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Mothers made of wire

An experiment in Psychology got his investigator, Harry Harlow, quite famous.

This experiment is called “The monkey mother experiment”.

The experiment

In this experiment, Harlow gave the choice between two different “mothers” to baby monkeys. One was made of soft terrycloth but provided no food. The other was made of wire but provided nourishment from an attached baby bottle.

Those baby monkeys were removed from their birth mothers a few hours after birth and left to be "raised” by these artificial mothers.

The results are one of the most important conclusions that guided studies in the parent-child attachment and infant development. And what results were those?

Even though, the wired mothers were the ones that provided food, the baby monkeys spent significantly more time with the mothers made of cloth. In other words, these baby mammals went to the wire mothers only for food, but then preferred to spend time with the soft, comforting, warm cloth mothers. Who can judge them?

So, Harlow concluded that affection is the primary force behind the need for closeness, that guides mammals to attachment.

Safety and exploration

The cloth mother also signifies comfort and security. Another experiment proved how the presence of the cloth mother allowed the baby monkeys to explore the room, their envinronment. So, they would use this mother as a secure base to which they could go back to in case of distress, but that enabled self-discovery and self-confidence (promoted by the exploration). Harlow’s work, as well as important research by other psychologists that investigated attachment, “helped influence key changes in how orphanages, adoption agencies, social services groups, and childcare providers approached the care of children.”. So we can see the impact these findings have had over the years. This topic is something that often comes up in therapy when we explore early experiences of connection, but also matters of autonomy and willingness to explore and trust oneself.

Emotional deprivation that comes from the lack of warmth, attention, care, empathy, active listening, has a deep impact in the way adults form relationships.

“Many of the previously existing theories of love centered on the idea that the earliest attachment between a mother and child was merely a means for the child to obtain food, relieve thirst, and avoid pain”. Showing affection was thought as a merely sentimental gesture, serving no other real purpose. The way we think today about love and physical touch stems greatly from experiments such as Harlow's (though its controversial aspects related to animal “mistreament”, that already granted him criticism at the time). We now know about the power of touch. A hug has the capacity of calming our nervous system and flooding our systems with the 'love hormones’, such as oxytocin and serotonin, that promote closeness, sensations of well-being and connection - healing us from the inside.


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