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Katharine Nelson: Young Minds in Social Worlds:
experience, meaning, and memory
(Harvard University Press: 2007)

“Two basic conceptions of mind compete in contemporary research: one a top-down, abstract, genes-first, neural-first nativism, realized in terms of domain-specific modular theories; and the other a bottom-up, pragmatic, experience-dependent, bio-social-cultural developmental system of knowing. These different conceptions imply different views of evolution, representation, conceptual development, and the role of language in cognitive development, and different ideas about critical research questions in developmental and cognitive psychology. This book takes the second stance - pragmatic, experience-dependent - with the goal of delineating the developmental path toward the full, symbolic, cultural mind, what [Merlin] Donald...calls the ‘mind-culture symbiosis’.
(Nelson, pp.ix-x)

The overwhelming public relations successes of conventional (highly modular) forms of evolutionary psychology - not to mention those of information-processing ideas in cognitive science, and simplistic genes-first conceptions of biology - have unfortunately managed to marginalize the sciences of development in public understandings. To be sure, nostrums to fast-track intelligence (however defined) can always gain a hearing, as can debates re the extent & form of parental influence on character, but there has certainly been no space for any seriously adequate understanding of the sheer complexity of developmental processes...whether physiological or psychological. And, as I’ve lamented before on this site, it appears that no-one - excepting developmental psychologists - actually reads developmental psychology...

Now, whilst Katharine Nelson is unlikely to correct this through the power of her prose style - dryly effective though it is - in the scope of her ambition for synthesis, and in its persuasive power and mastery of the evidence, she more than adequately rewards her readers. For this is a genuinely important book.

Nelson has been drawing together the threads of her pragmatic take on developmental psychology for decades now, and has clearly been searching out the best relevant work in adjoining areas to help flesh out - and deepen - her model. In doing so, she has taken on board the innovate comparative work of Michael Tomasello in primatology, the atypical evolutionary psychology framework of Merlin Donald, the developmental systems approach of Susan Oyama, and the evolutionary neuroscience approaches of Terrence Deacon and Francisco Varela...along with specific insights & ideas from a host of others. These she has harnessed to the task of building a comprehensive understanding of just how children go about growing into the human world - and her attention to the details of this process should offer a wake-up call to all those much better-publicized theorists who so blithely finesse away the vast improbability of their schemes from any genuinely developmental point of view.

And make no mistake - the evidence marshalled herein is substantially better supported in this area than are those theories which would wish it away. And, any adequate understanding of human thought and action will need to account both for psychological development’s strong variability (within systemic constraints), and its equally strong suggestion of self-assembly on the fly, rather than simple maturation.

Let us, then, begin to take stock of what Katherine Nelson has so painstakingly built for us:


“In brief, the many proposals for ‘fixing’ the contemporary field of cognitive science all tend toward a situated, embodied pragmatics. My contention is that such a move must involve a full-bodied, experiential developmental psychology, wherein perception and cognition are the evolved tools of adaptation to varied environments [and] human self-interests are conditioned on the realities of ecological, social, and cultural experience.... Developmental psychological pragmatics must emphasize experience from the perspective of the individual agent (child or adult), providing an integrated perspective that is missing from...the perspective-free principles articulated in mainstream cognitive science. [For] insofar as experience is the source of knowledge of a variable world, the function and structure of the child’s experience must be accounted for in any model of cognitive development. Most important: experience-based knowledge - perspective-based, not ‘reality-based’ - precedes reflective thought in development. Current models that view cognition from ‘outside’, or within a universal frame, inevitably miss this dimension of meaning.”
(Nelson, pp.37-8)

“Associationism is too unfettered, modularism too rigid; theory structures require too much and too rigid innate differentiation; stage structures are too wholistic and unidirectional. Such quick and dirty judgmental comments hardly substitute for serious analysis, yet they encapsulate much of the critical literature.”
(Nelson, p.23)

“From the pragmatic perspective, knowing derives from action and remains action-oriented, expressed in the pragmatists’ aphorism ‘knowledge as use’. Knowledge is ‘not a copy of something that exists independently of it being known’, but ‘an instrument or organ of successful action’.... And because human activities are situated in communities of actors, meaning belongs to the community as well as the individual. More than a century later, pragmatism still appears radical in its opposition to representationalism and the dualisms of subject and object, mind and body, nature and nurture, or genes and environment, all still present in current theories and debates.”
(Nelson, pp.31-2)

“Experience is basic in this account because nothing psychological happens without it.... Experience acts as an interface between between the internal and the external components of an integrated system, where embodiment and inheritance play a major role in what can be experienced in a particular setting, and meaning in memory largely influences what will be experienced within that constraint.... [And] I am more than ever convinced that meaning is the crux of the matter, albeit still the most neglected topic in the study of cognition.... Today, in contrast, cognition appears to consist of analogies, metaphors, networks, theories, and the like, with memory pushed into the boring background. But these are really all ways of working with meaningful memory representations, in both personal and shared memory. The conclusion is clear: cognition is memory, and meaning is what memory is all about.”
(Nelson, pp.249-51)

In some ways, Nelson’s work - like all the best developmental psychology, I would suggest - is based upon a selective synthesis of the key insights of Jean Piaget & Lev Vygotsky (the contending parents of the discipline), albeit strongly disciplined & modified by subsequent empirical findings. And yet, this is to sell her short...for Nelson’s wide-ranging approach has, arguably, been transformed by its infusions from outside developmental psychology itself, and the result both reconfigures how we can best understand human development, and strengthens the case for the theories she borrows from; not only broadening their evidential base, but also reinforcing their (already strong) claims to wide-ranging consilience.


“The idea that cultural cognition is symbolically saturated appears as the most significant point to emerge from cultural psychology, from varying positions. Both within language (as metaphor) and without (in images and signs), in internal and external representations, human cognition is symbolically constituted. Indeed, this is why the evolutionary theories of Donald and Deacon are so relevant to developmental cognition: they address issues of how presymbolic thought relates to symbolic thought. Of course...humans are born into a symbolically organized cultural environment.... Nonetheless, the infant does not interpret the symbols as conventionally intended, and meaning inheres in the interpretation, not in the sign.... Infants have years ahead of them to acquire the signs and their meanings that will be incorporated into their cognitive structures and experiential knowledge. It is these processes that must be understood...[and] most current theories barely touch on this process, although Vygotsky himself led the way, in his studies of signs as tools, inner speech, and spontaneous and scientific studies.”
(Nelson, p.56)

It also helps supply us with a much more complex sense of how development proceeds through stages - rather than focussing upon functioning at a certain level, as does most current developmental research (and theory). This bias may be one reason why - aside from the general inheritance noted above - there appear to be no strongly dominant frameworks in the discipline, and the majority of work is tightly focussed upon specific problems. For if evolutionary psychology is hampered by its overly theoretical orientation, its developmental sibling suffers the inverse problem, being short of strong debate on overarching theories. And, for better or for worse, it is such debate that draws outside attention...

In consequence, sadly, many who ought to know better simply assume that there is no sensible alternative to strongly nativist models - backed by a naive reading of genetics - excepting the frankly ludicrous “blank slate” assumptions all-too-common in some of the social sciences. However, these - even at the height of behaviorism - were never acceptable in developmental circles...making it all the more curious that, as I’ve said before, seemingly no-one reads developmental psychology. For, properly viewed, developmental questions are foundational to all our knowing, and the Freudian mythos - to cite the other well-publicized psychological alternative - is hardly a reasonable substitute, having been systematically demolished by genuine scientists over the last century. What we need, in short, is a framework that respects both the biological and the interpersonal/cultural sides of development, that does not assume away variation, and that properly weighs the contributions of both experimental and observational studies. And this, quite clearly, is what Katharine Nelson aims to provide...


“The expansion of consciousness is essentially an expansion of the potential for meaningful experience of different kinds, or on different levels. The levels set out here reflect biological (neurological, bodily) constraints, limitations on experience, learning, and accumulated memory, and ‘meaning sharing’ potentials in the different periods of development. Such constraints and limitations on the child’s experience necessarily place limits on our interpretations of the child’s Umwelt, or experience of the world. Consciousness is assumed to expand in relation to opportunities...[which] appear through the interaction of internal and external factors, especially through the ‘outside’ opportunities provided by social interactions, language use in conversations, and so on, in conjunction with the experiential constraints and memory characteristics of the current consciousness state. Social transactions are critical to the move from one broad level of consciousness to the next, and to the consequences that the move has for perceiving new relationships. These are complexes that the child does not control, and opening up to expanded views of the inhabited world at each level takes place very gradually. I hypothesize that as each level is exploited, established meanings of memory may conflict with new experiences that come into awareness, thus motivating the move to the next level of consciousness. These moves may take place slowly or rapidly; they are not tied to specific ages, and individual patterns of reorganization are expected.”
(Nelson, pp.244-5)

“Different children face different problems cognitively and emotionally...differences that result in varying patterns of achieving developmental milestones, like language. Because of these variations, there are dangers in making broad generalizations about developmental patterns across populations of children, [and] one needs to go at least one level higher than that of the mean values to discover a level of generalization that would explain the variations, as well as the means. One higher level is the process of interaction patterns...[whilst] one more level up from the adult-child dyad is the cultural context of the interactions, and this level remains basically unexplored, although valuable insights have emerged from anthropological studies.... Some cultures routinely provide the scaffolding that toddlers need, others maintain rigid controls, and still others keep hands off. Again, the child’s experience, meaning, and developmental strategies will necessarily vary within these different contexts...[since] development is not linearly progressive. Different components must be transformed and reorganized in different ways, depending on how the system is composed and organized at any given time. What has gone before constrains but does not determine what is possible as a next step. The child’s temperament, as well as parental personalities, may impinge on the disposition of a child to follow one pathway, or another. Each is subject to contingencies. In addition, the numerous different developing parts of the self may compete for attention within the system. It has long been observed, and has been verified in recent studies, that early walkers tend to be late talkers and...early talkers tend to be late walkers. In fact, each of these activities requires practice and concentration on individual skills; accomplishing one requires directing significant attention to it that may then not be available for practising of the other.... The point to keep in mind is that the developmental system, while consisting of different realms (or domains), develops as a whole, maintaining stability in the face of change, balancing rapid development in one area against relative stasis in another.”
(Nelson, p.105-9)

Having made the case, it is now time to cut to the chase, as it were - readers having been primed both as to the state of the field, and the expectations we should have for any overarching theoretical approach. That said, I will - for the moment - leave you w/Katharine Nelson on infancy:


Being an infant means adapting to the requirements of being in a particular unfinished developmental state, within a particular social/physical/cultural environment, while under conditions of rapid physical and mental growth, total dependence on others for survival and care, and relative immobility, among others. Looking, touching, and hearing are initial ways of experiencing the world, which at first is totally novel, but rapidly becomes familiar over small bits of space and time. Because human physical and cultural conditions are extremely various, and thus unpredictable - beyond a small set of universals, such as the existence of people and objects in space - the particulars of the environment must be discovered through experience. While being requires continuous adaptation, becoming a different person (a crawler, a walker, a talker) is ongoing at the same time.”
(Nelson, p.59)

“Most of our species-typical activity patterns are uniquely adapted to bootstrap the infant into an intentional world.”
(Horst Hendriks-Jansen, quoted in Nelson, p.58)

“It is problem-specific knowledge, not domain-specific theories, that is the basis of infant intelligence.... In everyday life, infants seek pragmatic solutions to problems, in the context of social and cultural scaffolding.”
(Nelson, p.59)

“At birth, the baby ‘awakes’ to a reality previously unseen. Being awake at this point is being aware of limited aspects of the inhabited world...[and] it seems most probable that the newborn infant does not inhabit a world of persons and things, but of complexes of familiar faces and comforting bodies, as well as spaces and sights and sounds that take on greater definition over months of exploring the boundaries of self and nonself in both social and nonsocial forms...deriving memory of familiar patterns ‘unconsciously’, and building basic perceptual structures...[which] will serve as background knowledge for the meaning work that lies ahead. The meaning that determines memory in this phase of development is that related to the predispositions of the neural structures that, for example, expect and look for ‘mother’, for shapes and objects, for language patterns, and so on. Of course, as the infant moves on to the relative sophistication of this phase, and develops more and more schemas of her surroundings, she also tunes in more to the verbal and physical interactions of those around her. At some point, these perceptions lead into the next significant phase, the expansion of awareness into consciousness.”
(Nelson, pp.245-6)

As should certainly be clear by now, the developmental model here is a complexly cumulative one, with a wide variety of inter-related processes growing and maturing at different rates, mutually influencing one another, and constantly fed (and challenged) by interactions with significant others. Causality, as in all complex systems, is markedly circular, bootstrapping upon bootstraps, as it were...and Nelson, thankfully, is similarly open in her theoretical borrowings - as here, in her citation of the eminent sociobiologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy:


“Hrdy emphasizes that the infant-mother bond is not inevitably a smooth or strong one; unlike other primates (and mammals in general) human mothers lack the instinctive patterns that ensure immediate bonding.... [However,] infants are equipped with behavioral systems that promote attachment.... In Hrdy’s view, the kind of ‘innate knowledge’ that infants are equipped with is designed to ensure the continuing care of the mother (not, as the contemporary cognitive approach presumes, specialized domain knowledge for the infant). [And,] as Hrdy also emphasizes, during the period of human evolution natural environments underwent extreme changes in climate and related conditions, that called on different survival responses from infants, as well as adults. Having a flexible repertoire of behaviors would allow for differences, such as different attachment styles, that might be beneficial in some rearing environments, but not in others. Certainly, cultural practices in infant care today are highly variable. For example, in some cultures infants adapt to being carried day and night, in others, they learn to sleep alone and to nurse on schedule.... [But, in all cultures,] the most important of the ‘built-in knowledge’, or learning patterns, of infancy are those connected with maintaining social contacts. These are indispensable. Objects are there, but they can wait.”
(Nelson, pp.63-4)

“Infant experiential activities can be divided into the two goals of making sense and making relationships, which sometimes alternate and sometimes work together, but in no way are they different domains of conceptual knowledge, object and social. Rather, they are different foci of attention, within a unified field of events and activities from which meaning is derived and conserved.”
(Nelson, p.85)

Perhaps the best example of the type of variational information conveniently papered-over in evolutionary/modular accounts lies in the detailed work on the wide-ranging impact of crawling upon development, which shows no sign at all of being restricted to sensorimotor modules. Instead, what such close observational study demonstrates - particularly when exhaustively notated, and subjected to statistical analyses - are the diversity of viable routes through the human developmental maze...


“The crawling infant needs to keep track of his or her own position, as well as that of the caregiver, requiring an expanded version of social signals...[and,] in contrast to the immobile infant, the crawling infant can control her own distance from the mother, and by the same token she can engage in proximity seeking, the hallmark of attachment behavior.... [Moreover, crawling] ‘infants become more wilful, more autonomous, more prone to anger and glee, more sensitive to maternal separations, more intense in their display of attachment behaviors, more likely to encounter the mother’s wrath, more prone to begin social referencing, and more likely to initiate interactive games and processes’.... The range of perceptual and cognitive skills related to independent locomotion...more or less define the critical developments of the latter part of the first year of life.... The claim here is not that attention sharing and intentionality would not come about without crawling (or would come about only in connection with crawling), but that the course of development would be different...[as] other experiences may substitute for the developmentally ‘expected’ or typical one. Indeed, characteristic of biological and psychological development is the buffer provided by multiple pathways to a common end, as self-organization processes incorporate different embodied and social experiences into the developing state of the organism.”
(Nelson, pp.80-2)

