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How The Self Comes Into Being: Remembering Daniel Stern

A month ago, an article in The New York Times noted the passing of Daniel Stern, MD(below) — psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and researcher, at his home in Switzerland.

Stern’s death failed to make the Times’ front page, but the Science Times featured a memorial piece by Douglas Martin that pretty well captured the significance of Stern’s work.

I was a resident in psychiatry at New York Hospital / Cornell Medical Center in 1985 when Stern published his groundbreaking work, The Interpersonal World of the Infant.

The book took the psychology world  by storm in the 1980’s, and Stern went on to become an academic superstar of the highest rank.

Drawing on Stern’s own experience both as an infant researcher and a psychoanalyst, the book pulled together a vast amount of research to try to answer basic questions such as “What’s it like to be a baby”?  and “How do infants and toddlers experience the world?”

It also posed the most important question of all — “How does the SELF come into being?”


The Self Comes Into Being in “Layers.”

Stern’s answer was that the self is a layered creation.  As the infant’s mind unfolds and develops, adding new capabilities month by month, new layers of selfhood are laid upon the old.

The speaking self of 18 months is built on layers going all the way down to the original nursing self of the newborn.

As a sex therapist, I’ve been rather interested in these matters. After all, peak sexual experiences (the kind most of us yearn for) seem necessarily to involve a regression to states of mind that have a definite infantile character.

Deep erotic absorption fuses the mind and body in a way that’s beyond thought.  I’ve often imagined that a peak sexual experience somehow recalls in some dim way the original mind-body fusion of infancy and very early childhood.

After all, how many love songs contain the word “baby?” As a sex therapist working with couples, when a couple starts to be able to share really satisfying sex, I hope and expect to see some silliness between them, and to hear a few giggles as well.


The Link to Intimacy and Sexual Connection

Since Freud, many writers on sexuality have speculated on how each of our capacities for intimacy and sexual connection may bear the imprint of early childhood experiences.

As sex therapists, we are by necessity students of the infantile.

So I didn’t want to let the occasion of Stern’s death go by without remembering him as someone who wondered about the world of infancy — a world we all once knew well but unfortunately lacked the words to express how it felt at the time.

A world we do revisit, though, in some fashion from time to time, during moments of deepest erotic engagement.

stephen snyder md author photo Stephen Snyder, MD

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