The Secret Life of Babies Taghi Modarressi has devoted his career to seeing the world through the eyes of infants. And once you hear what this infant psychiatrist has learned, you will never see a baby in the same way again.

November 10, 1996|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,SUN STAFF

He is a man in search of the answer to one of life's most compelling and mysterious questions: What goes on in the mind of a baby?

Indeed, child psychiatrist Taghi Modarressi has devoted almost a lifetime of thought to mapping out the complex terrain of an infant's psychological life, beginning with its first primitive feelings.

There are, of course, big and complex words to describe what this learned professor seeks; words like self-reflexive awareness and preverbal subjective life. But, really, when you get right down to it, what Taghi Modarressi wants to know about a baby's experience of life is not unlike what every new parent wants to know:

How does a baby -- who has no memory and no knowledge of objects or words for objects -- experience himself and others? What does he feel when he's hungry? What goes on in a baby's mind while gazing at his mother's face? How does a baby flooded with uncontrollable and chaotic sensations learn to form such feelings into thoughts and wishes?

Trying to see the world through the eyes of a baby is like trying to imagine what the universe might have been like in the first hours after the Big Bang. In this case, however, Modarressi is trying to understand not how the world created itself but how human beings create a sense of themselves and their relation to others.

Or to put it another way: Modarressi is a man in search of the origins of the original Self -- of how we become who we are. Nothing less.

But how to go about finding the answer?

Unlike the astrophysicist who has at his disposal such technical miracles as the space telescope to aid his search, the psychoanalyst has only a patient's free associations and his own ability to build a bridge of insights from those associations. The infant psychotherapist has even less to work with: His small patients are nonverbal and have no memories.

Most people respond to the idea of the baby as a psychiatric patient with an attitude of puzzlement and skepticism. "How can you treat a baby," they ask Modarressi, "who can't talk or understand what is going on?"

The question is put to him one more time.

"But babies can talk," the Iran-born Modarressi responds, smiling. He has a light and pleasing accent and a manner that telegraphs both patience and charm. "In fact, babies are experts in communication. ... The language of babies is feelings. And babies are able to create or reflect feelings around them. By action, by a smile, by posture, by gesture, they communicate."

Sitting in his small office at the Center for Infant Study, located on Lombard Street near the University of Maryland medical school complex, Modarressi seems never to tire of talking about the world of the infant. Beneath the cap he wears, his dark eyes burn with youthful, almost boyish, optimism and interest. Warm and hospitable -- and funny, too -- he is a welcoming figure who immediately creates a sense of easy give-and-take. It is an attitude, one assumes, that must put his very young patients and their parents at ease as well.

Right now he is talking about the unsolved mystery of how a baby knows about "taking his turn." He urges you to try this experiment with a baby if you have any doubts that a Self exists inside:

"Talk to a baby. When you talk, the baby doesn't interrupt you. Baby listens and waits till you are done. And then Baby smiles. Or you coo with the baby. Baby doesn't interrupt you. Baby takes his turn. That is amazing!" says Modarressi, his voice rising in genuine excitement, his eyes widening.

"Takes his turn! Where did he learn about this?" He pauses. "So we not only believe that the baby has a sense of Self but this Self is also able to separate and distinguish himself from the others!"

He remains full of wonder at all this, at the miracle of a baby. The years in no way have diminished his interest in understanding the Big Bang of humankind.

Still, the cap he wears and the cane by his side hint at something else: The man who has studied the beginnings of life so intensely now has reason to reflect on endings.

His own beginnings

Sixty-five-year-old Taghi Modarressi, who lives in Baltimore and is married to celebrated novelist Anne Tyler, traces his own beginnings back to Tehran. The son of a lawyer, he grew up in a liberal family of educators and writers, a family that goes back 40 generations in Iran.

Young Taghi was interested in writing and literature. However, when it came time to enter university, he failed competitive exams in literature but passed the test for medical school and soon found himself attracted to psychiatry. "I felt there was a real connection between psychiatry and writing," he says. His interest, however, deepened when a friend and fellow student became psychotic.

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