The popular conception of shame in America is a onsesided version of 1990s TV host John Bradshaw’s “toxic shame.” This translates a shame moment signaling I have done something bad into a character flaw: I am bad. But already in the 1950s research psychologist Silvan Tomkins observed that infant faces displayed shame when their ongoing facial exchange of excitement and enjoyment with familiar faces was disturbed and blocked, though still desired1. Shortly before Bradshaw’s fame Tomkins Institute psychiatrist Donald Nathanson classified the popular “toxic shame” I am bad as an attack-self response to a moment of disconnection2.
Scientific psychologists like Silvan Tomkins seek objective evidence of emotions, such as in video or cross-cultural interpretations of facial photographs showing some emotions universally recognized despite complete isolation between specific cultures3. I’d like readers to revise their emotional dictionary to consider this novel understanding of shame. So I will summarize a few research projects that show how the experience of shame as disconnection or interpersonal discord fits into our human development.
Some people in the social sciences question whether shame is really an inborn emotion or not. Tomkins himself argued that shame could arise from three types of experience: a recognition that one has done something wrong according to one’s rules or beliefs, an interruption that disrupts an experience of excitement or enjoyment4, or a momentary disturbance in a normally comfortable relationship. There are two kinds of research into infant behavior that have shown this awareness of disconnection well before infants are capable of speech and hence verbal thought.
The earliest signs of shame came in three-week-old infants studied by Brazleton and Tronick in 1975. In face to face interaction with their main caregivers they habitually displayed expressions of excitement and enjoyment that matched their caregivers in a reciprocal rhythmic approach and withdrawal that averaged several cycles per minute. But when their caregivers ‘presented a still, unresponsive face to them, their movements became jerky, with averted face, followed by attempts to draw her into interaction. When these attempts failed, they withdrew into an attitude of helplessness, face averted, body curled up and motionless.’5
In another study published in 1975 the husband and wife team Papousek showed that three- to four-month-old babies could experience excitement and joy in relation to a five-second multicolored light show situated off to one side.6 The Papouseks rewarded babies who turned their heads three times in a row toward the light show by turning on the burst of lights. As soon as the babies learned that these repetitive gestures could bring on the light show, they became very interested in their new skill and let out squeals of joy when their efforts were successful. But after that they had come to expect the bright light show, the Papouseks occasionally let the babies demonstrate their three purposeful rotations toward the light show but didn’t follow these actions with a burst of colored lights. Most of the babies showed drooping heads, slumping and turning their faces away, with signs of increased breathing and blood flow to the skin, all signs of shame. What is remarkable about this research is that babies respond with the same constellation of shame symptoms when joy and excitement developed vis-à-vis a novel nonhuman source is suddenly interrupted. Thus what an infant first develops through attunement and discord with the earliest caregivers—excitement and shame–can also respond to success and disruption of human interaction with other natural and artificial structures as well as with our own species.7