Advanced Psychopathology

Tuesday, April 25, 2006


Stern: Vitality Affects, Amodal Perception, and Attunement

Dan Stern describes “vitality affects” as effervescent, variable characteristics of feeling that separate active from immobile. These feeling states are induced by temporary shifts in essential life processes - motivation, appetite, and tension. Vitality affects are different from discrete categorical affects in that the former can be experienced not only during the performing of a categorical signal but also in an action that has no intrinsic categorical affect signal. Stated differently, vitality affects are patterned changes in affect occurring over time, while categorical affects are driven by distinct levels of activation and arousal. These fundamental differences underlie Stern’s argument that mother-child attunement must occur primarily through vitality affects; since attunement appears to be a fluid process, it must be associated with dynamic, not discrete, categorical affect surges.

In defining vitality affects Stern also gives examples of their connection to the performance of any behavior and their relationship with three fundamental modalities of perception: intensity, time, and shape. For instance, whether or long or short, rhythm can be presented or identified through seeing, listening, smelling, touching, or tasting. According to Stern, the omnipresent existence of vitality affects in behavior regardless of the type of perception makes them essential for inclusion in affect categories that describe caregiver’s subjective inner states during acts of attunement.

Finally, vitality affects demonstrate how attunement is an ongoing, often unconscious process; this is critical. If attunement is unconscious, the capacity for one person to “be with” another can transcend behavioral imitation, verbal reinforcement, “mirroring”, and the common understanding of empathy (all largely conscious occurrences). Thus, Stern’s argument for vitality affects not only describes mother-child attunement but lends understanding for the interconnectedness of human beings.

Monday, April 24, 2006


Stern and Affect Attunement

One of the most significant aspects of the intersubjective relatedness, is interaffectivity. Interaffectivity, according to Daniel Stern, is the basis for parental mirroring and “empathic responsiveness”. The ability to know or perceive the inner experience of another develops even before the infant develops the capacity for language, at around the age of 9 to 15 months old. Since this condition is pre-verbal, there are several types of behaviors and conditions involved, which allow the infant to implicitly perceive the affect of the caregiver. The three components of intersubjective affect exchange, is that the caregiver is able to perceive the affect of the infants through the infant’s behaviors, the caregiver must respond with behavior that corresponds with the infant’s behavior which is representative of his affect, and lastly, the infant must be able to perceive the caregivers corresponding behavior as a response to their own behavior. These are essential to the development of affect attunement, which is the expression of the quality of feeling in a shared affect state. Affect attunement then creates the foundation for the ability to recognize that human inner experiences, including affect states, are sharable. This is also known as interpersonal communion.
The corresponding behaviors, or attunement behaviors, of the caregiver in response to that of the infant’s are in a way, modified imitation. They are more than just imitations, which would only indicate to the infant that the caregiver understands what the infant did, and not the inner experience which elicited such behavior. Instead attunement behaviors are a function of what is behind the behavior or the reason the behavior took place, by matching the affect on the particular dimensions of intensity, timing and rhythm, and shape of the behavior. These matching behaviors reflect back to the infant that their feelings states are being perceived by the caretaker. The modification of the infant’s behavior gives the infant a sense that the caretaker is also experiencing affect which corresponds to that of the infant’s.
The process of developing affect attunement, is implicit and almost automatic. One particular mechanism which allows for attunement to develop implicitly, are the amodal properties. The matching attunement behavior, although matching in time, intensity, and shape can still differ with regards to the sensory modalities that receive the behavior. The differing sensory modalities need to share a standard of exchange in order for the infant to understand the behavior as corresponding to their own, regardless of what sensory modality receives this information. Amodal properties are qualities, such as intensity, shape, time, motion, and number, which are common by most perceptual modalities. Therefore, they can be translated and perceived in a similar manner by any of the sensory modes. When responding behaviors are translated among other sensory modalities, these perceptions are combined to form the unity of the senses, which is the capacity to identify the perceptions that are intermodal, and translated across sensory modalities, that was originally perceived from one sensory mode. The unity of the senses combines and translates the qualities of intensity, time and shape of a responding behavior, and establishes an intermodal experience. This allows the infant to implicitly understand those qualities, received by one sensory modality to be identified by all sensory modalities, and this unique perception of the attunement behavior can be received as corresponding to their own affect induced behaviors. Therefore, as long as the particular qualities are matched, the specific sensory modality receiving that behavior is irrelevant for attunement to occur.
Vitality affects also are important for the exchange of the human inner experiences. It involves the kinetic qualities of feelings which allow an individual to discern the dynamic shifts of affect. Vitality affect is a subjective inner state, which can be conceptualized as tracking affects in all behaviors in order for the perception of intersubjectivity to be maintained at all times. This adds the coloring of interpersonal interactions as it provides the continued sense of shared inner experiences or connectedness. This ability consolidates the bond people share while interacting as they are aware of sharing the same external space, as well as inner experiences.


