling state based on the baby’s behavior (Stern initially states that the baby’s behavior must be “overt,” but later includes those more ambiguous expressions that are not simply categorical affective expressions). Next, the caregiver must reciprocate and reflect back the baby’s behavior without merely replicating the baby’s behavior. Finally, the baby must interpret the caregiver’s behavior as a genuine reaction (not merely an imitation) to the infant’s subjective feeling state. Stern argues that vitality affects and amodal perception are the mechanisms by which this intersubjective affect exchange happens.

Research has demonstrated that babies have amodal perception capacities that allow them to perceive variations in intensity, time and shape with multiple sensory modalities. For instance, babies are able to match visual and auditory levels of intensity as demonstrated by an experiment where infants matched variations in sound to variations in brightness of lights. You may be wondering what this physiological ability has to do with affect attunement. On the surface, the connection isn’t so clear, but upon further examination it becomes apparent that in order for the baby to communicate with the mother, it is necessary for the baby to “speak” cross-modally. In other words, a mother’s mirror neurons may kick in and she may react to her baby screeching in glee to the sight of a puppy, by patting the baby’s bottom with the same kind of intensity that the baby originally exuded. This attunement is cross-modal, of course, and it allows the intersubjective sharing of affect to occur.

The preceding example of the baby’s overt glee to the sight of a puppy illustrates a categorical affective expression that obviously conveys happiness. But how does the caregiver pick up on the more common, less overt behavioral expressions of affective states? This is where vitality affects come into play. Vitality Affects are defined as elusive qualities of feelings that occur constantly in contrast to more discrete categorical affects. It seems that vitality affects initially get subconsciously picked up on by the caregiver through perceptual/amodal means (e.g., speed of movement), but then transform into feeling states that attune the caregiver to the baby’s subjective inner state. This attunement is ultimately an interpersonal communion between caregiver and baby, and allows the mother to engage in the baby’s inner experience without impinging on or altering the baby’s inner experience.


Amodal Perception and Vitality Affects and How They Contribute to Affect Attunement

Jay Kosegarten
Professor Papouchis

Amodal Perception and Vitality Affects and How They Contribute to Affect Attunement

Like many of Stern’s concepts, affect attunement is subtle and tangentially related to many other concepts. As a result he spends a good deal of time explaining what affect attunement is not. After having done so, he describes the ingredients of affect attunement and what it serves to accomplish in the mother-infant relationship and the development of the infant.
The thrust of affect attunement, and what makes it different form other concepts and modes of behavior such as mirroring and imitation, is the expansion and adjustments in the reflective behavior of the mother toward the infant that contributes to a complex interactive and intersubjective experience. What these reactive behaviors accomplish most importantly is a shared emotional experience (“shared affect state”). An essential part of this, according to Stern, is that this “communion” goes beyond imitation.
In going beyond imitation, we see the utility of amodal perception. It is the ability to convey a matching affect state across modes of perception that helps accomplish several relational necessities. Amodal perception allows for versatility in the conveyance of shared emotional experience and affect attunement. It contributes to a unified perceptual experience for the infant, integrating temporally proximal information extracted through different perceptual means. And, simultaneously, it conveys a sense of connection and subjectivity, that is a sense of relating yet separation (ideas central to Stern’s theory), that mere imitation could not accomplish.
Vitality affects are very much related to amodal perception, and thus hinges on the qualities of intensity and time in the interactive behavior of the mother and infant. The fluidity of vitality affects contributes to a cohesive sense of interrelatedness and allows for responsiveness with regards to the vicissitudes of the infant’s affective states.
The emphasis and unifying notion for all three is of the form, not the content, of the interaction- the “how of the behavior”, as opposed to “the what.”

Friday, April 21, 2006


Gillian's affect attunement

The sharing of affective states is vitally important to the development of intersubjective relatedness.  According to Stern, around the age of 8-9 months, the chance for such relatedness emerges between infant and caregiver.  Whereas previously the caregiver’s responses to the infant had been rote mimicry of behavior, now a new dynamic emerges wherein the affect of the infant can be joined with, beyond what gets conveyed through behavioral action.  The recognition and mirroring of the infant’s affect requires three successful steps.  First, the parent must accurately read the infant’s affective state from external action and behavior.  Then, the parent must find a way to convey the same feeling state back to the infant, in a way that will show shared affect.  Pure behavioral mimicry won’t work for this, since imitation can really only show mastery of the action of the other.  Attunement behaviors, on the other hand, can change the focus of the attention from the behavior itself, to what affect is driving the behavior.

In order to show the infant that the driving feeling-state for behavior has been understood by the parent, Stern makes the case the parent must change the mode in their mimicry of the child, while preserving the feeling behind their child’s behavior. From an early age, infants have an ability to perceive amodally. For example, they can match intensity of sound with intensity of blinking lights. It is this amodal perception that allows the infant to recognize that the parent has understood them, through the maintenance of certain qualities that are common to all modalities of perception such as intensity, shape, time, motion, and number.  For example if the infant bangs a toy on a table in a 1-2-3 rhythm, the caregiver might connect with that action by saying “kaa, kaa, kaa!” in bursts that have the same duration and rhythm as the banging of the toy.

