Effects of Brief Separation from Mother on Rhesus Monkeys

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Science  09 Jul 1971:
Vol. 173, Issue 3992, pp. 111-118
DOI: 10.1126/science.173.3992.111


To summarize, data on the course of development of mother-infant relations in rhesus monkeys have been presented; a method for teasing apart the relative roles of mother and infant in causing changes or differences in the interaction described; and the complexity of the social nexus, within which the relationship is set, stressed. When the mother is removed for a few days, the infant calls a great deal at first and then shows depressed locomotor and play activity. These symptoms may last for a month after the mother's return. Simple tests given 6 months and even 2 years later strongly suggest that the differences (between infants that have had such a separation experience and infants that have not) are persistent.

Are these data relevant to the human case? The rhesus monkey has no verbal language and a much less complex social development than man. Furthermore, its social environment is quite different from that found in any human culture. Parallels between monkey and man must therefore be scrutinized carefully before being used as a basis for generalization. But the facts show that a brief separation experience produces in rhesus monkey infants symptoms that are very similar (except for the apparent absence of a "phase of detachment" on reunion) to those in human infants (25). While age of separation, within the rather narrow limits used here, was a variable of minor importance, the effects of the separation varied, as in the human case, with the length of the separation experience and the sex of the infant. Differences in the techniques of experimenters, as well as differences in the species, prevent precise comparisons of the roles of the mother-infant relationships; nevertheless, the nature of the relationship appears to be an important variable in both monkey and man. There would seem, therefore, to be strong reasons for thinking that we are dealing with comparable phenomena. If that is the case, the fact that monkeys function at a simpler conceptual level than man limits the complexity of the explanatory hypotheses necessary in the human case. In addition, the finding that such a brief separation experience, involving removal of the mother but no exposure to a strange environment, can produce effects lasting for months or years in rhesus monkeys strengthens the evidence that long-term effects may occur also in man. Finally, this analysis provides bases for attempts to predict individual differences in the effects of a period of separation on rhesus infants, and the parallels with man suggest that examination of the same variables in the human case would be worthwhile.