Stern on Vitality Affects, Amodal Perception & Attunement

In his discussion of amodal perception, vitality affects and their contribution to maternal attunement, Stern seeks to illuminate the process through which the infant begins to understand the relatedness between the self and other. Stern defined affect attunement as the behavioral expression of the quality of feeling of a common affect state. Taken together, amodal perception and vitality affects are best understood as preconditions for the achievement of affect attunement between mother and child.

Amodal perception refers to the natural ability of the infant to receive information from one sensory modality and then interpret it in another. Stern cites a number of studies that support this idea of cross-modal matching. Three week old infants, for example, are able to visually discern which of two nipples they have just sucked while blindfolded. Amodal properties such as shape, intensity, motion and rhythm serve as a kind of “common currency” between sensory modalities. Furthermore, information is not encoded to a particular mode, but is rather programmed into an amodal representation which can be distinguished by any sensory mode.

Stern conceives vitality affects as “dynamic shifts or patterned changes” in the self or others which involve qualities of feeling that are not best portrayed by the vocabulary used to describe what he terms categorical affects, such as sadness or joy. He describes, for example, the “rush” associated with anger, or that evoked by music or abstract dance. Infants are thought to categorize the actions of the caregiver (such as how she picks up the infant or folds diapers) in terms of vitality affects, and a range of sensory experiences with comparable “activation contours” are experienced as analogous and organizing. The amodal experience of vitality affects and the ability for matching across modes, according to Stern, furthers the infant’s progress toward understanding the “emergent other”.

In the process of attunement, amodal perception occurs between mother and infant during what Stern calls an “intersubjective exchange”, wherein the mother reads the internal feeling state of the child and acts out a variation of behavior that relates to it. The infant then interprets her behavior as relevant to his own original internal experience. As a result of the mother’s attuning, the child is allowed the experience of “being with” another and we as adults are reminded that intimate, internal feeling states are something that can be shared and communicated even on such a nonverbal level.


stern & affect attunement

Stern suggests that mother and infant share affective states and experiences via the phenomenon of “affective attunement.” Largely unconsciously, mothers undertake a range of actions – vocalizations, touching, and other gestures – that reflect and enhance some essential aspect of the baby’s behavior and presumed affective state. Stern believes that the mother’s acts of affect attunement create for the baby a kind of preverbal “understanding” of the intersubjective nature of affect regulation. Stern uses the concepts of amodal perception (a concept from the wider psychological literature) and “vitality affects” (Stern’s own idea) to portray the infant as capable of comprehending episodes of affective attunement.

At the core of affective attunement is the mother’s cross-modal transformation of the baby’s affective state. Stern observes that the mother tends to complement the baby’s actions with gestures of her own. For instance, as the baby is joyfully raises and lowers her arms, the mother exclaims, “wheeeeee,” with the pitch of her voice rising and falling in sync with the level of the infant’s arms. Stern believes that infant apprehends the matching and transformation in the mother’s gesture, and feels the mother’s gesture as an affirmation of the infant’s affective state. Cross-modality is central to affect attunement –the mother’s transformation of the infant’s behavior emphasizes to the infant recognition of internal, affective states; by contrast, if the mother were to imitate the baby, the baby would “think” (or perhaps feel) that her external behavior is the salient part of the dyadic moment. In other words, the transformation is more meaningful than mere imitation because it makes the baby feel that the mother has not understood just her behavior, but the feeling behind the behavior.

Stern believes that babies possess perceptual and cognitive capacities that are vital to affective attunement. These capacities allow the baby to participate with the mother in a preverbal intersubjective/affective experience. First, Stern draws on empirical literature to show that infants are capable of amodal perception (he gives the example of a baby being able to visually distinguish a nipple that previously he’d only been able to feel in his mouth). Stern states that infants’ ability to perceive across modalities suggests that infants are able to maintain some abstract representation of a percept. Second, Stern believes that infants are capable of discerning vitality affects, and use vitality affects as a strategy to organize their perceptions. Vitality affects concern the form, timing, shape, and intensity of a gesture, rather than its specific content; in other words, vitality affects are multi-channel descriptions of the arc of an experience or sentient state. Affective, sensory-motor, proprioceptive, perceptual, and interpersonal information all may comprise a vitality affect. For instance, either the act of standing up abruptly and the feeling of a blast of cold air might be experienced as a “rush.” Like amodal perceptions, vitality affects are based on abstract representations of phenomena. Stern believes that the infant’s apprehension of vitality affects allow her to organize feelings and phenomena before she has language to do so. Possessed of capacities for abstraction, organization, and recognition, Stern’s infant is ready for the moment of affective attunement.