For affect attunement to occur, there must be something to for the parent to attune with. Stern notes that overt expressions of affect only occur sporadically throughout an interaction, whereas affect attunement seems ongoing. Perhaps vitality affects, defined as a person’s way of being and the manner in which all actions and behaviors are performed, are the fodder for affect attunement. These vitality affects connect with amodal perception in the sense that they dictate the intensity, speed, rhythm, etc. of everything a person does. In syncing up with the vitality affect of the child using amodal perception, a parent can saliently communicate the understanding of feeling states, facilitating affect attunement.


Matt: Affect Attunement

Vitality affects and amodal perception are key components of Stern’s concept of affect attunement. Taken together, they are what really distinguish it from similar ideas like affect mirroring and affect matching. One of the defining characteristics of affect attunement is its cross-modality of expression. The baby makes a verbal expression and the parent acknowledges and reflects it with a corresponding body movement. This differentiates attunement from simple imitation, the parent’s response corresponding to the baby’s inner experience and intention rather than her outer expression. (When Fonagy & Target talk about marked affect mirroring in relation to the development of reflective functioning, I think this is part of what they mean. Simple imitation of the baby’s affect might be threatening or flooding—the parent’s response must be “marked,” possibly by a change or partial change in mode of expression, so that it acknowledges the feeling instead of the behavior.) This cross-modality wouldn’t make sense to the baby without the ability to perceive amodally, that is, to meaningfully relate percepts from one sensory modality to those from another.
Stern describes what he calls “vitality affects” because he isn’t satisfied with the usual range of affects that others have dealt within the context of parent-child relations. What he terms categorical affects—sadness, anger, etc.—can indeed be attuned to, but they only occur sporadically. Affect attunement, however, is a continuous process which “feels like an unbroken line.” To fill in the gaps, we have vitality affects, which are occurring all the time, though not necessarily consciously. The attuned parent tracks the subtle moment-to-moment changes in a baby’s internal rhythm and intensity.
The centrality of vitality affects in attunement was recently highlighted for me in the experience of being with a sick baby. How does one attune to a child who does little but lie still? There was little opportunity to mirror categorical affect during Annie’s illness, and in any case one cannot spend the whole day making sad faces. But obviously there was affect in her, which could be perceived in the sluggishness of her movements, her glazed eyes, and her utter lack of intensity. As I reflect on it, I see that the slow throb of Annie’s painful experience was reflected in the tempo of my hand patting her back and the whisper that I used when holding her. None of it is particularly remarkable; these are the things any parent would do, and as Stern points out, they happen with almost no conscious thought.

Thursday, April 20, 2006


Stern: Amodal Perception, Vitality Affects & Parental Attunement

Stern makes the case that amodal perception plays a key role in affect attunement due to the fact that the characteristics of shape, time and intensity can all be perceived by the child and caregiver on an underground sphere (amodally) and evoke an intersubjective reciprocally related reaction from both parties. At around nine months of age, Stern observed that mothers tended to inherently sense and react to their infant’s actions and behaviors with affect laden responses. More than simple reciprocated verbal or behavioral reactions, the mothers tended to attune their responses with notions of praise, joy, excitement, disappointment, etc. and pair these affect attunements with a primary verbal response. In turn, the infant comes to understand these affective attunements and their meaning based on a system of amodal perception in which they come to understand emotion through the mother’s recasting and restating of subjective states. The amodal qualities of intensity and time relate to another key aspect of affect attunement: vitality affects. Vitality affects refer to not what behavior a child does, but rather how the behavior is performed. All behaviors incorporate vitality affects and hence provide evidence for how subjective inner states relate to persistent changes within affect attunement.

Stern posits that initially the infant’s capacity for amodal perception is what allows the child to develop a differentiated core self that in turn relates to others through the process of being attuned to others’ perceived verbal and nonverbal interactions with the infant. With the introduction of language, an entire new realm of perceptual experiences is made available to the infant and the amodal form of perception that was once primary now becomes secondary yet remains a key element concerning how the infant perceives and relates with others, particularly the primary caregiver. With the development of language, the infant is able to engage in a reciprocal process with the primary caregiver that helps to establish a sense of mental togetherness as well as shared understanding and the motivation to further develop language capabilities. Classical literature describes the nature of the child’s belief in adults’ omnipotence based on their desire to have their demands met and wishes fulfilled regardless of the child’s ability to fully communicate these desires to the parent. In contrast, Stern defines this behavior as true misunderstandings about meaning as opposed to desires for parental omnipotence. In addition, he regards these experiences as necessary struggles between mother and child for defining together the nature of language and meaning. It is through the process of failure, frustration and finally success that motivates the infant to further develop their language based interaction system, in turn adding to the infant’s cognitive and affective capabilities, which before relied on a nonverbal interaction system for relating.

After experiencing a series of repeated successes and failures, the caregiver becomes attuned to the child’s affective states that are coupled with the use of language skills and hence makes the mother accountable for the infant’s newly acquired language system. Another major aspect critical to the attunement process relates to the notion of vitality affects, personal physical and stylistic characteristics which help the child develop a sense of language and affect cohesion with the primary caregiver. The child becomes attuned to the idiosyncrasies of the caregiver’s language system and invariably the caregiver reciprocates this interaction on both the amodal perception and language capability levels in relation to the infant. Overall, the infant’s development of interpersonal relations is multi-faceted, consisting of amodal perception as well as attunement to nonverbal cues which set the foundation for the development of a reciprocally interactive language system.


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