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isolation case studies

Harry Harlow and the Rhesus Monkeys
In 1958 Harry Harlow conducted a series of experiments with rhesus monkeys in order to try to
understand the conditions in which human infants wither away and to come up with some
preventive measures. He also wanted to disprove the common idea that infants love their
mothers because of the food they provide for their infants. “Regarding mother-love,
sociologists and psychologists were in accordance with psychoanalysts: The baby loves the
mother because she feeds it. Harlow found this implausible” (Karen, 1994, p. 123). Harlow
conducted his research at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He was the president of the
American Psychological Association at the time of his experiments.
Harlow used the rhesus monkeys for his experiments because they were quite similar to human
infants. He took eight newborn rhesus monkeys and separated them from their mothers. He
raised them in cages outfitted with surrogate mothers which were contraptions inside the
cages. In one cage, there was a block of wood covered with soft sponge rubber that had been
covered with a terry cloth. Attached to it was a circular face with a light bulb behind it for
warmth, and a feeding nipple. In the other cage was a wire mesh with a feeding nipple
attached to it. The monkeys spent all of their time with one of the surrogate mothers. Harlow
observed that no matter which surrogate mother “fed” the baby monkeys, they spent up to 18
hours a day clinging to the terry cloth mother (Karen, 1994). “The monkeys affectional ties to
their cloth mother were sustained even after long separations. And when the infant monkeys
were placed in a strange situation, a room filled with a variety of stimuli known to arouse
monkey interest, they always rushed initially to the cloth mother when she was available, clung
to her until their fear dissipated, and rubbed their bodies against her” (Karen, 1994, p.
124). This clearly demonstrates that monkey and human infants love their mothers for the
comfort and love they provide and not for food.
Interestingly, Harlow also found that the infant monkeys preferred the familiar face drawn on
the surrogate mother to a new face or no face. Sadly, all of the monkeys in these studies ended
up having some devastating social-emotional problems due to not having an actual live mother
to give them the love and interaction they needed as infants. They could not easily relate to
their peers and raising their offspring proved to be even more difficult with abuse and murder
occurring. “Cross and Harlow (1965) reported the syndrome of compulsive behaviors which
become ever more severe as partial isolation is prolonged. These maladaptive behaviors
include nonnutritional sucking which serves no ordinary purpose, stereotyped circular pacing,
fixed and frozen bizarre bodily postures and positions of hand and arm, as well as withdrawal
from the environment to the point of complete detachment” (Harlow & Mears, 1979, p.
244). This further disproves the theory that human infants don’t require affection or that it’s
dangerous to them. As another well-known psychologist, Erik Erikson points out, infants’
attachment goes much deeper than food or even love, but requires trust.
Rene Spitz- Hospitalism
In the 1940s Rene Spitz did a study on infant hospitalism. A total of 91 infants were placed in
the Foundling Home located just outside of the United States. For the first three months of the
infants’ lives, they were breastfed by their mothers in the Foundling Home. If an infant’s
mother was not available, one of the other mothers would also breastfeed that infant. The
infant’s enjoyed the affection given by their mothers during this initial three month
period. After three months, all of the infants were separated from their mothers. The infants
were cared for by nurses and received high quality physical and medical care. Each nurse was
in charge of eight to twelve infants, making it almost impossible for the infants to have any
need except for the physical/medical need met. As Spitz (1965) states, “To put it drastically,
they got approximately one tenth of the normal affective supplies provided in the usual
mother-child relationship” (p. 279). In other words, no love or social support was given to
these infants.
It wasn’t long before a rapid decline was seen in the infants’ development. Just after three
months of the separation, the infants’ motor development had completely halted, and they
became totally passive. They’d stopped crying. The infants just lied on their backs and did not
have the motivation to roll over or sit up. “The face became vacuous, eye coordination
defective, the expression often imbecile. When mobility reappeared after a while, it took the
form of spasmus mutans in some of the children; others showed bizarre finger movements
reminiscent of decerebrate or athetotic movements (Spitz, 1945a)” (Spitz, 1965, p. 279). Sadly,
these infants were failing to thrive, and were severely stunted in all aspects of development.
By the end of the children’s second year of life, those who had survived, their development was
“forty-five percent of the normal” (Spitz, 1965, p. 279). This was after they had been placed
back into loving homes. These children had become severely disabled both physically and
mentally. Even the children who survived and were checked on again at age four, the majority
still could not sit unassisted, walk, or talk (Spitz, 1965). It was a horrific example of how socialemotional depravation severely affects infants. Many of the infants did not survive. The death
rates of these children were extremely high compared with other children in institutions in
which loving care was provided. According to Spitz (1965), “Of the 91 children originally
observed in the Foundling Home, 34 had died by the end of the second year; 57 survived” (p.
281). It was speculated by Spitz that the death rate may have been even higher due to the fact
he lost touch with some of these children after the study. It was also noted by Spitz that only
two of the infants died of disease (Spitz, 1965).
Genie and Isabelle – Isolation
Genie’s father had kept her isolated in a locked room from the time she was nearly two. When
she was found at the age of thirteen, much of her behavior was subhuman. Because Genie’s
father severely punished her for making any sounds whatsoever, she was completely silent.
She never sobbed when she cried or spoke when angry. Never having been given solid food,
she could not chew. Because she had spent her entire life strapped in a potty-chair, Genie
could not stand erect, straighten her arms or legs, or run. Her social behavior was primitive.
She blew her nose on whatever was handy or into the air when nothing was available. Without
asking, she would take from people things that attracted her attention. Attempts to socialize
Genie were not successful. At the end of the four-year period, she could not read, could speak
only in short phrases, and had just begun to control some of her feelings and behavior. Genie
paid a high price – her full development as a human being – for the isolation, abuse and lack of
human warmth she experienced.
Isabelle had been hidden away because her mother was unmarried. Isabelle’s mother had
been deaf since the age of two and did not speak. She stayed with her child in a dark room,
secluded from the rest of the family. When found at the age of six and a half. Isabelle was
physically ill from an inadequate diet and lack of sunshine. Her legs were so bowed that when
she stood the soles of her shoes rested against each other, and her walk was a skittering
movement. Some of her actions were like those of a six-month-old infant. Unable to talk
except for a strange croaking sound, Isabelle communicated with her mother by means of
gestures. Like an animal in the wild, she reacted with fear and hostility to strangers, especially
men. At first, Isabelle was thought to be severely learning disabled. Nevertheless, an intensive
program of rehabilitation was begun. After a slow start, Isabelle progressed through the usual
stages of learning and development at a faster pace than normal. It took her only two years to
acquire the skills mastered by a normal six-year-old. By the time she was eight and a half,
Isabelle was on an educational par with children her age. By outward appearances, she was an
intelligent happy energetic child. At age fourteen, she participated in all the school activities
normal for other children in her grade.