How do human beings develop? Why do we behave and act as we do, i.e., what motivates us? Nature and nurture?

Thomas Jefferson focused on the Romans—reason is the guide of life, while the senses, imagination, and affections are the basis of activity. John Adams, by contrast, noted that “reason holds the helm, but passions are the gales” (McCullough, 2001, p.241). In other words, Jefferson emphasized, “cognition,” Adams “emotions” (affects). And both were brilliant with “language”, connecting emotions and cognition and crucially conveying meaning.

Over the next several months, we’ll be discussing what might be called the three gateways to understanding human development: emotions (affects), cognition, and language. These make up the foundation of development. They will be defined in more detail throughout, but for the moment here are the basics.

  • Affects refer to our feelings, our emotional life
  • Cognition involves the processes of acquiring knowledge, perceiving, thinking, reasoning, and self-reflecting
  • Language concerns symbolization and enhancement of communication and meaning

Complications and Enigmas

But development is complicated. It is not usually comprised of a linear maturational trajectory but is often chaotic and nonlinear—impacted by many intersecting variables, and often small issues can create large effects (Galatzer-Levy, 2004, 2017). Genetics (DNA, temperament) and psychodynamics (childhood antecedents, trauma, attachment issues, etc.) interdigitate, the effects of which are often unpredictable.

Emotions, cognition, and language are information-processing systems—I call them “messy” systems. Our physical (eg, body and sexuality) and psychological aspects all run through emotions, cognition, and language. However, all three represent enigmas, puzzles, double-edged swords. They all have liabilities as well as assets.

For example, emotions are frequently mislabeled, misunderstood, unconscious as well as conscious. Cognition is often plagued by misperceptions and faulty memory. Just consider optical illusions or the studies of differences of eye-witness accounts. Language is readily marked by misinterpretation and misunderstanding. We all process stimuli through our own lenses and experiences.

Exploring the Foundations

How then shall we explore these “messy” foundations—emotions, cognition, and language? Might it be useful to examine them in two ways: at their origins, and as they interact with each other?

Examing the processes at their origins means discussing them at their earliest points, infancy and early childhood, using newer as well as more familiar information to appreciate their roles in human development.

Also, we are perhaps best served by investigating these processes not only individually but also as they combine with each other. We wish to understand the influences of these three pathways upon each other as they emerge in development. In this way, we may be able to grasp new potentials as well as liabilities in our understanding of development.

Exploring emotions, cognition, and language—origins and combining—may allow us to understand their mechanisms of action and their potentials. We may then be able to understand human development better. We might also more effectively address some of the problems and possibilities which confront us, including:

  • bias and prejudice
  • education and learning
  • physical punishment
  • religion and religious extremism
  • the need to be recognized and remembered
  • early verbalization of feelings

Next Month

We will discuss play and creativity


Galatzer-Levy RM (2004). Chaotic possibilities: Toward a new model of development. Int J Psychoanal 85: 419-441.

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

McCullough D (2001). John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

Panksepp J (1998). Affective Neuroscience: The Foundation of Human and Animal Emotions. New York: Oxford University Press.

Solms M (2018). The scientific standing of psychoanalysis. Brit J Psychiatry International 15: 5-8.