James's Reaction #8

Through his concept of affect attunement, Stern describes the intersubjective relatedness of an infant with his caregiver. When the infant is still preverbal, the caregiver must communicate, in some fashion, the fact that she is attuned to the subjective emotional state of her infant. Early on this usually takes the form of mimicking. However, at around the age of nine months, Stern describes how the caregiver inherently shifts her behavior to incorporate the infant as an “intersubjective partner.” The affective state of the infant becomes joined by the mother in a manner that the infant is able to perceive and feel a part of.

From an early age, infants have the ability to perceive amodally. With affect attunement they are related with the caregiver not through just one of the five senses. Attunement involves something of a ‘sixth sense’. Through this amodal perception, the caregiver and infant share affective experiences such as joy, sadness, excitement, etc. Vitality affects account for affect that is not so categorical. Stern posits that discrete displays of affect occur only sporadically, every thirty to ninety seconds. Attunement does not have to wait for these discreet displays. Rather, attunement is continuous and, as Stern says, ‘almost omnipresent’, through a variety of behaviors and affective states. Vitality affects account for the presence of attunement and relatedness between infant and caregiver in the period between discreet categorical affect.

Sunday, April 23, 2006


vitality, amodal, affect attunement

Affective attunement, as described by Dan Stern, refers to the responsive behaviors that a mother engages in with her infant that allow her to express a sharing of internal state. Unlike pure imitation, affective attunement has a reflective quality that involves various dimensions, namely, intensity, timing, and shape, and is a way of bringing the child in as an intersubjective partner, rather than merely a receiver. As Stern puts it, “imitation renders form; attunement renders feeling” (142).

Affect attunement is the means by which the mother can demonstrate not only that she understands her child’s feeling but that she is able to respond in a way that corresponds to this feeling, which the child, in turn, can feel as well. Stern had previously described the concept of amodal perception in infants; that is, the infant’s ability to somehow transfer sensory information among various modalities. He also identified vitality affects as the dynamicism of feeling, or life, that is brought into all behaviors and creates connections among us. Both of these concepts are very much embedded within the notion of affective attunement, as the act of attunement involves the transferring of emotional experience across modalities as well, largely beyond awareness, creating a connection of feeling states between mother and child. Furthermore, the very dimensions involved in affect attunement (intensity, space, and time) speak to the amodal quality of the exchange. For example, a mother observing her infant reaching for something with great effort can respond in a vocal manner that matches the rhythm and intensity of the infant, which then encourages the infant to push forth. In this case, while the mother is not reaching for the object herself, the infant is able to perceive an attunement to his feeling state through a different modality, her voice, as well as the aura, or vitality affect, with which the mother performs the behavior.


Stern's affect attunement

The purpose of affect attunement is to share an experience of inner state between two people. This process begins when one person matches the inner state of another. Since the inner state is a latent material manifested by a certain behavior, what is being matched is some aspect of the emotion that is observable in the behavior. But Stern adds another important element to the process of affect attunement: a form of behavior that reflects inner state and manifests through one channel of communication (vocal), is matched by a different person through a different channel (touch). Stern termed this process amodal perception. By amodal perception he means that different expressions through different channels of communication can be automatically engaged and understood because of unity of the senses.
What is being matched is the person’s inner state of emotion and not the external behavior event. But, the external behavior event captures an internal state. How does it happen? To explain that, Stern adds the concept of vitality affect. Vitality affect is present continuously in the background of any behavior and is sensed by the subtle details of body posture, speed and contour of movement, minimal changes in muscle tone, and vocalizations - intensity, timing and shape. These expressions are the subjects of affect attunement and they reveal something further about the self than the categorical feelings (sadness, joy etc). Stern doesn’t further explain in this chapter what kind of inner state the vitality effect reveals. But I think what he meant was some kind of internal feeling such as tension, edginess, enthusiasm, “down-ness” that reflect a certain state of mind of the self.
Affect attunement gives consolidation to an unconscious inner state. If the affect attunement is accurate this consolidation helps in forming a true sense of self.


Vitality Affects and Amodal Perception: Lucy's Reaction

Without vitality affects and amodal perception, moments of attunement would have to rely on discrete emotional "events" such as happiness, anger, surprise, etc. According to Stern, these events happen rarely. So what happens in the meantime to sustain the affective connection between babies and their caregivers? What creates the sense of being fluidly connected for long "uneventful" periods of time?

