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Rene Spitz was born in Vienna, Austria (Austro-Hungarian), 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, where he taught psychoanalysis at the École Normale Supérieure. In 1939, he emigrated to the United States, and worked as a psychiatrist at the Mount Sinai hospital. From 1940 to 1943, Spitz served as a visiting professor at several universities, before eventually settling in Colorado.
Spitz based his observations and experiments on psychoanalytic findings, developed by Freud. Some of Freud's ideas are still present in contemporary developmental thinking. Where Freud performed his famed psychoanalytic studies on adult subjects, Spitz based his ideas on his empirical research on infants.
In 1935, Spitz began research in the area of child development. He was one of the first researchers who used direct child observation as an experimental method—studying both healthy and unhealthy subjects. His greatest scientific contributions came from his studies of the effects of maternal and emotional deprivation on infants.
Spitz valued several aspects: Infant observation and assessment, anaclitic depression (hospitalism), developmental transitions, the processes of effective communication, and understanding developmental complexity.
Spitz coined the term "anaclitic depression" to refer to 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, Spitz investigated hospitalism in children in a foundling home. He found that the developmental imbalance caused by the unfavorable environmental conditions during the children's first year produces irreparable psychosomatic damage to normal infants. Another study of Spitz showed that under favorable circumstances and adequate organization 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, because people gained knowledge about the impact of deprivation on child development.
Spitz noted three organizing principles in the psychological development of the child:
1) the smiling response, which appears at around three months old in the presence of an unspecified person
2) anxiety in the presence of a stranger, around the eighth month
3) semantic communication, in which the child learns how to be obstinate, which the psychoanalysts connect to the obsessional neurosis.