by MARGARET KEENAN
You've got to hand it to Michael Lewis. He can sure tell a good story. Asked how he came to be where he is today - a luminary in child development psychology and, according to a 1995 Notre Dame study, the most cited author in the field - he settles back in his chair and begins slowly, setting the scene.
"When you do science you first have to select - from a multitude of problems - which ones you will focus on. Happenstance can be a factor, but there is often a more personal reason. Scientists don't like to admit that we choose a problem because it has something to do with us, for we might not be considered objective. But one shouldn't feel that research is polluted because it grows out of a need - the need supplies motive and energy for a careful study."
The need, of course, is to understand. During Lewis' four decades in the field, his research has included the beginning of self awareness; mother-child interaction; the origins of fear, infant stress and coping; and lying and self deception. He also directed a series of studies on the cognitive, social and emotional development of children with known handicaps and those at risk because of premature birth.
"The unifying theme in all of this," he says, "is the notion of a dynamic self, always attempting to make sense of the world by reacting to the present environment. And we do it through storytelling. The narrative of my non-scientific life has, as its core, death and survival."
That might sound a little like Woody Allen dialogue, but Lewis is earnest: "I was dyslexic and had a very difficult time learning to read and write. I was laughed at and shamed. Back then you were just considered dumb."
He was smart enough, however, to figure out that he shouldn't try to read every word: "I learned to do what speed-readers do. I asked questions while I was reading, tracking the story. How many words do I need in order to recognize that it's raining? If I see 'umbrella,' I have the clue. I didn't really learn to read until I was 18. Even today when I lecture, if I have to use terms I'm not familiar with I write them out phonetically."
School was an early lesson in survival skills - fortunately, he was strong in math and science - but that was not his only trial. The deaths began when he was 6: first his grandmother, who lived with the family; his mother two years later; his Uncle Morris, an early mentor, when Lewis was 13; and his father five years after that. At the age of 18, Lewis was on his own; an older sister had already left home.
In 1945, three weeks after his mother's death, Lewis recounts, he was sent to camp for two months - his first trip away from home. Most young men the age of senior camp counselors were in the armed services then, leaving 16-and 17-year-olds in charge of the children. His father had a coronary during that time and was unable to visit. Lewis remembers the loneliness and enduring a horrendous punishment and public humiliation for not immediately sharing candy that was sent to him.
The experience remains an indelible moment in his childhood, yet Lewis is quick to remind you that one cannot entirely trust memory - it's both fallible and selective. Still, he says: "What I remember clearly from that incident was, 'If I can survive this, I can survive anything.' That has stayed with me."
Based on his skills - and lack of them - Lewis took his father's advice and enrolled in an engineering program at the University of Pennsylvania. "I hated it," he says, "because it wasn't only science and math. But I never would have been accepted into the College of Arts and Sciences.
"I had an image of myself at the time," he notes, "voyager without baggage." School became home, and he furnished his dorm room accordingly: "I had a couch, a rug and pictures. I didn't have much money, but I learned that you could buy an oriental rug that had a big hole in it for almost nothing and put the couch over the hole."
It can't have been solely happenstance that brought Lewis to a course taught by sociologist Marvin Bressler during his second year. Inspired, Lewis switched to sociology, majoring in demography and graduating with departmental honors in 1958. "I hadn't a clue what I would do," he recalls.
He wanted to do doctoral work in psychology, but grades for his first two years precluded that. To prove he was up to it, Lewis asked the chairman at Penn what he considered the department's hardest course. He was working at the time and proposed that they let him take that course and reconsider admission if he did well.""I was lucky," he laughs. "It was statistics."
Lewis was launched: "I read extensively in philosophy, history and history of science. It enabled me to place ideas in context - that's how I think you have to view them. Because of the dyslexia, I couldn't remember details -dates of articles, authors' names. I had to grasp the essence of the idea and see how it related to the question. It led me away from rote learning to conceptualization and eventually, I think, to developing a broad theoretical perspective." He met the course requirements for both clinical and experimental psychology, graduating in three years.
"There were teachers in graduate school who had an impact on me, but I was unmentorable. I was on fire."