“It is important to note that, from the perspective of domain-specific development, there is no reason to expect that a mode of independent locomotion would have an effect on any process except the neuromuscular system involved in it. Such approaches expect specific changes within discrete domains, but do not expect relations between domains, and do not anticipate synchronous changes, or sequences of unrelated domain developments.... From the experiential perspective, however, we would expect that moving on one’s own would open up a variety of experiences that were previously unavailable to the infant, with perhaps major consequences for psychological development.”
(Nelson, p.79)

But, of course, it is the breakthrough into shared meaning - not crawling - that is the human speciality, even if we are not yet entirely sure how we should understand it. Still, Nelson’s survey of the vast range of work in this area strongly suggests some very important corrections to our usual understandings of development, even if they demand we drop some of our unthinking assumptions...


“Representation tends to be viewed very broadly in cognitive science, which usually considers all mental contents...to be representational...[whilst] memory has been typically studied in psychology without regard to its content, or meaning.... The perspective here is quite different; it holds that making-sense processes derive meaning from experience, relating elements of current experience to self-interest and goals and past experience conserved in memory.... The processes do not copy anything from the ‘outside’ into the ‘inside’, nor do they create a model or a representation that reproduces the so-called outside real world. The event is considered to be the basic unit of experience, and thus of memory.... Over time, events may be combined to form generalized, meaningful wholes that are termed schemas or scripts, concepts or categories, and they may be broken down into parts that are then made available for further organizing into other concepts and categories.... These organizations of events, again, do not represent anything; their potential function is in guiding both physical and mental action, and in interpreting perception. Representation here implies intention; it implies representation for some purpose. In contrast, basic mental constructs (memory, perception) belong to the natural world of biological systems, and it is misleading to suggest that nature represents anything, for any purpose.... Representations are ways that individuals have of reconstructing memory, to better represent meaning for the self and others...[and] the implication I am drawing (still tentatively)...is that these external representations - imitation, gestures, play, words - begin to develop before intentional mental representations are formed. Indeed, it is the externals, in particular the language, that make the internal representations possible.”
(Nelson, pp.109-14)

“Early forms of intentional externalization may be transitional between spontaneous expression, and deliberate representation; these include imitation, gesture, play, and early word productions. These various modes reconstitute the memory organization of an event in different forms: play may encompass an attempt to reconstruct the whole event, whereas imitation reconstructs a focal segment of the whole, and gesture and single words break the whole into parts.... One is better able to observe and reflect on an externalized representation of a remembered event than on its internal memory form, perhaps because one can manipulate it in ways that reveal its internal structure more effectively. Adults experience this effect when they are impelled to draw a diagram, take notes, or write out their new theories. Recalling and reproducing a previously observed action sequence may thus be the first step toward reflective cognition and consciousness.”
(Nelson, pp.93-5)

Or, as E.M. Forster wrote: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” Personally, I find it fascinating that anthropologists, students of skilled movement, musicians, neurobiologists and many others find Donald’s mimetic concept to be so fruitful...whereas the professional narrowness of linguists has generally made them leaders in the denial of its value, whilst postmodern “Humanists” haven’t even heard of it - not being sanctified by any of the French mandarins. Such are the vagaries of professional indoctrination, eh?

Still, as the Forster quote suggests, such ideas are hardly new to the area, and it could well benefit from Donald’s - and Nelson’s - work in this area, which has markedly enriched our understanding of the quintessentially human modes of action/understanding that both scaffold language, and structure our developed sense of our embodiment.


“My position on this is influenced by the hybrid mind concept developed by [Merlin] Donald...proposing different functions that have emerged during the evolution of the human mind; the mimetic level centrally involves the capacity for intentional representation. Previously evolved levels allow cognitive processing, generalization, specific memory, and other manifestations of intelligence, but do not allow intentional representation, which is, however, required for uncued recall of memory contents, or for the external representation of memory for self or social uses. In my developmental interpretation of this mental progression, the mimetic function emerges in the course of later infancy and the toddler period, and is manifested in the various uses of imitation, gesture, object play, and early word learning.... The social, communicative, cognitive, and linguistic abilities to some extent proceed along different lines, reflected in the strong individual differences in paths through the transition period, but in the end come into convergence. We can think of the two-year-old as a mimetic child, capable of replaying in consciousness, as well as in external play with toys or substitute objects, the actions of herself and others...[and] for some children, this may be possible in language as well. But this is play with what is and what can be, not with what was, and what may yet be. It is not using objects in play to stand for real things, or to symbolize the self in another time and place.... While the cognitive consciousness of the toddler years is an advance over the unselfconsciousness of infancy, it is still a consciousness that is confined in space and time, and retains the essential privacy of the infant mind, even while displaying some of its contents in externalized representations.”
(Nelson, pp.112-15)

“Imitation by infants and toddlers is a ubiquitous tool, a mode of adopting cultural means and ends, and of fitting in in the surrounding social world, as well as a way of mastering the affordances of artifacts. Imitation does not cause language or culture, but it is a necessary enabling condition. From the perspective of the experiencing and meaning-acquiring young child, it is an essential means of matching one’s own understanding of things and people in the world with that of the adult, whether in the same time frame, or after a delay. And it enters into all of the externalizing modes that humans use.”
(Nelson, p.95)

“It may be that gesture, beginning as an intentional externalizing system, subsequently goes ‘underground’ as an expressive communicative system, substituting for lexical items or for emerging knowledge or nonverbalized aspects of cultural messages. In some ways, it resembles play in its action-knowledge forms, while in others it resembles language in its communicative function. In both ways, it seems to be a precursor or undifferentiated system, that then becomes more defined in its own terms as the later systems - play and language - emerge as different modes fulfilling some of its functions.”
(Nelson, p.97)

“The idea that children treat all artifacts as ‘real’ objects, whether toys or not, indicates that the toy version is just that: a version of the real thing, something that can be manipulated in ways that the real cannot, but not something that that stands for it. Playtime may be be seen by children as a separate activity from other ‘real’ activities without requiring that they hold in mind two world models at the same time, just as bedtime may be seen as different from lunchtime.... The assumption that play is used as by toddlers as a mode of externalizing activity knowledge, similar to the way gesture and imitation are used, is not at risk in this nonsymbolic interpretation. In many ways, these three activity types are difficult to distinguish in their early forms, and they may even be simply different perspectives on the same activities...[for] they are [all] ways of exploring the functional relations among objects and self, relations that have been observed, but whose components are not immediately accessible to the child simply through perceptual means.”
(Nelson, p.100)

And the challenges don’t stop there. Critiquing the vast majority of language acquisition studies, Nelson strongly argues that most are fatally flawed by their restrictive assumptions re word learning - thus neglecting the actual conditions of acquisition. It’s certainly hard to argue with her on this point, as the strong variation in (observational) evidence re first words is now so clear...and object words are hardly the whole of it. Moreover, and in direct contrast to criticisms of developmental psychology which centre upon its traditionally restrictive source-base (middle-class, Western families), the cross-cultural evidence now coming in casts even more doubt upon linguistics’ object-word obsession - and, yet again, further supports Nelson’s arguments...


“Children’s first foray’s into using words or short phrases for communicating with others usually begin toward the end of the first year and during the second, with children using an average of 10 words by about fifteen months. Comprehension of words and phrases precedes production, usually by several months. Most children comprehend 100 or more words and phrases prior to acquiring a productive vocabulary of 50 words, achieved on average by about nineteen months. At the end of the second year, most children know and use about 50 to several hundred words, and have begun making two- and three-word combinations.... [But] these modal patterns conceal a broad variation in rate and type of word learning, that reflects individual, family, and cultural ways of entering into the speaking world...[for] beginning language use is not a simple process of single mechanisms, and invariant stages; rather, it depends to a large extent on many factors in the child’s past and present experience. [Michael] Tomasello argues that children’s capacity for interpreting communicative intentions is the critical factor that enables children to begin learning words at the end of the first year, when the ability to share attention has matured.... [However,] while certainly necessary, this capacity is not sufficient to explain the wide variability...[in which] a full year of developments in other domains - physical growth, neural development, cognitive and social development, and development of self - may ensue before the slower word learner acquires the level of lexical expertise of the faster one. It might be expected that these vocabulary measures index relative degrees of brightness or dullness, but they do not; very few relations between early language rate and later intelligence measures have been found.... [Unfortunately, however,] few theoretical explanations of word learning have addressed the wide ranges of rate and style of learning during the second year, assuming, rather, a ‘modal learner’; almost all focus on object naming.”
(Nelson, pp.119-22)

