I have a confession to make. I have never hitched, and I rarely hike. The title is an allusion to a book I love, but also to an idea: the idea that we can have a guide that has the information that we need delivered in a manner we can access. And it reminds me not to take myself too seriously. Now, when I say that we can have a guide, I am not talking precisely about being able to pull up obscure trivia that effectively informs the situation at hand, though that is awesome and how the internet on our phones would work in a perfect world. There is too much information. A guide that is built on making information available isn't that helpful of a guide without an omniscient third party manipulating the plot. I think that we can still have a guide, but one that looks at how we process the reality around us, among us, and within us, and that developmental psychology, informed by biology and understood through cultural lenses, can produce that sort of a guide. I want to talk today about the possibility of an inclusive psychological development model, and I'll explain what exactly I mean by that in a bit. First we are going to talk about talking about things.
Communication is a tricky thing. Later on we are going to talk about some biases and heuristics that combine in some pretty interesting ways, one of which we are going to start with right up front, called the underestimation of inferential impact. Whenever you talk, you have an idea that you are trying to represent with mere words. We like to think that we are flawless concept symbolizers, but we do not usually manage to get the entirety of our idea into our words. We usually manage to get about 40% of our idea into our words, but that is not what the listener always gets out of those words. People manage to receive about 25% of the information given to them, which means that of our original idea, only about 10% gets received. There are a couple of things that we can do to help get that number up, and we are going to try some of them.
One of those techniques is to clarify terms to minimize miscommunication. To that end, before we dig into the model itself, I want to describe the concepts with which we will be working, so we can all be on the same page. Or at least, so you can all see what page I'm on, regardless of whether you want to join me. In the classical linguistic tradition, we want to understand nouns before modifiers, so I'll start with the last concept in the phrase "psychological development model": model. What do I mean when I say I want to talk about a model? Am I building a miniature version of a larger thing? Am I trying on developmental theories and strutting about so you can imagine what you would look like in the latest fashions in world paradigms? I guess in a way I am doing all of those things, but in another, more accurate way I am talking about something different. A model, in the manner that I am going to be using it today, Is a formal structure where ideas collide with observations. In this case most of the ideas are mine about the observations by the western psychological tradition. That being said, I also might talk about small cars and do some strutting, so it's best to stay on your toes.
I think "a formal structure where ideas collide with observations" should suffice as far as what I mean by a model, and we can move on to the more complicated concept of development. Most descriptions of the concept of development rely on the word develop, which doesn't help a great deal in clarifying what we are talking about. When pressed, the shift in description proceeds to the concept of growth, which is also a little more vague than is helpful. So we lean on our descriptors a bit more, demanding clarity before we can feel comfortable building upon this particular concept, and a more stable picture begins to form. We introduce the concept of Time. This is a big step, and one we will have to remind ourselves to take often. It seems as people we are in the habit of either assuming Time or ignoring it altogether. Neither approach works if you want to be either clear or accurate. So, we have time. Now we are talking about a gradual process, which just means a process over time. If we unpack our growth concept, we get a gradual process of building upon what is already there.
A question: does all development involve positive addition to the current state? If I look out the window I see a pair of construction cranes swinging back and forth as the Amazonian Towers begin their own process of development. We even use the same word. Right now, these cranes are intermittently smashing things and dragging them to piles to be taken away, but it still seems like development is the appropriate concept for what is happening. Is that the case for human beings? Does some of our development involve tearing down existing psychological structures in order to build bigger, stronger, shinier ones? It seems to me that it does, or at least that development could include a negative style of change, so we want to make sure that our description allows for such. We must fine tune our concept of development, otherwise we will end up misrepresenting the process. Instead of the gradual process of adding to what is already there, let us say a series of changes in the function and/or structure of the thing being developed. What we lose here is the most fragile aspect of the concept of development: that the thing going through the process comes out as more, or better, than when it entered the process. The adage: all progress is change, but not all change is progress. This incremental process is a tricky thing to deal with because one of the early intellectual short cuts we develop is comparison, and causes any number of problems. The thing is, these changes need to proceed in a direction, toward some concept-thing. We can not escape the directionality of development. It seems to be moving forward, and not necessarily in a linear fashion, and when we disregard that fact, we are talking about something other than development. I will just say that in the organic world development appears to involve an increase in complexity. Usually.
Development, then, in the manner we want to use it today, can be said to be the gradual process of changes toward complexity. Development also seems to be a compounding process, in that the future of the process appears linked to both the current state of the thing and also the process by which that thing became that thing. You are both yourself now, and the sum of your previous experiences. Again, we cannot either assume or forget Time. Human beings exist in (at least) four dimensions and any study of people needs to keep dimensionality in mind.