He spent the next six years at the Fels Research Institute in Ohio, where the emphasis was on physiological aspects of psychology. He did some experiments on the relation of infant heart rate to attention. Much later, he assessed infant stress by measuring cortisol levels in saliva, finding that some children manifest stress. Others are stressed but don't show it behaviorally, and still others behave as though they are but do not have the biological marker.
In the late '60s, Lewis published findings on central nervous system functioning in infants. He had developed a technique to measure how quickly they became bored with an image and how soon their interest revived when a new one appeared. This paradigm proved predictive of early childhood Stanford Binet IQ scores and has been widely used in the field. He also did pioneering work on mother/child interaction, using sequential analyses to see how responsive mothers' actions were to their children's behavior.
In 1968 Lewis came to Educational Testing Service in Princeton and soon became director of an infant and early childhood laboratory focusing on the development of cognition. His research led to publications on the origins of self, fear, behavior, emotion, language, and friendship and peer relations.
He was making observations and gaining knowledge from his own children as well - Benjamin, born in 1968, and Felicia, in 1970. "I was in the delivery room each time, and they were handed to me right away. I was surprised at how different they were. Benjamin was cuddly from the start, kind of folding himself into me, while Felicia was stiff and resistant. The literature had talked vaguely about temperament, but I could see that it was there at the beginning, and I had to treat them differently."
He helped Felicia become more comfortable with cuddling by playing games with her - pretending his hand was a fish that caressed her face as it swam by. Temperament mattered, but Lewis saw that a child could change in response to environment: "I gained enormous insights from them about the development of emotion and consciousness. At 3 months, Felicia became fearful of strangers. The books said it didn't begin until 8 or 9 months - clearly, that needed explanation."
When he came to UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in 1982, Lewis returned to a more physiological approach in his work: "I have changed from a belief in pure behaviorism to a more dynamic cognitive neuroscience, in which fixity is replaced by fluidity, and the past by the present. Thus, much of what I have said in earlier studies may be true, but not for the reasons I thought. I looked at socialization of sex roles and found that a mother's behavior causes a certain reaction in a child. I would now reinterpret that data and say the child was using information it got from the mother to create an idea of how it should behave."
He takes a similar approach to earlier studies of maternal soothing, now seeing the infant's response as an interactive process rather than simple cause and effect. This finding - now in press - is causing a bit of a stir, he says, but that doesn't worry him: "I am deeply committed to searching for the truth in the nature of development - more concerned with that than with being found wrong. I'm not tied to the belief, I'm prepared to change it. I'm enamored of the scientific method, that you settle discrepancies through data."
Much of his recent work centers on "broad problems of emotion and emotional development, particularly the discrepancy between what we manifest - and therefore what is measurable - and what we are actually experiencing." Coeditor of "Lying and Deception in Everyday Life" (Guilford Press, 1993), Lewis notes: "There's been a turnaround in how lying to ourselves is viewed in the field of psychology. Freud believed if you didn't get this thing you were lying about out of yourself, it would lead to pathology. Now, it's considered a positive thing, it's optimism."
He has edited or co-edited 22 books, written or co-written five, contributed to many texts and authored numerous journal articles. His 1992 book "Shame, The Exposed Self" (The Free Press) has been translated into German, Italian and Japanese. Still fully engaged in research, he is involved in 13 studies that are being prepared for publication or are in press. They range from the effects of cocaine exposure in infants to body image and psychopathology in adolescents.
Even so, Lewis says, "It is impossible to predict how children will turn out. It's humbling if you've spent your life studying development." His daughter, once first violinist with the Mercer County orchestra, is now doing an internal medicine residency. Benjamin, who excelled in math and science, is a musician.
He also observes that he would never have predicted a major change in his own life. At the age of 62 he has a new family. He lives with psychologist Suzanne Miller, PhD, director of behavioral medicine at Fox Chase Cancer Center, and her two children: Nicholas, age 12, and Natasha, age 9. Together they are now exploring the relation between stress and coping in children who suffer from cancer and other health problems.
So that's the story on Michael Lewis. The kid from Brooklyn - hardly an academic contender at the outset - is now University Distinguished Professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry and directs The Institute for the Study of Child Development at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. Of course, the saga continues.
1999 Table of Contents
The magazine of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey