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The Visual Cliff: A Parable About Maternal Influence and Power

cliff cam adamsA human infant is hardwired to respond to, connect to, and love her mother as a way of insuring her survival. It’s long been known that an infant can distinguish her mother’s voice and prefers it but the recent work of Barbara Kisilevsky demonstrated that even in utero, a near-term fetus responds to her mother’s voice and can distinguish it from another female voice! The heart rates of near-term fetuses were measured as tapes of the fetus’ mother reading a poem and another female reading were played alternately. While her mother’s voice elicited an increased heart rate (“Mom! It’s you!”), hearing the unknown or novel voice caused the fetus’ heart rate to slow.

An infant recognizes her mother by her smell as well and, as a Japanese study showed, even an infant only five days old can derive comfort from a smell that brings her mother to mind. Before and after a neonatal heel prick, infants were exposed to the smells of their mother’s milk, another woman’s breast milk, or infant formula. Babies who smelled their mothers’ milk were less reactive to the pain of the prick and apparently soothed by the smell; that did not happen to the babies exposed to either a stranger’s milk or formula.

All of these findings and others I haven’t mentioned testify to the deep, inborn connection a child has to her mother from the start but it is, in a real sense, a one-way street.

Despite the cultural mythology surrounding motherhood, mothering is learned behavior in humans and while there are some physiological responses that are hardwired (such as milk letdown when a baby cries), what connection a mother feels for her child isn’t automatic or “hardwired” but shaped by her own sense of self, her life experiences (including her own childhood), and her personal response to this new identity, “mother.”

Put another way, it’s a script in which the devotion and need of one party—the child—is guaranteed but the plot line isn’t.

The child’s need for her mother may be met in kind with love and attunement, attention and devotion, and a consciousness of the key role she will play as her daughter’s mother. But close to half of the time, that isn’t the way the story unfolds.

Children of unattuned or disconnected mothers will develop an insecure style of attachment as a result.

It’s practically impossible to overstate the influence—and power—a mother has over her child. One experiment, the “Visual Cliff” presents such a clear picture that it might well be a parable.

The experiment was originally designed to test the development of depth perception in animals and babies by Eleanor Gibson and Richard Walk and to answer the question of whether depth perception was inborn or learned. (A side note which is cool: Gibson was inspired to do the research after a trip to the Grand Canyon with her two small children during which she worried about their playing too close to the rim.)

The “Visual Cliff” consisted of a piece of Plexiglas over a checkerboard cloth; while the cloth was directly beneath the Plexiglas at first, it dropped some four feet, creating a “visual” cliff. The infants were placed on the “shallow” end with their mothers at the “deep,” or vice versa. It turns out infants do see the “drop” and most refused to cross the “deep” end.

Another experiment by James Sorce and others took it a step further. Would a mother’s expressions resolve the ambiguous situation the infant finds herself in? After all, her eyes are telling her the drop is scary; her knees are telling her the surface is stable. Well, with a smiling Mom signaling “it’s okay, sweetie!,” 74% of babies crossed the “cliff.” But an angry or distressed maternal look was enough to stop 100% of the babies in their respective tracks. Faced with ambiguity, an infant naturally looks to her mother to resolve it for her. That is maternal influence and power in a nutshell

Other, more recent experiments by Tricia Striano have looked into whether the infant looks to her mother for information or for comfort in an ambiguous situation, or both. The conclusions remain unclear.

But one thing is very, very clear: Her mother is an infant’s lode star, for better or worse. She’ll read the world by reading her mother’s face.

Copyright 2016 Peg Streep

Image by Cam Adams, copyright free,

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Kisilevsky, B.S. et. al. “Effects of Experience on Fetal Voice Recognition,” Psychological Science (May 2003)m vol.14, no.3, 220-224

Nishitani, S., Miyamura T. Tagawa et. al. “The calming effect of a maternal breast milk odor on the human newborn infant,” (2009) Neuroscience Research: 63: 66-71.

Sorce, James, Robert N. Ende et al. “Maternal Emotional Signaling: Its Effects on the Visual Cliff Behavior of 1-year-olds,” Developmental Psychology (1985) 21, no.1, 195-200.

 Striano, Tricia, Amrisha Vaish, and Joann P. Beningo, “The Meaning of infants’looks: Information or comfort seeking,” British Journal of Developmental Psychology (2006_, 24-615-630.


The Visual Cliff: A Parable About Maternal Influence and Power

Peg Streep

Peg Streep’s new book, DAUGHTER DETOX: RECOVERING FROM AN UNLOVING MOTHER AND RECLAIMING YOUR LIFE, can be purchased at Amazon. com. The author or co-author of twelve books, she also wrote MEAN MOTHERS: OVERCOMING THE LEGACY OF HURT (William Morrow). She lives in New York City. You can visit her on Facebook or at All posts are copyrighted by Peg Streep. You are more than welcome to share the link but do not copy and paste the text and post elsewhere.

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APA Reference
, . (2016). The Visual Cliff: A Parable About Maternal Influence and Power. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 11, 2020, from


Last updated: 8 Jan 2016
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