Child Psychology – Jean Piaget

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Only education is capable of saving our societies from possible collapse, whether violent, or gradual.

Jean Piaget, 1934

The founder of scientific child psychology in the 1920s and 1930s was the Swiss clinical psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980). As the father of three children, he studied the development of his own children carefully and looked for patterns in their development, and as a psychologist, he conducted several controlled scientific studies of the development of children’s psychology and their inner worlds in all age groups.

Early on, Piaget believed that biological development played a significant role in psychological, emotional and cognitive development; the child’s mind only becomes ready for certain types of learning and cognitive activity as the brain grows. Neural science later proved him right. – Luckily, though, our mind does not stop its development as the brain stops growing. The process of rewiring the brain, growing new connections and pruning existing ones, continues even when we and our brain have ceased physically growing. As the rewiring continues, the complexity of the brain increases and it may do so throughout life.

Piaget’s studies brought him to the conclusion that along with this physical development, the child’s mind evolves through an on-going process of assimilation and accommodation of so-called schemata, i.e. mental models of the world. When a child encounters a new event that is consistent with an existing schema or mental model of the world, the schema is confirmed and there is assimilation. But when a child encounters a new event that is not consistent with an existing schema, something unexpected, the child must either modify this faulty model of the world or form an entirely new one.

A schema could be, for instance, that mom and dad always tell the truth, and as long as Santa Claus turns up every Christmas with presents, this is confirmed and there is assimilation. But when the child suddenly discovers that Santa is really Uncle Chuck, there is an inconsistency with the existing schema of trustworthy parents, and the schema must be revised through accommodation. However, a new schema evolves: “Mom, dad and I share a secret about Santa that my little sister does not know!” – Until the sister also finds out and this leads to accommodation too.

These specific schemata each depend on other schemata that are more general. In the above case, the first general schema is that mom’s, dad’s and my knowledge are one and the same; the replacing schema, that mom’s and dad’s knowledge is different than mine and always will be, and lastly, that I can share a secret with somebody and that somebody knows less than me. These three latter schemata serve as organizing models or meta-schemata for the more specific ones.

From the above examples, it should be possible to see how the mind develops in stages as new schemata replace old ones, that these stages are related to age, and that the development is one-directional or progressive because one stage must develop before the next. Some stages and schemata may last longer than others, but they correspond with a certain age period and evolve in a certain order, always evolving towards higher levels of complexity of mind.

Based on his research, Piaget developed a theory of cognitive development, according to which children develop in four stages: the sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational and formal operational periods. – We are not going to dwell on child psychology as such but it helps explain adult developmental psychology.

The sensorimotor period is from birth to 2 years of age; the child learns from physical experience, and gradually learns that it is separate from the world, i.e. what is self and what is other. Towards the end of the second year, it acquires object consistency, which means that it realizes that objects may still exist when not visible, which in turn means that peek-a-boo is no longer a fun and surprising game.

Piaget divided the sensorimotor period into six sub-stages during which the infant goes from simple reflexes to voluntary actions (0-6 weeks); develops its first habits and voluntarily reproduces actions that originally happened by chance (6 weeks to 4 months); coordinates vision and action (4-8 months); shows intentions (8-12 months); becomes curious (12-18 months): and internalizes schemata and begins using primitive symbols (12-18 months).

Through these sub-stages, it is relatively easy for the adult observer to see how loops of repetition evolve to become increasingly complex loops of repetition, variation and choice until, eventually, we see the child as an individual who acts and makes choices.

The pre-operational stage is from 2 years of age when the child begins to speak until around age 7. Piaget noted that during this stage of cognitive development, the child cannot mentally manipulate information and does not understand concrete logic, but it can form magical beliefs and understands the world as animistic, believing that inanimate objects have feelings and intentions. The child begins to play and to think symbolically; it roleplays and pretends that it is somebody else or that furniture is dinosaurs, but the thinking is egocentric and the child cannot see things from different points of view. From around 4 years of age, the child wants to know things and begins to ask questions.

