Developing Brain

Understanding the Difference – Social and Sensory Deprivation



In the following and in historical link, James W. Prescott, PhD describes a fundamental and painfully flawed paradigm that blinded lading researchers, namely Harry Harlow and Rene Spitz and many that followed. Both claimed separation and isolation research was not sensory deprivation, rather social deprivation. This dissection between social and sensory deprivation is critical. To abstract social as separate from sensory during this early period of development blinds one to the damage being done. Prescott’s early research in sensory deprivation for the military brought to this research completely different assumptions, a different paradigm. He understood that during this early developmental stage, social is sensory. The developing brain is nurtured by rich and varies sensory stimulation, most significantly affectionate and playful touch and movement. Separation and isolation research deprived the developing brain of this nurturing stimulation and it was this sensory deprivation that caused dramatic and violent pathologies in the isolation reared studies.

Jim describes:

MM: Isn’t this what Harlow did back in the 50’s – separated mothers and infant monkeys at birth with devastating consequences?

JWP: Rene Spitz, John Bowlby, and Wayne Dennis noticed that many children reared in orphanages or institutions had arrested emotional, social and intellectual development. Bowlby found a link between these early separation experiences and later delinquency-findings that my cross-cultural studies supported. Spitz noticed that many of these institutionalized infants, who had the best medical and physical care but no “mother love”- nobody touched, held or hugged them, had depressive and autistic-like behaviors. Spitz called this Marasmus, sickness and death due to depression associated with loss of mother love. With deprivation of physical affection and body contact, which is the biology of love, these infants and children withdrew into their own world and in extreme cases, they gave up and died.

Harlow was attempting to find a cost effective way to raise monkeys for research. He separated infants from their mothers and housed them alone in cages. These infants immediately protested being separated by crying and by being agitated. When nothing changed, they became profoundly depressed, engaged in chronic rocking behaviors, self-stimulation, and tactile avoidance behavior. By depriving intimate body contact between mother and infant, Harlow created emotionally, socially and sexually dysfunctional animals.

As the animals grew older, Harlow saw them developing more abnormal behaviors, self-mutilation, and then pathological violence as juveniles and adults. They could not engage in normal grooming and sexual behavior. Their reproductive system was intact, but the emotional and social skills that goes with normal sexual behaviors were destroyed.

Dr’s. Bill Mason and Gershon Bersken also studied infant monkeys reared in isolation but they added a surprising variable. Some of the surrogate mothers, a fur-wrapped Clorox bottle with a pie pan attached to the bottom, could move and others were stationary. A rod was placed through the Clorox bottle which could be moved by a cam operated device or it was bolted to the floor. That one simple change, adding movement had a tremendous impact.

The infants reared on the moving surrogate did not develop the broad range of emotional-social psychopathology that had been so well described in isolation reared monkeys.


James W. Prescott, Ph.D.

The following presents the views on maternal-infant separation by two of the most significant authorities on maternal-infant separation, which has misguided this field for well over a half century. This material is reproduced here given the continuing misunderstandings of the harm and injury inflicted by maternal-infant separation and the loss of physical affectional bonding in the mother-infant relationship that has its roots in the sensory biology of brain mechanisms.

Prescott, J.W. (1976). Somatosensory deprivation and its relationship to the blind. In: The Effects of Blindness and Other Impairments on Early Development pp.65-121(Z.S. Jastrembke, Ed.). American Foundation For The Blind, New York.

Historically, Mother-infant Separation was viewed as a Social issue: “Maternal-Infant Social Deprivation”; and not as an issue in Developmental Neuropsychology–the role of sensory stimulation and deprivation in brain-behavioral development.

The divide between Biology and Behavior was commented upon by D.O. Hebb (1958):

For their part, psychologists too often fail to keep themselves informed what goes on in the neurological field and, in defense of such ignorance, too often deny that it has any relevance for their work—a position so preposterous and indefensible that it is hard to attack.

(Alice in Wonderland, or Psychology Among the Biological Sciences (H.F. Harlow and C.H. Woolsey, Eds) Madison, WI. The University of Wisconsin Press, 1958.

It is perhaps not too presumptive to suggest that what D.O. Hebb had to say about psychology and neurology in 1958 can be said about pediatric medicine and neuropsychology today. Hopefully, the “adventures” presented in this volume contribute to a better understanding of the evolution and evaluation of developmental processes as they relate to the problems of clinical developmental medicine in achieving excellence in diagnostic and prognostic procedures.


Hebb, D.O (1958). Alice in Wonderland, or Psychology Among the Biological Sciences. In Biological and Biochemical Bases of Behavior (H.F. Harlow and C.H. Woolsey, Eds.).    Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1958 and in Introduction:

Heath, R. G. (l975): Maternal-social deprivation and abnormal brain development: Disorders of emotional and social behavior. In Brain Function and Malnutrition: :Neuropsychological Methods of Assessment (Prescott, J.W., Read, M.S., & Coursin,D.B., Eds). John Wiley New York. And in Introduction.