“It is people who refer, not words. and they may refer to an infinite variety of things in any given context, real and imaginary, whole and in parts, as well as nonthings such as actions, events, properties, attitudes, ideas, and emotions.... To learn a word’s meaning, the child must construct a concept or category that the word accesses as its meaning...[for] the problem of learning word meaning is...one of matching infant’s meaning structures with those of adults, through the [recurrent] use of words in discourse, within activities; this contrasts with the stated problem in cognitive theories, of mapping words to the world. The goal for the child is shared meaning, not the successful solution of a lexical acquisition task. Words are assumed to be tools for meaning sharing, for advancing the process of being with others in shared endeavours. Lexical acquisition follows from this process. As it succeeds, the child’s interest in and progress in acquiring and using more of the language increases exponentially.”
(Nelson, pp.131-42)

“Cultural knowledge is collaboratively reconstructed in each generation; it is not spontaneously regenerated any more than it is innately provided.”
(Nelson, p.236)

At this point, I think it useful to return to Nelson’s summaries of the stages of development - albeit we should remember that her version of this venerable frame is considerably less rigid than classical schemes, and that the demarcations are acknowledged to be to a matter of judgement. Nonetheless, we do tend to see development in such terms, so Nelson is wise to seek to modulate - rather than ignore - our usual understandings. Moreover, her summaries of the expansion of consciousness provide a fascinating overview of how she understandings this process as a whole...


“Social consciousness...(the reigning age for this phase of development is six to eighteen months)...is a phase during which the infant pays close attention to his or her social partner, for affective, cognitive, and basic security reasons. People and things come together in activities and routines. People are well differentiated, sometimes too much so, as when the baby experiences fear of strangers. Attention to activities and attention to others leads the child into a new experiential space, involving comprehension of communicative efforts and...to sharing the meaning of another through words...[as] one member of a dyad, or triad - child, parent, object.... The effects of embodiment change, and the potential for self-directed mobility are equally strong, as Campos and others have demonstrated.... The social emphasis of this period, differentiating one person from another, also has the effect of differentiating the child as a person. Comprehending this existential state leads the toddler into the next phase.”
(Nelson, p.246)

“In this phase, [cognitive consciousness,] the child recognizes herself as a person-object.... She also actively and intentionally externalizes meanings, acting out schemas in play, and using words to effect action and to comment on her own action. She sees that others see her, and she sees as well that they see things from a different viewpoint than hers. She organizes toys into their places, and asserts her own wants and actions...[while] awareness of the self as an object of others’ attention provokes feelings of self-consciousness. Acquisition of words to use in shared meanings brings the child into a new social space, and in the process imposes different meanings on the words she has chosen to use. Interaction around words challenges her own private meanings, a first step towards the linguistic cognition that begins during the following phase. Consciousness of self and other, externalization of memory, and the use of words together facilitate the move to the next level, reflective consciousness.”
(Nelson, pp.246-7)

“Reflective consciousness...(usually beginning at about three years, but sometimes earlier) becomes possible when activities and discourse are shared between people, when matters are put into a public space, [as] the effect of externalization of meaning intensifies when children become participants in conversation, or in interactive activities in which roles are not routine but must be shared, as in play and games. Learning in language-constituted collaborative constructions becomes possible, and even common. The child can take what is offered in a situation into his meaning-memory system, and later rerepresent it and reflect on it, manipulate it mentally, and come back to it, or come back to the person who introduced it and check out its shared meaning, or add to it in new ways.... These possibilities gradually make it possible to expand the span of consciousness in discourse and in narrative so that, over time, a child can take in a whole story.... This possibility makes the next move inevitable.”
(Nelson, p.247)

