The non-conscious mother-infant relationship


Early life experiences have powerful effects on the brain and body, influencing brain function, behavior, and the risk for several systemic and mental disorder (McEwan, 2008). Over the last decades neurobiological studies have widely demonstrated that the disruption of mother-offspring relationship can produce life-long programming effect on stress response, emotional behavior, metabolism, and cerebral plasticity (Maccari, 2018). In the light of these findings a big gap still exist for what concerns the etiopathogenesis of mental disorders. If on one hand animal models allow to identify a clear cause-effect between the negative maternal behavior and the impaired outcome in the offspring development. On the other, these models show intrinsic limitations since there is a complete lack of understanding for what concerns differences between humans and animals. What drastically differentiates human beings from other mammals is the physiology of birth. Non-conscious mind, thought, affection, language, creativity are all dimensions that develop throughout life and differentiates humans from animals (De Simone, 2019). In this framework the Human Birth Theory theorized in 1972 by Massimo Fagioli identifies the infant non-conscious mind as the first to emerge in human beings and the predominant form of thinking in the first years of life (Fagioli, 1974). The Human Birth Theory specifically identifies the non-conscious relationship between the mother and the infant as a fundamental rapport for development in the early stages of life. A deficiency of affection if present in the non-conscious mother-newborn relationship during the first year of life, will correspond to a non-conscious absence of affection in this relationship and represents the postnatal factor of illness; in the Italian language, it is called anaffettività (Maccari, 2017). The influence of maternal mental health on child development is such that the World Health Organization classifies maternal depression as an issue of global significance (Meaney, 2019). A number of studies (mainly of mothers with depression) demonstrate a correlation between insecure/disorganised infant attachments and severe maternal psychopathology (Wai Wan, 2009). Specifically, some human studies have begun to investigate the role of maternal mental health on the neurodevelopment of the offspring. In many of the present studies, measure of maternal mental health derives from scales designed to assess symptoms of anxiety. As Meaney suggests, replication of these results should involve research tools designed to assess specific dimensions of positive maternal mental health in relation to specific child outcomes (Meaney, 2019). According to the Human Birth theory, the mother’s non-conscious mind is the fundamental reality impaired in the rapport. Massimo Fagioli identifies in the annulment pulsion the dynamic which leads to the disappearance of the other human identity. This non-conscious thought dynamic is what is then experienced by the newborn in relation to a mother who is unable to answer to the newborn’s demand of love, affection and presence.  In terms of neurophysiology and neurobiology, scientific studies have correlated reduced or impaired maternal care with an increase reactivity of the HPA axis with long term effects in the stress response (Weaver, 2004). However, the involvement of the newborn non-conscious mind in response to the lack of maternal affectivity has never been object of research. In terms of neurophysiology is well known that as a result of stressful experience, the amygdala which is the area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing, sends distress signal to the hypothalamus leading to the activation of the HPA axis. The amygdala is one of the subcortical areas which is involved in the detection of non-conscious stimuli. Neuroscientific studies have demonstrated that non-conscious perception of emotional stimuli has behavioral consequences and is accompanied by characteristic neurophysiological changes in the emotional state of the observer (Tamietto, 2010). These behavioral and neurophysiological outcomes are often qualitatively and quantitatively different from those associated with conscious perception. As theorized in the Human Birth theory, the non-conscious mind of the newborn will perceive, experience and process all the events occurring in the first years of life. Bringing together the neurobiological findings of epigenetic research together with the neurophysiological finding that established the role of non-conscious perception as a distinct phenomenon with specific evolutionary benefits, the Human Birth theory represents a framework able to fully investigate the most relevant processes occurring in the earliest moment of life in the non-conscious relationship between the mother and the newborn.


  • Calesini, I. (2018). Physiology of Human Birth and Mental Disease, Psychology of Health – Biopsychosocial Approach IntechOpen
  • De Simone, G. (2019). Teoria della nascita e ricerche sull’inconscio, Il sogno della farfalla, 28, 9-46.
  • Fagioli, M. (2017). Istinto di morte e conoscenza, L’asino d’oro Edizioni
  • Maccari, S. (2017). Early-life experiences and the development of adult Diseases with a focus on mental illness: the human Birth theory, Neuroscience, 342, 232-251.
  • Maccari, S. (2018). Reduced maternal behaviour by gestational stress is predictive of life span changes in risk taking behaviour and gene expression due to altering of the stress-anti-stress balance, Neurotoxicology, 66, 138-149.
  • McEwen, B.S. (2008). Understanding the potency of stressful early life experience of brain and body function. Metabolism,57,1-8.
  • Meaney, M.J. (2019). Positive Maternal Mental Health, Parenting and Child Development, Biological psychiatry, 87, 328-337.
  • Meaney M.J., (2018) Perinatal Maternal Depressive Symptoms as an Issue for Population Health; Am J Psychiatry, 175, 1084-1093.
  • Murray, L. (2015). Le prime relazioni del bambino, Raffaello Cortina
  • Swanson, M. (2009). Developmental origins of health and disease: brief history of the approach and current focus on epigenetic mechanisms, Semin Reprod Med,27,358-368.
  • Tamietto, M. (2010). Neural bases of the non-conscious perception of emotional signals, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 11, 697–709.
  • Wai Wan, Ming. (2009). The impact of maternal psychopathology on child–mother attachment, Archives of Women’s Mental Health, 12, 123–134.
  • Weaver, C.G. & Meaney, M.J. (2004). Epigenetic programming by maternal behavior, Nat Neuroscience, 7, 847–854.