newsmaker: Michael Lewis, PhD
Today Show, Psychology Today, Sesame Workshop, Good Housekeeping
Writing the Book on Kid Psychology
by Eve Jacobs
When Michael Lewis talks, people listen - all kinds of people. They listen on TV and radio, in lecture halls in China, France and Russia, in national consumer magazines like Good Housekeeping and Parents, and in academic journals - to the tune of earning him a place in the top 2 percent of the most highly cited social science researchers in the world (as compiled by the Institute for Scientific Information). He has frequently sailed into uncharted territory, and his early studies on the emotional development of infants have become "classics." But even after 45 years in the business, he refuses to rest on his creative laurels. There have been no dry spells in this researcher's professional life - his cup runneth over with fresh ideas. Check out the walls leading to his office where the covers of all 35 books that he wrote, co-wrote or co-edited are displayed. It is this constant drive to understand the emotional and intellectual development of children and to communicate what he knows to a broad audience - supported over the last 25 years by $35 million in research funding - that Lewis consistently brings to the table.
It's not a conference table that might catch your eye as you walk through the Institute for the Study of Child Development on Paterson Street in New Brunswick, which he founded more than 25 years ago. It's a table that crouches just one foot from the floor and is strewn with the toys and books that his little "collaborators" enjoy most. Lewis says his career has been dedicated to "articulating and understanding how a child's nature interacts with his environment, because we know the importance of environment in the development of the child."
Pulling out an analogy from basic science, he explains that scientists recognize the existence of heavy metals, such as lead, and other toxins in the environment, and have figured out ways to assess the damage that varying amounts of these metals inflict. So, too, scientists should be able to recognize and measure the toxic elements in a child's social environment.
"Depression in a parent, violence, a mother's drug addiction, harsh discipline and other forms of toxicity can have a profound effect," he explains.
Lewis says that for children younger than age 3, standard IQ tests do not work as an assessment tool, so in the '60s he was a pioneer in developing techniques for assessing an infant's ability to "pay attention"- to look, listen and respond to his environment. These measures became the standards used worldwide, and are still used to determine if a child has incurred brain damage during the birth process.
"We also discovered years ago what 'good parenting' actually means," he continues. "We thought a stimulating environment is what counts, but now we know the environment must be responsive to the child."
This led Lewis to ask the question: Can machines supply what a mother may not be good at? He found that, yes, a "mommy machine" works - keeping young children awake, alert and calm. Such a machine has, in fact, been developed with funds from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and when tested with developmentally delayed children, was found to impact significantly on their ability to pay attention, he says. The machine is computer-based and interactive.
Just recently, the mommy machine has found a new venue - at Children's Specialized Hospital in Mountainside, where it is being tested with comatose children. "It may impact consciousness because it affects pre-cortical levels of functioning," Lewis explains.
"Remember, biology and environment," he repeats, bringing the conversation back to his early studies of normal infants. "We knew infants' emotional development was important, but it had not been well documented." He did a series of studies from 1969 - '75, clearly demonstrating that even very young children are responsive to their environment.
Scenario 1: A slide show of faces - with music in the background - continually flashes in front of an infant. The infant enjoys this stimulation, and shows sadness and anger when the images and music stop. The child is taught that when he pulls a string, the show starts again. He is in control. Suddenly, the string stops working and no amount of tugging on it makes any difference.
Scenario 2: A mother sits face-to-face with her child, who is in an infant seat. She plays with her - and the child is calm and happy. Suddenly the mother stops interacting with the infant.
"Most infants get angry when the world stops responding to them, and they try hard to overcome the obstacle to their happiness," says Lewis. "But about 30 percent of these kids - at 4 and 6 months of age - show sadness and just give up."
Why do some kids give up and others plow through the obstacles? Lewis and his team have been studying the responses of children to stress for the last 15 years. "Is this anger a positive response? Might it be the beginning of perseverance?" he asks.
"When we follow up with these kids at age 2, the angry kids are, in fact, the ones who do persevere," explains Lewis. "The 30 percent who give up and are sad - this may be related to genes associated with depression."