The concrete operational stage is from 7 to 11 years of age. As the name suggests, the child still thinks in concrete terms and is, on the on hand, letting go of magical thinking, on the other hand, not ready for abstract or hypothetical thinking yet. Children this age begin to solve problems using logic, and they begin to understand that others have perspectives and agendas of their own.

The formal operational stage is from around age 11 into adolescence and early adulthood, age 15-20. This big child or teenager uses symbols related to abstract concepts, learns to think about abstract concepts and can handle assumptions that have no necessary relation to reality, i.e. “Who would be the better friend, Superman or Batman?” The abstraction may relate to reality too, of course, as in: “Which is more just: sharing so that everybody gets the same, or sharing so that everybody receives according to personal effort?” In younger children, problem-solving is done through trial-and-error, but at this stage they develop the ability to systematically solve problems in logical and methodical ways.


Übergang des Abendlandes

Brexit Irony 1: The bureaucrats and neo-liberals who have ignored culture and starved education and Bildung have now had their economic project screwed up by nationalism.

Brexit Irony 2: The sense of peoplehood that the English want to defend is a continental European “invention,” first explored and brought into public awareness by the German Idealists and Romanticism.

Brexit could be the beginning of a meaningful conversation across Europe about the importance of local, national and European culture and how we develop a robust European economy based on Bildung, human rights and cultural heritage. It could be the beginning of a transition into a much better Europe.

This would take quite the effort, of course, but count us in!

The evolving, self-organizing, complex, open mind

First draft, ready for comments

Throughout this book, we define the mind as the cognitive processes that are generated by our brain, nervous system, neurotransmitters, and body chemistry. That is, our conscious and un-conscious cognition; what we are aware of plus the many things going on in our mind that do not reach our awareness but which influence our awareness, mood, emotions, and behavior nevertheless. Among the latter are subconscious fears or preferences, and skills that we know by heart and do not have to pay separate attention to, such as bicycling or driving a car while thinking of something else. Many of those things going on “under the surface” in our mind can be brought to our attention immediately if needed, like when a child on the sidewalk suddenly runs towards the street, and we become fully aware of our driving. Other things may need years of therapy to be revealed to us, such as fears of rejection or ridicule if we behave in certain ways. We will never know the majority of our unconscious cognitive activities, which is a good thing.

Our individual mind works in a way similar to evolution in nature and culture. Our knowledge, thoughts, beliefs, fantasies, and dreams, our understanding and interpretations of the world, our language(s), our skills, our emotions and moods, etc. make up an integrated, co-evolutionary system. This system evolves as we encounter the world and engages with it, and it works through loops of repetition, variation and choice as we go about using the skills and knowledge that we already have. It gradually becomes more complex through our exposure to new experiences, through how we react to these, and through how we interact with other people and ourselves. Our mind takes up and organizes what is new to us according to what we already are, already know and already have encountered, and it does this so that the new becomes as meaningful to us as possible and integrates with the old.

As we mature, we increasingly become aware of ourselves in this process, of our own behavior, our habits, assumptions, thoughts and emotions, and of how we handle new and/or contradictory, for a lack of better word, stuff. As we mature, our mind increasingly supplies itself with a new kind of feedback loops that we are actually aware of, allowing us to understand ourselves better and to interact with the world in richer, deeper and overall more complex and meaningful ways. Our mind becomes self-aware in increasingly complex ways.

By drawing the comparison to evolution in nature and culture, the expression “an open mind” becomes very literal: our inner world evolves with our willingness to approach, acquire, challenge, appropriate, and appreciate new stuff, be it new ideas, new knowledge, new art, new people, or new insights about ourselves.