So far, we have: a series of changes that compound in a gradual process leading to a greater complexity. We don't want to forget that we are actors in this process, in a metaphor we will dive into more later, we are players, not NPC's, so: a series of changes that compound in a gradual process leading to a greater complexity and an accompanying greater range of functionality. Let us take that for what we understand as development, with a strict caution to bear in mind that greater complexity and range of functionality do not in any way imply a moral or existential superiority. This is a difficulty of the nature of our developmental system. One way to picture the process is as complex developmental landscape. Given that no two people share the same exact starting point, not even twins, and that the forces at work upon two people are never the same, there are no two the paths through the developmental landscape which are identical, in fact most of these paths are not even all that similar. Where you are on your path is a fact that only represents where you are on your path. Quantum mechanics represents dissimilarity in relation to particles by asserting the Strangeness, or utter uniqueness of both the particle and the forces at work upon it. A handy way of checking one's self in regards to perceived superiority is to state whatever your grounds for feeling superior, and then add the word yet. I am better than you because I know things that you don't know. Yet. Which makes that a statement about where you are on a chronological path, and voids qualitative comparisons. Most of the time.
Now we come to the big dog, psychology. I didn't realize how much of a mess this was going to be until the first time that I tried to describe the concept to someone. Most of the difficulty with describing concepts is trying to balance specificity and generality. If a description is too general it does not help anyone identify the concept in the nearly infinite field of concept-space. If the description is too specific, it runs the risk of excluding aspects of the concept which any reasonable person would insist do reside within the scope of the concept. American psychologist William James offered a concise description of the concept about 60 years ago, when the rigorous pursuit of the field was still in its youth. "Psychology is the science of mental life, both of its phenomena and their condition" (James, 1950). The science of mental life. That is great. It is general enough to allow for the broad range of subjects layered within the field, and precise enough to distinguish which concept with which we are dealing. Let us accept this as a starting point for the description, with the provision that we can always abandon it later, should it not prove either specific or general enough to support our examination.
To unpack this idea a little bit more, we want to attack this description the same way we attacked the concept of development. By science, I think we want to claim the intentional and accountable exploration of cause and effect in the pursuit of predictive comprehension. Mental life is somewhat trickier, and part of why people argue about what exactly psychology is. On one hand, mental life is the brain, as a physical thing with physical characteristics. The study of these phenomena hardly feels like psychology. On another hand (not the other hand, because we are being metaphorical and therefore need not so restrict our considerations), mental life is the Mind, the aware, reflective, self-aware, self-reflective phenomena of consciousness as uniquely exhibited by the human species. The study of the phenomena and conditions of this unique combination of awareness and self-reflection feels much more like psychology. As it happens, scientists got a little too carried away with their science and found out that we can not separate the physical machinations of the brain from the experiential utilization of the mind. So psychologists became neuropsychologists, and neurobiologists, and neurochemists, and economists. We'll get to that last one in a bit.
The conclusion that rose, or emerged if you will, from the collective psychological dialogue, is that while all of life does not happen in the brain, the experience of life all happens in the brain. As an example, pain can be said to be a sensation in a localized spot in the body, not necessarily in the brain. The experience of that pain, however, is an interpretation of neural patterns firing in the thalamus portion of your brain, which fires it off to prefrontal cortex to consider, and your limbic system to process emotionally, and your parietal lobe to curse about. With the brain and its multiple subsystems serving to integrate sensation into experience, mental life is very much the experience of all of life.
Now we want to try and piece these separate descriptions back together and see if they fit into a cohesive whole:
A formal structure where ideas collide with observations in the intentional and accountable exploration of cause and effect in the pursuit of predictive comprehension of the series of changes that compound in a gradual process leading to a greater complexity, and an accompanying greater range of functionality in regards to the experience of all of life.
Gathered together we have the basis of our model, one that may shift and transform as needed. I think that might serve as a starting point, but, again, we stand prepared to abandon that description the moment it does not bear up to what we need from a development model.
As it stands, an inclusive developmental model does not exist in the field of psychological literature. Yet. It is possible that the great theorists of the last couple of hundred years might between them carve out some negative space wherein the shape of that development model can be perceived, for as the eminent sage Drake has taught us: working with the negatives can make for better pictures. To examine a possible model one would have to consider what those different theorist have to say in conjunction with each other. Now we delve more into the deep and mysterious world of Psychology. Which isn't that deep (really, really broad, though), for as it has been said, psychology may have a long past, but it has a short history.