Over the past many months, we have tried to make the case that there is a revolution in our understanding of human development. We have suggested that this revolution has tremendous potential for enhancing development.

However, we have also noted that this revolution has gone largely unrecognized—that the implications and benefits of this advance in knowledge are in danger of being overlooked.

Affects, cognition, and language are all crucial aspects of development. They are the building blocks, the foundation, the systems which underlie human development. We have examined their origins.

We have also suggested that these three systems can be productively viewed in concert, in synergy.

After a brief summary, we will begin our discussion of how this perspective—i.e. combining feeling, thinking, and talking—can help us address some of the problems confronting our society today.

Checks and Balances

Let’s summarize our recent discussion. We have suggested that in understanding ourselves—that is, how we become who we are—we might do well to look at the three major systems involved in human development – emotions, cognition, and language.

All three of these possess major assets. Interestingly, all have major liabilities. Emotions provide motivation, but they also can be mislabeled, misunderstood, and repressed. Cognition allows for self-reflection and thinking about actions, but it is also plagued by misperceptions and faulty memory. Language leads to symbolization and shareability, but also can create misinterpretations.

Thus, what we have with emotions, cognition, and language is a system of checks and balances. Liabilities in one system can be countered by the assets in another. These relationships help us understand the complexities of human development.

Nonlinear Dynamics, Chaos Theory, and Development

We must also mention another concept which helps us to understand the complexities of development, and that is nonlinear dynamics. This is an extensive area, and we will note it only briefly here. Most theories of development are epigenetic in nature, meaning that development unfolds along predetermined developmental lines. Freud’s sexual stages, Erikson’s life phases, and Piaget’s cognitive processes are examples of this.

Nonlinear dynamics suggests that development can occur by means other than epigenetic unfolding. Nonlinear “models predict that desirable development may follow many unpredictable routes to satisfactory and often similar outcomes” (Galatzer-Levy, 2017, p. 82). The world of nonlinear dynamics suggests that: “Small causes can give very large changes; simple causes can yield very complex results” (Galatzer-Levy, 2017, p. 78, emphasis in original).

Does nonlinear dynamics theory help us understand the relationships between the environment (e.g. caregivers, external influences) and the individual’s genetic dispositions? As Galatzer-Levy notes, in contrast to epigenetic models, “…nonlinear models predict that input from the environment, while essential for development and shaping it, need not complement some preexisting plan. It needs to provide only a sufficiently rich experience that the system can become organized under its influence and a sufficiently calm environment that the developing individual is not thrown into chaos. Experiences will shape resulting development, but how they influence its development is not predictable” (2017, p. 84).

As we will see later, nonlinear dynamics and chaos theory also influence our understanding of learning.

“New learning occurs in adaptive systems on the edge of chaos, between the twin dangers of stagnation and disorganization. This suggests that during periods of development, we would expect not to see an orderly unfolding of preprogrammed structures but, instead, periods of relative disorganization” (Galatzer-Levy, p. 81).

This suggests that during the process of learning, feelings of distress (disorganization) may tend to occur along with feelings of interest and enjoyment (organization).

Looking to the Future

Now, armed with a variety of new ways to understand human development, we will explore some of the significant issues in our world today. Starting with next month’s newsletter, we will discuss: early verbalization of emotions (putting words to feelings); physical punishment and violence; education and learning; bias and prejudice; and religion and religious extremism.

References for Interested Readers

Demos EV (1995). Exploring Affect: The Selected Writings of Silvan S. Tomkins. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Galatzer-Levy R (2017). Nonlinear Psychoanalysis: Notes from Forty Years of Chaos and Complexity Theory. New York: Routledge.

Tomkins SS (1981). The quest for primary motives: Biography and autobiography of an idea. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 41: 306-329.