Stern answers this question by arguing that the sharing of affect states is not medium-specific and it is not relegated to the experiencing of discrete affects. Using the concepts of amodal perpection (the shared aspects of experience between sensory modes) and vitality affects (subtle affective experiences that have discernible properties), he shows that mothers do not have to mimic the movements, facial expressions, or vocal qualities of the babies (and vice versa) in order to join in their affective state. In fact, mimicry, or "mirroring" is only a small part of the story when it comes to attunement, according to Stern. Stern goes far beyond mirroring by pointing out the variety of ways in which caregivers join their infants' affect states cross-modally. For example, when the baby stretches, reaching for far away toy, the mother can "join" the infant in this state (an example of a vitality affect), by stretching her voice, in effect "reaching" with the baby for the toy.

By taking part in these subtle and ongoing "joining" experiences with their children, caregivers are setting the stage for later experiences of mature relating and intersubjectivity. This ongoing flow of attunement involving vitality affects in early infancy is surely what sets the stage for more mature awareness of and empathy with mood states in others. How this all relates to verbal relating, I'm not sure but I think he's going to tell us soon.


Kelly: Reaction Stern

Sterns depicts a very active infant who taking in all aspects of his internal and external environment, formulates the parameters of himself in relation to the world. This formulation is primarily facilitated through the infant-mother dyad. Stern positions vitality affects, amodal perception and attunement as techniques or pathways through which intersubjectivity is experienced and thus internal and external reality identified. Vitality affects appears to be a sort of affective biorhythm or undercurrent that provides a constant stream of continuous affect ranging in intensity, form and rhythm. It is also the bedrock from which discrete emotions such as joy and anger emerge. In order for Stern to support his conceptualization of mother-infant attunement, Stern relies of vitality affects to provide the continuous emotional data required for the mother and child to accurately read each others cues. For without vitality affects, Stern points out that the mother would be in the impossible position of attuning to the sporadic expression of categorical emotion. Amodal perceptions is somewhat like broadband communication – it allows the mother and child to translate each others affect and represent it across a wide spectrum of senses. It allows for a collage of visceral responses and a broader mode of relating.


Joshua, Amodal Perception, Vitality Affects, and Affective Attunement

Amodal Perception, Vitality Affects, and Affective Attunement

Two ways that an infant comes to know the world around himself include amodal perception and vitality affects. Amodal perception is the ability to take information received in one sensory modality and translate it into another sensory modality. For example, by three weeks of age, an infant can match the absolute intensity of audio and visual stimuli. Infants also have the ability to cross-modally match auditory temporal and visual temporal patterns. Additionally, infants can recognize audio-visual correspondences. They can associate the movements of the mouth that make a sound with the auditory presentation of the sound. Lastly, infants often correspond what they see and what they do. By two days old, they will imitate facial expressions they see others make. However, it is not known whether or not this correspondence between their actions and the actions of others is reflexive of imitative. However, amodal perception suggests that the infant already has a sense of an emergent self and an emergent other. For example, rather than perceiving a “seen” breast and a “sucked” breast, the infant could cross modally associate or integrate the two.
Vitality affects are another way that infants come know the world. Stern delineates between vitality affects and categorical affects, such as shame, happiness, or anger. Vitality affects are the forms of feelings involved in all the various vital processes of life, including breathing, hunger, waking, and the experience of thoughts and emotions. The experience of vitality affects occurs along an “activation contour,” wherein the experience of one behavior or feeling can be abstracted and applied amodally to another. For example, a mother, empathetically responding to her distressed infant, may utter, “There, there,” emphasizing the initial word and saying the second softer. At the same time, she strokes her child’s back, with the first touch being stronger and becoming gentler. In this way, the utterance and the physical touch share an activation contour and can be integrated into one emergent mother. Vitality affects and activation contours, then, may provide the explanation for the mechanism behind amodal perception.
When their children are around nine months old, mothers begin to engage in affective attunements of their children’s behavior and affective states. An example of an affective attunement is the following: A child eats a Cheerio all by himself, squirms with delight, and then looks to his mother who exclaims, “Yes!” The mother’s utterance matches the intensity of the infant’s delight. In such affective attunements, there is a cross-modal matching of behavior and affective content (or feeling state) through activation contours. Amodal perception, then, is part of the process of affective attunement that contributes to the infant’s sense of an emerging self and an emerging other who can share in one’s affective state without explicitly imitating behaviors that reflect the inner experience of the infant.


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