James W. Prescott

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James W. Prescott (born c. 1930) is an American developmental psychologist, whose research focused on the origins of violence, particularly as it relates to a lack of mother-child bonding. Prescott was a health scientist administrator at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) from 1966 to 1980.


  • We should be breast-feeding children up to 2 or 3 years of age.
    • as quoted by Penelope Moffet, "Sensory Stimuli Vital for Young, Speaker Says" Los Angeles Times (Mar 25, 1986)

"Before Ethics and Morality" (1972)

The Humanist Nov-Dec 1972
  • The issues of human violence and human pleasure are pivotal to any theory—scientific or religious—of moral behavior. Violence and pleasure are reciprocally related, that is, the presence of one inhibits the other, and certain critical early sensory experiences during the formative periods of development provide the neurobiological substrate and properties for either violence-seeking or pleasure-seeking behaviors.
  • The effects of "maternal-social" deprivation, institutionalization, hospitalization, and of parental abuse, neglect, and indifference, upon infant and child development have been well described by many investigators.
  • Sensory deprivation during the formative periods of development leads to a high demand and need for stimulation later in life.
  • The brain is highly immature at birth and is dependent upon sensory stimulation for normal growth, development, and function. Sensory stimulation is like a a nutrient—without it the brain does not develop or function normally.
  • The abnormal social and emotional behaviors that result from parental and social (somatosensory) deprivation are directly related to impaired brain functioning.
  • The pleasure-prone personality has a low capacity and tolerance for violent-aggressive behaviors. Conversely, the violence and aggression prone personality has a low capacity and tolerance for pleasure and for sensuous behaviors. As one goes up, the other goes down.
  • Stimulation of brain pleasure centers can eliminate feelings of rage, fear, and depression.
  • An infant or child is not "free" to select the nature of his sensory environment but is dependent upon adults for the quality of his sensory environment and, thus, [for] his neurobiological development and psychobiological predispositions for certain kinds of behavior. From this perspective, it is evident that before a child can reason and before reason can establish principles of moral behavior, the course of an ethical and moral life has already been set.
  • When and if we choose to rear our infants and children in an affectional environment of positive reinforcements, then... by the very nature of that environment we will be free and dignified.

"Body Pleasure and the Origins of Violence" (1975)

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Nov 1975
  • Unfortunately, violence is often offered as a solution to violence.
  • The causes of violence lie in our basic values and the way in which we bring up our children and youth.
  • Recent research supports the point of view that the deprivation of physical pleasure is a major ingredient in the expression of physical violence.
  • Most of our 'pleasure' activities appear to be substitutes for the natural sensory pleasures of touching.
  • The deprivation of physical sensory pleasure is the principle root cause of violence.
  • Laboratory experiments show that... When the brain's pleasure circuits are 'on,' the violence circuits are 'off,' and vice versa.
  • Certain sensory experiences during the formative periods of development will create a neuropsychological predisposition for either violence-seeking or pleasure-seeking behaviors later in life.
  • The controlled laboratory studies of Harry F. and Margaret K. Harlow... separated infant monkeys... in single cages in an animal colony room where they could develop social relationships... through seeing, hearing, and smelling, but not through touching or movement. These and other studies indicate that it is the deprivation of body contact and body movement—not deprivation of the other body senses—that produces the wide variety of abnormal emotional behaviors in these isolation-reared animals.
  • The contributions of Freud to the effects of early experiences upon later behaviors and consequences of repressed sexuality have been well established. Unfortunately time and space do not permit a discussion here of his differences with Wilhelm Reich concerning his Beyond the Pleasure Principle.
  • Cultural anthropologists have gathered exactly the data required to examine this hypothesis for human societies—and their findings are conveniently arranged in R. B. Textor's A Cross Cultural Summary.
  • Those societies which give their infants the greatest amount of physical affection were characterized by low theft, low infant physical pain, low religious activity, and negligible or absent killing, mutilating, or torturing of the enemy.
  • Societies which inflict pain and discomfort upon their infants tend to neglect them as well.
  • It appears that the beneficial effects of infant physical affection can be negated by the repression of physical pleasure (premarital sex) later in life.
  • The detrimental effects of infant physical affectional deprivation seem to be compensated for later in life by sexual body pleasure experiences during adolescence.
  • The percent likelihood of a society being physically violent if it is physically affectionate toward its infants and tolerant of premarital sexual behavior is 2 percent (48/49).
  • When high self-needs are combined with the deprivation of physical affection, the result is self-interest and high rates of narcissism. Likewise, exhibitionistic dancing and pornography may be interpreted as a substitute for normal sexual expression.
  • Punitive-repressive attitudes toward extramarital sex are also linked with physical violence, personal crime, and the practice of slavery.
  • The world has only a limited time to change its custom of resolving conflicts violently. It is uncertain... how many future generations it will take to transform out psychobiology of violence into one of peace.
  • Body pleasure is very different from promiscuity, which reflects a basic inability to experience pleasure. If a sexual relationship is not pleasurable, the individual looks for another partner. ...Affectionately shared physical pleasure... tends to stabalize a relationship and eliminate the search.
  • Contrary to Dr. Benjamin Spock, it is harmful for a baby to cry itself to sleep. ...we not only teach the child distrust... but also establish patterns of neglect...
  • The competitive ethic, which teaches children that they must advance at the expense of others, should be replaced by values of cooperation and a pursuit of excellence for its own sake.
  • Modern technologies of warfare have made it possible for an individual or nation to bring total destruction to large segments of our population. And the greatest threat comes from those nations which have the most depriving environments for their children and which are the most repressive of sexual affection and female sexuality. We will have the most to fear when these nations acquire the weapons of modern warfare. Tragically, this has already begun.

Quotes about Prescott

  • I fell that Prescott has not given sufficient credit to Reich, who first made the connections reiterated in this article.
    • James DeMeo, "Roots of the Problem," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (Feb 1976) response to "Body Pleasure"
  • The author, adopting a priori the animalistic humanistic view of human nature and ignoring, therefore, the spiritual dimension of man, draws from observations of animals and non-Christian societies conclusions which are totally invalid if his a priori view of man is in error. This biased procedure he labels 'science.'
    • Robert E. Kofahl, "Body and the Bible," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (Feb 1976) response to "Body Pleasure"
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