Sensuality as the glue that holds together the infant’s human relatedness and body sensations

An infant’s love affair - her sensual core experience - is with her mother’s smiling face, tender holding, kisses and hugs, gentle cleaning of her body, feeding, drifting off to sleep with a lullaby, and the musicality of mother’s voice. Freud identified sexuality (not sensuality) as having origins in the erotogenic zones (zones of heightened stimulation and pleasurable sensation) of mouth, anus, and genital - all potential participant organs in an adult’s orgasmic experience. Sucking her fingers is certainly a sensual experience, as is being sung and read to, bathed, hugged, fondled, kissed, rocked, or the air on her skin as a diaper is removed. One or another of these experiences occurs in one or another of the shifting states from alertness to sleep. Their repetition provides a continuity of hedonic experience that oscillates with distress and returns with relief from the distress. While sensual experiences emerge largely from baby-caregiver interplay and secondarily as a product of self-soothing or rocking, the older infant becomes the creative organizer of a complex form of sensuality in his play with a transitional object.

An infant’s use of a blanket as a transitional object (Winnicott, 1953) illustrates the role of sensuality in creating a hedonic tone. A blanket is selected for its sensual properties: its texture and warmth, absorbing of smells, and ability to be molded against any part of the body. The blanket’s otherness lends itself to representing or replacing the comforting other -but a comforting other that is under the command of the self. A blanket’s otherness also facilitates its being imagined as a reliably available playmate and friend. Along with its otherness, the blanket also represents an extension of the self when it is carried about or cried into. The balance between qualities of discrete emotions and the generalized feeling states that emerge from an infant’s experience with her “blankie” tilts heavily toward a pleasurable affective tone. The blanket experience has great power for its user since the child as doer both activates the state of comfort and companionship and takes in what she has activated in her imagination.

We propose that sensuality plays a role in the development of empathy. As an infant senses that his sensual delight in pleasurable interplay with his caregivers is shared by them, he gets his first recognition that you and I are alike - we have something in common (Kohut’s twinship experience, 1971). Added to the sharing of affection is the recognition through mirror neuron activity that when you reach for me lovingly it is the same as when I reach for you lovingly. The combination tells the young child “I can sense both your affect and your intention” - the fundamental properties of the empathic mode of perception (Lichtenberg, 1981). Empathic sensing of this nature both derives from sensual interplay and adds to sensual enlivenment. But what occurs in the inevitably frequent experience of shared negative feelings and intentions? The same process of sensing into the state of mind of another - seeking to understand her negative feeling of anger and fear, with an intention to punish or reject - informs the child of another aspect of commonality: her own primary or reactive negativity. An attribution that the child is angry and wants to punish, dominate, or destroy, is fearful or sad and wants to run away, hide, cry and mope can originate from the self-appraisal, the appraisal of the other, or both. A child can come to accept some negative attributions with a degree of openness to acknowledge and rectify. Some attributions about self or others with whom the child is involved lie beyond recognition of their validity, and at times even lie beyond imagination. When this degree of negativity prevails, a positive trend toward empathy that had begun with intersubjective sensual pleasure encoded as an underlying affectionate affective tone can activate a capacity for compassion - a great stretch when confronted with evil.

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