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Rene Spitz was born in Vienna and died in Denver, Colorado. From a wealthy Jewish family background, he spent most of his childhood in Hungary. After finishing his medical studies in 1910 Spitz discovered the work of Sigmund Freud. In 1932 he left Austria and settled in Paris for the next six years. and taught psychoanalysis at the Ecole Normale Superieure. In 1939 he emigrated to the United States and worked as a psychiatrist at the Mount Sinai hospital from 1940 until 1943, Spitz served as a visiting professor at several universities before settling in Colorado. He based his observations and experiments on psychoanalytic findings, developed by Freud. We still find some of Freud’s ideas in our present contemporary developmental thinking. Where Freud did psychoanalytic studies in adulthood, Spitz based his ideas on empirical research in infancy.
It was in 1935 that Spitz turned to the area of child development. He was one of the first researchers who used child observation. Not only disturbed children found his interest, but he also focused on the normal child development. He pointed out the effects of maternal and emotional deprivation. This became the field of his greatest contributions.
Spitz valued several aspects: Infant observation and assessment, anaclitic depression, hospitalism, developmental transitions, the processes of affective communication, and understanding developmental complexity.
Spitz developed the term ‘anaclitic depression’ for partial emotional deprivation (the loss of a loved object). When the love object is returned to the child within a period of three to five months, recovery is prompt. If one deprives a child longer than five months, they will show the symptoms of increasingly serious deterioration. He called this total deprivation (hospitalism).
In 1945 he did research on hospitalism in children in a foundling home. He found that the developmental imbalance caused by the unfavourable environmental conditions during the children’s first year produces a psychosomatic damage that cannot be repaired by normal measures. An other study of Spitz showed that under favourable circumstances and adequate organisation a positive child development can be achieved. He stated that the methods in foundling homes should therefore be carefully evaluated.
Spitz recorded his research on film. The film Psychogenic Disease in Infancy (1952) shows the effects of emotional and maternal deprivation on attachment. The film was the cause of major change, especially in childcare sections of institutes, homes and hospitals, due to the fact that people gained knowledge about the impact of deprivation on child development.
Spitz died in Denver.
Spitz noted three organising principles in the psychological development of the child:
- the smiling response, which appears at around three months old in the presence of an unspecified person;
- anxiety in the presence of a stranger, around the eighth month;
- semantic communication, in which the child learns how to be obstinate, which the psychoanalysts connect to the obsessional neurosis.
Books and articles
- Spitz, R.A. (1957). No and yes : on the genesis of human communication. New York : International Universities Press.
- Spitz, R.A. (1965). The first year of life : a psychoanalytic study of normal and deviant development of object relations. New York : International Universities Press.
- Spitz, R.A. (1945). Hospitalism—An Inquiry Into the Genesis of Psychiatric Conditions in Early Childhood. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 1, 53-74.
- Spitz, R.A. (1951). The Psychogenic Diseases in Infancy—An Attempt at their Etiologic Classification. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 6, 255-275.
- Spitz, R.A. (1964). The derailment of dialogue: Stimulus overload, action cycles, and the completion gradient. Journal-of-the-American-Psychoanalytic-Association, 12, 752-774.
- Editorial (1964). René Spitz: seventy-five plus. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 139 (2), 101-102.
- Emde, R. N. (1992). Individual meaning and increasing complexity: contributions of Sigmund Freud and Rene Spitz to developmental psychology. Developmental Psychology, 22 (3), 347-359.
- Grote Spectrum Encyclopedie (1980). Uitgeverij Het Spectrum bv, Utrecht / Antwerpen.
- Spitz, R.A. (1946). Hospitalism; A follow-up report on investigation described in volume I, 1945. The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 2, 113-117.
- Spitz, R. A. (1965). The First Year of Life. A Psychoanalytic Study of Normal and Deviant Development of Object Relations. New York: International Universities Press, inc.
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