As we mature and know more, as the depth, breadth and complexity of our understanding increase, and as we gain insight into ourselves, we increase our potential of combining things in ways that we have not done before and which nobody else may have done before. In other words, the chances of creativity and innovation may increase with the complexity of our mind. But it may also have the opposite effect: as our mind becomes increasingly engrained in its own patterns, i.e. as the loops of our habits, skills and unchallenged beliefs become older, it may also become increasingly hard with age to tolerate or create something new. Whether it is a set of skills, a belief or an opinion we keep repeating and maybe even refining, the repetition turns it into a physical structure in our brain, and changing such a structure can be painful.

We grow as individuals with our willingness to open our mind in spite of this pain. Our personal development is a double-bound process of repeating and refining patterns and of being open to new ones. If we did not run loops, and repeat and refine skills, convictions, hopes, and beliefs, etc. we would be confused individuals without a personal core and unable to define our boundaries. On the other hand, if at some point we refused to learn or change anything, we would be emotionally and mentally stuck and unable to mature with our peers or change with circumstances and societal development.

Being open means that we risk encountering things that do not fit in with what we already know, feel, hope, or believe. It is often through these painful encounters, however, that we truly grow. When we are forced to change an understanding or a perspective it is painful, and the deeper the conviction, the more aspects of our lives that are affected by the change, the more painful the transition, but we also come out from it on the other side as more mature persons. This is what developmental psychology is about.

Creative genius can develop things thier contemporaries cannot fully grasp; here Ludwig van Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge from 1825:



Evolving, self-organizing, complex, open systems

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Nature and our cultures are evolving, self-organizing, complex, open systems. That they are self-organizing does not mean that anything can happen; there are patterns that define how things can be reproduced, how they can change and what will survive. In nature, variation from one generation to the next is rather limited; the evolution of the eye did not begin with eyeballs but with light-sensitive cells on the animals’ surface. Only with reproduction, variation and selection for increased light sensitivity did these light-sensitive cells evolve into a specialized organ. In culture, the same tends to apply; gradual variation and modification allow new phenomena to evolve. Leonardo da Vinci may have created art and machinery that were unique and to some extent groundbreaking in his time, but he painted with the same oil-based paints as his colleagues and did not invent surrealism or the spray can. Likewise, his machines were mechanical; he did not invent the car or batteries.

In nature, genetic mutations that deviate too much from the genome of the species and which thus create too much variation tend to produce individuals that do not survive well. In culture, ideas that are too strange to make sense tend not to be reproduced either. Yet, from time to time somebody does comes up with a totally fresh idea that spreads like wildfire, like the cultivation and use of penicillin, Rubik’s Cube, and social media; or something is not picked up right away except by a small in-crowd but has an impact much later, like Nietzsche’s philosophy, quantum theory, and Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue. The latter was composed in 1825, premiered in 1826, very few seem to have understood it, almost everybody hated it, it was not performed in public again until 1853, and only in the 1920s was it rediscovered and generally understood as a timeless masterpiece.

We only copy cultural and technological creations if they fit into our existing cultural and technological fabric and thus appear meaningful and useful to us. If cultural inventions challenge our existing understanding too much, we cannot make sense of them, and if technological inventions do not fit into our daily lives, we do not apply them. This is, no doubt, why so many well-meaning Western development projects have failed in developing countries: What the donors offered did not make sense to people; it did not fit into existing expectations and practices, and therefore did not get reproduced and did not indeed create development.

Structurally speaking, the big difference between evolution in nature and evolution in culture and technology is that genes do not generally jump from species to species; there is not a lot of cross-fertilization going on in nature and offspring generally vary very little from their parents. In culture, on the other hand, a new idea in one field may jump to another part of the same culture or to another culture and suddenly be everywhere. Postmodernism found various expressions in the arts in Europe from the early 1900s (i.e. Dadaism and Surrealism), then influenced design, architecture and academia throughout the West in the 1980s, and found its way into pop culture and politics in the 1990s, and it has inspired and changed every field in its path. Likewise, when it comes to technology. The assembly line, for instance, jumped from the car industry to almost every other industry in the early 20th century and has influenced thinking in almost every field of society, from economics to art and education.

