I have been thinking the last few days about attachment, the phenomena whereby the infant comes to attach to and trust its parent. Simply put, attachment is the infant’s reaction to maternal bonding. The concept was advanced by Bowlby and Ainsworth in the mid-20th century and has been developed across many disciplines since then. Other animals have analogous phenomena. Geese and other birds imprint on a parental figure shortly after hatching. Konrad Lorenz who won the Nobel prize for his early work in ethology is famous for having goslings follow him about as if he were their mother. Some birds must learn their specific songs from adult models; others seem to have the songs genetically encoded so that experimentally isolated birds who never hear another’s song or any sound for that matter develop a very robust species specific song, e.g., the females really like it. Some primates help their young learn the different calls indicating danger from the air or from the ground, hawk or leopard, and to use tools like straws or rocks to gain access to food such as termites or nuts. Humans also tune their perception and voice to our species specific communication in language. Studies show that infants at an early age are sensitive to linguistic distinctions of its native language and their early babbling then reflects these differences. Thus, the infant learns the melody before the words of its language.


Its babbling reflects the intonation patterns of its parental language. More subtly, the way the child perceives and articulates different phonemes quickly adapts. Consider, for example the sounds ‘p’ and ‘b’. Linguists categorize these as plosives, sounds made when the vocal tract is briefly closed, in this example by the lips, and then explodes open. The difference between the two comes from how the voice, the vowel sounds from the larynx, starts again with the closure at the time of opening. This is called VOT, voice onset time. A ‘p’ is distinguished by the voice starting right after the lips open, a VOT just a few milliseconds into the plosion. A ‘b’ is distinguished by a VOT a few milliseconds before the lips open. The accent difference between these consonants in French and English (and other languages for that matter) comes in these millisecond differences in VOT. Infants respond to these differences at a very young age, weeks not months, and their babbling reflects these differences a few months later.

So our brains tune into and learn subtle features of human behaviors early and implicitly.  Along with this comes the empathic connection, the establishment of intimate communication and the building of a trusting relationship.  More on this later.

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