Sunday, July 4, 2010

Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection

Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection by Deborah Blum. Perseus,

The News & Observer

March 9, 2003

Monkey Love

By Phillip Manning

Infants need cuddling, comforting, and a warm body to nestle against. Most modern parents know this from countless books and magazine articles emphasizing that parents should embrace their infants and bond with them. What most modern parents don't know, however, is that this advice is diametrically opposed to the counsel doctors were giving mom and dad less than a century ago. In his wildly popular book "The Care and Feeding of Children," published in 15 editions between 1894 and 1935, Dr. Luther Holt warned parents about the "vicious practice" of rocking a child in a cradle or picking her up when she cried. He also opposed hugging older children because too much affection would soften their moral fiber.

How could child-rearing practices change so dramatically? In her well-researched and eminently readable book, "Love at Goon Park," Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Deborah Blum answers that question by telling the fascinating story of Harry Harlow, the psychologist whose research rewrote the rules of child care. Harry Harlow did not discover what children need by watching his own. In fact, Harlow was a hard-drinking, possibly alcoholic, workaholic who ignored his two sons so completely that it led his first wife to divorce him. After his boys were grown, he reacquainted himself with them, but his younger son said that although they got along, "we were never father and son." In fact, Harlow's insights about child rearing were not based on studying children at all but came out of his research with monkeys.

Harlow began studying monkeys because of a misunderstanding. After getting a Ph.D. from Stanford in 1930, he landed a teaching job in the psychology department at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. In those days behavioral research was done with rats, and Harlow planned to continue the work with them that he had started as a graduate student. Unfortunately, the rat lab at Wisconsin had been torn down before he arrived. There were no plans to replace it. "He was stranded," Blum writes. "He was an experimental psychologist with no way to conduct experiments an animal psychologist without rats [was like] an astronomer without a telescope." Harlow tried working with cats and frogs - he "flashed lights. He rang bells. He applied mild shocks to the frogs' legs." He concluded that they are easier to catch than to teach. Harlow began to watch the animals at the local zoo. He soon decided that monkeys were the ticket.

Harlow and his students threw together a primate lab in a deserted box factory nicknamed Goon Park (because the address 600 N. Park looked like GOON Park to some imaginative students) and began to study monkeys. He followed the child-care practices of the day meticulously, tucking the baby monkeys away in clean, neat nurseries just hours after their birth. The little monkeys thrived physically, but according to Blum they "seemed dumbfounded by loneliness. They would sit and rock, stare into space, suck their thumbs." When the monkeys were brought together, they didn't know what to do. A normal monkey's life is built around interaction with a larger society. The monkeys Harlow raised simply sat alone and stared at the floor.

Harlow and students knew something was wrong. Was it the formula they fed them, the light cycle, the antibiotics? They found a reference about how baby monkeys cling desperately to soft blankets. This led them to run a now famous experiment. They made a mother; in fact, they made two. One was a terry cloth covered doll, known as "cloth mother"; the other was a wire mom with a bottle attached so the babies could feed. The little monkeys didn't hesitate. They grabbed cloth mother, cuddling, stroking, sleeping next to it. They visited the wire mother to feed, but otherwise they ignored it. The message was clear writes Blum, "food is sustenance but a good hug is life itself."

The result of this experiment is unsurprising today, but in the 1950s, it sent shock waves through the psychology community. Behaviorism dominated psychology, and Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner dominated behaviorism. He held that behavior was shaped by reward and punishment. Thus, monkeys should prefer whoever or whatever gave them food. Harlow's findings stood behaviorism on its ear. The monkeys preferred - in fact, seemed to adore - cloth mother. Harry Harlow had begun to explore the science of love.

His research turned darker. To test the depths of love, he carried out a series of experiments that would be considered cruel by today's animal-rights advocates. He began scaring the monkeys with noisy toys. The frightened infants would fly to cloth mother, clutch it tightly, and hold on for dear life. He removed cloth mother from the cage and watched the babies screech and cry in despair. He put cloth mother in a different room from the baby monkeys, separated by a window covered by a panel that the monkeys could raise. The researchers watched for hours as the babies doggedly raised the panel over and over again just see the cloth mom. Clearly, infants needed a mother for security, even if that
mother was just a lifeless bundle of cloth.

His next experiments reflected a deepening gloom in Harlow's own life. By now, he was one of the country's best known psychologists, but he was drinking more, working harder, traveling constantly. And his second wife was dying of breast cancer. Harlow decided to see what would happen to monkeys in a loveless world. He isolated baby monkeys completely for 30 days in enclosed cages; they saw nothing but the hands that fed them. When taken out, they were "enormously disturbed." Two of them refused to eat and starved to death. Those that survived were totally dysfunctional.

Toward the end of those experiments, Harlow was becoming dysfunctional himself. His drinking combined with Parkinson's disease to finally flatten him. Harry Harlow died in 1981 at age 76. But his legacy lives in modern parenting methods, especially on the need for maternal bonding. Another legacy is the booming animal-rights movement, which published a 95-page document on the evils of maternal-deprivation research after Harlow's death. These outgrowths of Harlow's research seem self-evident today, but as Blum writes, "The answers we call obvious today seem so, in real measure, because Harry Harlow conducted those studies."