The team is currently doing a pilot study to assess if certain children are predisposed to depression. A scraping from the inside of the child's cheek is sent for a genetic evaluation. With the advent of gene array techniques, the relationship between a specific behavior and one or more genes is a major field of study, he says.
Lewis is also researching the emergence of self-conscious emotions during the second year of life. "Embarrassment, guilt, shame, pride, where do they come from?" he asks. "And how do we measure these responses?"
He explains that children show these emotions physiologically. Head tilting, a funny smile (like the cat that ate the canary) and nervous touching often indicate embarrassment. The head droops down and the body collapses when a child feels shame, he comments, and the body seems to expand when the child exhibits pride.
Lewis is beginning to formulate a theory of emotional development. First we have primitive emotions, he describes, then, between 12 and 15 months, consciousness emerges, and after 15 months, self-consciousness develops.
How do researchers recognize the emergence of self-consciousness? Lewis and his team developed the "mirror-rouge technique," which he says is simple and unequivocal: You put rouge on a child's nose and put him in front of a mirror. Before 15 months of age, the child touches the mirror. After that, he will touch his own nose. Use of the pronouns "me" and "mine," and pretend play, also emerge at about the same time, he states.
All of these maturation steps are biological, according to Lewis, who has been using brain imaging techniques - MRI and fMRI - to actually visualize what is happening. He believes that consciousness emerges at about the time that myelinization is almost complete in the frontal lobes.
The researcher is also doing several multi-year studies -funded by the NICHD and the NIMH - on the development of the stress response.
For instance, "Why are some kids more self-conscious, or shy?" the researcher asks. About 15 percent of children are extremely shy and they are also over-reactive to pain and other stresses - becoming inconsolable when they hurt themselves, he says. Certain neural pathways are implicated, he explains, and effective interventions may be forthcoming.
His team is also studying post-traumatic stress disorders in children who are abused, neglected or suffer another trauma. Some of these kids are fine as adults, others are not. For instance, the correlation is high between losing a parent early and developing depression later, but it doesn't happen to everyone. There may be biological factors that put a child at risk if a trauma occurs, says Lewis, who is trying to identify an intervening process that may provide protection in stressful situations such as these.
The team has recently published a paper looking at kids 4 to 6 years old, and 8 to 11, who have been sexually abused. Lewis explains that they see the children six months after discovery of the abuse, and measure their shame and negative attributions (bad thoughts about self). "The level of abuse is not important in how kids do," he explains, "but the level of shame they feel is indicative of their long-term outlook." The researcher says that the children whose levels of shame are high are generally still in trouble one year later when they are evaluated at the Institute.
The group is also participating in a $12 million, 12-year, three-site study focusing on prenatal exposure to toxins, including cocaine and other drugs, alcohol, and cigarette smoke. The children are followed from birth. The researchers are looking at "inhibitory control"- the ability to inhibit responses - and "emotional regulation"- how quickly a child can calm himself after becoming upset.
"These are two key measures that are affected by exposure to toxins and that have a relationship to the brain," he says. "Then add environmental risks, such as poverty and crazy lives. If the home environment is OK, then exposure to toxins such as cocaine will have no effect."
Lewis says males seem to be more susceptible to toxins, putting them more at risk, and that boys who have been exposed to cocaine will often engage in risky behavior at 10 years old, especially in an environment of poverty.
"Biology and environment," he reiterates: "You always have to look at an organism in the context of his environment. If the organism is in a Petri dish, you can hold its surroundings steady. Not so for a human being. It's so much harder to understand an organism when you can't control its environment."
For a dyslexic kid from Brooklyn who had a hard time learning to read and write, who lost his mother at age 8 and his father 10 years later, who remembers himself at 18 "as a voyager without baggage," and who graduated college in 1958 "without a clue what I would do," Michael Lewis has managed to take high honors in the art of survival. So, add one very eminent psychologist, who started out with several strikes against him, to the mysteries of how some children growing up in difficult environments can manage to become exceptional adults.