In 1975 Dr. Edward Tronick of UMass Boston conducted the “Still Face Experiment”, a procedure where a mother faces her child, and is asked to hold a 'still face', in which she does not react to the child's behaviors. The reactions of the child are then observed.
As you’ll see in the video, mother-child interaction is natural, easy, and predictable. There is a cadence of stimulus and response as the mother readily meets the child’s needs and expectations. When the mother simply holds a still face, the child interprets this as a major interruption in that interaction and he becomes distressed, fearful, and agitated.
Why does this happen?
The results of this experiment fully support the importance of mother-child attachment. As a mother, it’s important that I readily respond to my children and continuously assure them that I can be trusted to always be a reliable anchor in their lives.
In addition to the importance of attachment, the results of the still face experiment also suggest a mother’s non-responsiveness may cause the child to lose her sense of agency, or control of her own actions.
What is agency? In social science, agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. In the experiment, the mother’s non-responsiveness may be a signal to the child that the mother can no longer choose to respond…which may imply signal a sub-conscious sense (for the child) that she, too, has lost control of her ability to choose.
You’ll notice that her mother is clearly still in the room with her. She can see her mother but the predictability, cadence, and certainty of mom's actions are absent. This loss of agency produces fear, anxiety and a physical turning away of the child.
The implications of this experiment have been very important for professionals and others in addressing control issues related to addictions, traumatic or abusive life experiences, disordered eating, and other ways we struggle with the need for control over our actions.
I have a subtly different idea about this experiment based solely on my insight as a mother, former child, and human animal.
This past Mother’s day I was asked to write a short essay on the joys of motherhood. In it I wrote, I am not obligated to be a mother… mother is a quality of my wholeness, and that quality… is not something I have to prove or live up to.
“Mother” is a structure and factor of influence (just like social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, ability, customs, etc.) that determines or limits an agent and his or her decisions.
When I believed “mother” was a role with a purpose I willingly suppressed my agency and my ability to choose. Now, why in the world would I do that? I’m glad you asked.
Mother was a goal I constantly needed to attain but more importantly, mother was the tool I needed to strengthen my “hide”. A hide is a camouflaged shelter or the skin of an animal. “Mother” was what I believed when I (the real me) didn’t want to be found, just like the myth of Adam and Eve hiding in the garden after becoming aware of their nakedness.
Anything that validated ‘mother’, validated my hiding place. Every time I received a response from my children, it strengthened my hide and verified the security of my hiding place. The kind of response didn’t matter; anger, joy, love, hate, pain, sadness, laughter, cold, heat…they’re all testament to my continued safety and survival.
But safe from what? Why does the child in the experiment feel threatened by non-responsiveness even though her mom is clearly there? Why did I, in my role as a mother, see motherhood as unquestionable and obligatory? Why are we, as humans, fearful of unresponsiveness, stillness, empty space, void, death, silence, or anything that does not validate our title, or role?
Non-responsiveness is frightening because it means we’ve been discovered, uncovered, and
exposed. Receiving nothing but silence when I call for response is like looking in a mirror and seeing no reflection.
However, this is only problematic if I’m invested in seeing something. If I need to see a reflection and I don’t see it, then I’m the child in the experiment. I’m anxious, fearful, and searching for validation and a new hiding place.
Nothing right or wrong with this, but it is possible to withdraw my investment in a response.
"Silence implies consent" is a concept of social interaction, which generally states that people tend to assume lack of response to a behavior as tacit approval of that behavior. This typically has a negative interpretation which is true within a certain context. However, when you see consent in its original meaning--feeling together, agreement in harmony, and to feel more at sense--silence implies no boundaries.
The mother’s still face was a present and felt reminder that there was no "child" or "mother" in that interaction.
Mother and child are nouns that point to living, natural qualities. When I hug my "child" I'm not hugging a part of speech. She is a living being with no boundaries.
Qualities are like a Klein bottle. A Klein bottle has no boundaries so everything I once saw as responses I now see as qualities originating and ending nowhere and belonging to no one. The sun's qualities are heat and light. It is not shining for a purpose...it's shining because that's what it is.
Fearing and hiding from my inherent qualities is futile and a little nutty. Seeing and understanding this idea has not prevented me from engaging in the futility of hiding and limiting myself in one role or another, but I see what I’m doing and that makes a difference.
When there is nothing to choose from I’m wholly and independently free to make a real choice.
When silence implies no boundaries, I see from and as my qualities which is a profoundly different experience than seeing responses as originating in nouns and purposed for use.
It’s a different view, but I’m enjoying it.