Winnicott’s experiment on seeking

An experiment ofWinnicott (1941) illustrates an example of adaptive seeking. Infants aged 3 to 13 months are placed in a set situation that challenges the infant to cope with uncertainty and anxiety. The baby is positioned in her mother’s lap so that she can reach for an attractive mouthing spatula. The mother is instructed to focus her attention on Winnicott and not engage or interfere with the infant. The baby reaches for the spatula, hesitates, and looks at Winnicott and her mother with big eyes. (Blocked from any seeking of affectionate interaction with her mother, the infant’s first seeking is to gain the sensual mouth pleasure from sucking the spatula and with it a sense of power resulting from carrying out an intention to grasp and play with an object of her desire. The second seeking is to resolve a learned inhibition against touch and grasping by seeking guidance and affirmation of her intention from mentors.) The infant may wait with her body still, withdraw, or bury her head in her mother’s blouse. (The third seeking is to find a means to pull back from and contain her conflicted intention “I want it but I don’t know if I should grab it.” The infant who buries her head in her mother’s blouse also seeks to gain comfort for her anxiety through activating an attachment experience.) Gradually saliva begins to flow in her mouth, and before long her body movements become freer and she puts the spatula in her mouth. The infant’s body enters the struggle, adding an intensity to the call for the infant to exert her power. Winnicott regarded the transition from anxiety and hesitation to daring to act on desire as a reliable indicator of a valuable increase in self-confidence. (The fourth seeking involves implicit self-reflective awareness of the autonomic nervous system activation [salivating], and a mounting sense of determination to act, a restoration of a sense of power.) Now the baby regards the spatula as belonging to her. She bangs it on the table and then drops it, introducing a you-pick-up-I-drop game. (The final seeking is to explore the inherent possibilities of the object for play.) Winnicott states that

little steps in the solution of the problem come in the everyday life of the infant and young child, and every time the problem is solved something is added to the child’s general stability and the foundation of emotional development is strengthened.

(p. 245)

We emphasize the role of seeking in solving the problem of overcoming paralyzed initiative and becoming a restored doer doing, an augmentation of the sense of power of the experiential self.

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