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Too Old for Teddy?

By Sarah Liebowitz; A&E Editor
On October 6, 2016

Too Old for Teddy?

Sarah Liebowitz

A&E Editor

Cassie Stimson has a stuffed rabbit named Bunny Blue.

She’s a sophomore computer science major at Plymouth State University. She’s had Bunny Blue since she was a little girl.

Call it childish, but Stimson isn’t out of the norm. A survey by the hotel chain Travelodge revealed that 35% of British adults sleep with a teddy bear, based on the 6,000 adults surveyed.

It’s not just the Brits. PSU psychology professor Kathleen Herzig, PhD, always asks her abnormal psychology class who brought a stuffed animal. “Almost everybody raises their hand,” she said. “I think it’s pretty normal.”

Joel Funk, PhD, professor of psychology, has a small office on the fourth floor of Hyde. His overstuffed bookshelves are stacked with psychology textbooks, family photos and the occasional Charlie Chaplin VHS.

Funk sat on a blue pillow, which was squished on top of a swivel chair. He wore thick glasses and brown loafers. His hair was gray. He bore a surprising resemblance to Robin Williams in “Good Will Hunting”.

First, Funk pulled up a Wikipedia page on “comfort objects”, although Funk prefers the term “transitional objects”. He pointed out the name Donald Woods Winnicott, the man who coined the term. Winnicott was a pediatrician and psychoanalyst, who is quoted in a number of studies related to the field.

Winnicott said that a stuffed animal (or a blanket, or a piece of wool, or even a word or a song) becomes very important to infants once they realize they are an individual, and not part of their mother. At first it takes the place of the mother. The object is a part of “me” and “not-me” at the same time, helping the infant to understand a sense of self, and understand an outside world. “It kind of reminds them of their mother, but separate,” said Funk. “If the teddy bear goes missing, even the mom doesn’t make up for the teddy bear.”

As the child gets older, and can separate “me” from “not-me”, the need for the object lessens. The role of the object is often replaced by other objects or ideas in their environment.

In 1975, for his job interview, “I wore my, quote, lucky socks,” said Funk.

“A pet can be that way,” he said, mentioning therapy animals, or “a picture of loved ones on the bed table”, or “a crutch for a person could be a belief system.” He explained that overwhelming support for Donald Trump might be a way for a person to process the world, creating the illusion of hope by putting their faith in a single image of a person. “It makes them existentially say, OK.”

Funk next brought up John Bowlby, a British psychoanalyst who worked with attachment theory. Bowlby also researched mother-child relationships, and noted that transitional objects take the place of the “natural” attachment figure, like the mother, when she is temporarily unavailable. “Even adults can have, what they call, adult attachment,” said Funk.

Lastly, he mentioned Ivan Pavlov, a Russian psychologist, and his studies in classical conditioning. Pavlov measured the saliva of dogs in the presence of meat powder. Pavlov later found that the dogs would salivate before they even came near the meat powder, when they saw the handler or heard a clicking noise. Pavlov later had the dogs associate the powder with a bell, and they would salivate to the sound of the bell.

The bell is a “neutral stimulus” associated with the food. Similarly, in humans, stuffed animals can be associated with good feelings and comfort.

Next door, Kathleen Herzig, PhD, was talking to a fellow faculty member. Herzig specializes in anxiety. Funk asked her into his office. She was dressed entirely in pink and black. She wore rectangular glasses and socks dotted with little cherries. He asked her if stuffed animals are a sign of immaturity.

“It’s about context,” she said, “whether or not it’s going to cause impact in your life.”

She gave the example of needing a stuffed animal for a business trip, or to teach. “What happens if I can’t be with my teddy bear for some reason? Do I cry?”

For most college students, bring stuffed animals is completely normal. “It’s a big transition,” she said. She explained that, often times, what a student brings to college shows what they want to take from their old identity with them into their new identity.

Herzig mentioned some of the same things about attachment and the mother-child bond. She also brought up oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone” which is stimulated by human touch, contact with pets, and possibly, stuffed animals.

She said it’s pretty powerful to get something when you’re young and keep it with you. She still has hers, a large brown bear named Truff. “I’ve moved it with me everywhere. I definitely brought it to college,” she said.

Herzig spoke about the difference between stuffed animals in male and female students. “Any kind of rates, I don’t know if it would be super ac- curate,” she said.

She explained that, because of societal norms, students who socially identify as ”girl” have an easier time admitting to having a stuffed animal.

During one Tuesday night, in the lobby of Blair Hall, both male and female students had mixed opinions about stuffed animals. Devan Roy, a psychology major, seemed a little embarrassed, but admitted to bringing a stuffed bear that his girlfriend back home gave him. He said that college students aren't too old for stuffed animals, “I mean, if it has sentimental value to them, no.”

Maddy, a sophomore, was more cynical. “I just feel like it’s for little kids,” she said. She had stuffed animals when she was younger, but when asked why she didn’t bring them to college, she said “I just threw them all out.”

College students, in becoming “adults”, might want to leave behind objects of childhood in order to assert themselves as independent, mature individuals, but there’s nothing wrong with keeping a piece of a past self.

Cassie Stimson agreed. She smiled as she spoke about her Bunny Blue. “Sometimes, it’s a nice reminder of home.”

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