That the systems are complex means that they consist of autonomous agents or individual elements, and that these are interacting, either by competing or collaborating, or in some cases by doing both. Increasing complexity is characterized by increasing specialization and diversification, and that new elements are added in a gradual, co-evolutionary process where new and old elements are adjusting to one another in the process.

In our hyper-complex reality, complexity itself may not be perceived as something good, rather it is often confused with something stressful. From a purely structural point of view, increased complexity means more options, more optimal use of resources, less predictability, and more freedom. Individual atoms do not have many choices except connecting into certain, very specific and rather predictable molecules. Likewise, the “choices” of the molecules are limited, as are the choices of single cells. But the single cells have more options in the world than molecules. Multi-cellular organisms also have more options, less predictability and more freedom than single cells. Mammals have more options and way more freedoms than reptiles, and humans have freedoms and options that other primates cannot even be made to grasp no matter how much we might help them. Among our options and freedoms as humans is that we have been able to inhabit all environments on the globe while staying the same species. We can learn to adapt, quite often in unpredictable ways.

The problem with these increasing degrees of freedom and the fact that we have more options is that we must make more choices. This is where complexity may today become a burden to many; the evolutionary pressure is still upon us forcing us to develop more complex minds in order to understand and handle the world we are creating, and this developing of more complex minds is a challenge. But overall, increased complexity is a process of increased options, freedom and wealth.

In order for complexity to grow or stay at the same level, i.e. not decline, the system must be open. In nature, this typically means that a biotope receives sunshine and water and produces oxygen for the atmosphere, and that certain species migrate. It is possible to create sustainable closed ecosystems that do not deteriorate, i.e. see a decline in complexity, but even they receive sunlight from the outside and are therefore somewhat open. In culture, complexity grows or stays at the same level in a similar way: we develop and maintain our cultures by importing and exporting ideas, often modifying what is new to us and making our own version of it. In theory, it ought to be possible to seal off a people or a culture from the rest of the world without the culture deteriorating; there just are no known examples of it. The only culture that comes close is the indigenous Tasmanians who were sealed off from the Australian continent as sea levels rose several thousand years ago. Like the aborigines in Australia they must have known how to light a fire when they got to Tasmania but when the British got there in 1770, the Tasmanians were reported not to know how to light fire, they carried it around. They were overall one of the poorest and technologically least advanced peoples ever to be discovered by the Europeans.

Another way of describing the cycles of reproduction, variation and selection in evolving, self-organizing, complex, open systems is loops. Multitudes of parallel loops allow systems that are open and dynamic to be stable and self-coherent over time. These may be loops of metabolism, loops of reproduction, loops of behaviors, or loops of daily or annual rituals etc. When loops are constantly running, minor changes to some of them do not wreck the overall system or push it out of balance. While some loops change or disappear, or new ones are added, the overall organization is preserved and can evolve gradually. Sometimes, however, a critical part of the loops is interrupted or changed at once and the entire system may reorganize itself and begin functioning in a radically new way.

In the above, we have distinguished natural systems from culture and technology. Evolution in nature will continue along its own lines no matter what we do; life will keep evolving or go extinct and we cannot change the process itself. It’s different with culture and technology, including the way that the economy works and develops. Cultural systems of any kind are man-made.  People or man-made institutions, such as our legal system, define how cultural evolution may take place. We create the rules. We may not always be aware that we are creating the rules, and they may be extremely difficult to change, but in theory, we have the power to choose what the rules should be and to change them.

The picture featured at the top shows the entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault where seeds from plants from all over the world are kept as a genebank. The evolution has self-organized all those genes and we, humans, carrying other genes that have co-evolved along with those seeds, are now storing our common heritage, courtesy of the Norwegian government.