“Narrative consciousness make explicit the differentiation of self in different times, and self and other in mind.... Logical sequences of causation unfold in narrative, as other times and other places come into view...[and] the world of people expands exponentially.... Personal memory begins to expand from the episodic past to the unknown future. Reflecting on personal memory brings into consciousness the differentiation of others’ memory and ‘my’ memory, semantic and episodic. The different perspectives of social and temporal ‘minds’ are manifested in narratives, which lay out many of the secrets of social life, including motivations, successes, failures, deceptions, and generosity. These perspectives open the secrets of ‘theory of mind’...[and] open the windows to cultural consciousness. This is the process I call ‘entering the community of minds’, which expands the child’s previously restricted view to encompass an infinite variety of people in the world, of possible experiences and fantasies undreamt of in the child’s past, and of domains of knowledge to be explored. The five- or six- year old who stands on the brink of this phase of consciousness cannot know about these riches, but can begin to experiment with them.”
(Nelson, pp.247-8)

Since I’ve probably already begun to tire my readers by now, I should - perhaps - wind this up about now...except that I do consider it important to suggest Katharine Nelson’s particular approach to the role of language & culture in the emergence of differentiated human memory systems, as this forms an innovative part of her argument, resulting from her re-centring of developmental theory on meaning/memory. It’s a fascinating idea, and fits the totality of the evidence better than any of its competitors, too...and has a major bearing upon how children's’ understanding of other minds emerges over time:


“Two important changes are posited: the emergence of a new, uniquely human kind of memory, episodic (and thereby autobiographical) memory; and the bifurcation of experience-based memories into ‘my memory of the past’, and representations from others (other people’s experiences, general knowledge, facts, or fictions) that come through language, or other indirect sources. I suggest that the mental shifts involved in these developments lead to quite radical and complex changes in the organization of memory and meaning, involving differentiations between procedural, episodic, and semantic memory as these are presently conceived in neurocognitive theory. These complexities are multiplied by different modes of organizing: narrative and paradigmatic (or categorical or factual). Whereas each of these distinctions has a place in the cognitive literature, it is not at all clear how they are interrelated in cognitive structures and functions (much less in neural processing), and the developments involved tend to be viewed piecemeal, if at all.”
(Nelson, p.184)

“That the infant and the young child’s mind is a private space, and that past and present experiences are thus private as well - private even from the child himself - is not a new or unique claim...but I give it particular importance for two reasons: it emphasizes the uniqueness of the modern human mentality in both ontogeny and phylogeny, and it emphasizes the subjectivity of the experiential process. The uniqueness of the human mind springs not from its privacy, but from its escape from privacy over the course of the early years, and its acquisition of socially shared symbolic systems. The initial private state, and its subsequent openness, constitute important conditions for making or remaking a theory of cognitive development, although this is not generally acknowledged. The implication is that it is not just experience that changes, but the mind itself, ultimately distinguishing two semidistinct kinds, the private (personal) part, and the shared (social and cultural) part.”
(Nelson, pp.249-50)

“Overall, three intertwined differences in young children’s memory compared with that of older children stand out: (1) self-involvement is not a salient aspect of memory; (2) time is not salient in memory; (3) the source of knowing, whether verbal, from other or self, or directly experiential, is not distinguished in young children’s memory...[and] conversations about past experiences foster the child’s attainment of these interrelated distinctions.... [In this way,] the distinctively human, autobiographical memory emerges from a collaborative construction, created by the child and social partners (adults and peers), through verbal representations of past and future experience.”
(Nelson, pp.192-3)

“Ultimately, understanding differences among mind states requires understanding the sources of differences among people...[and] to enter into the community of minds one must differentiate one’s own private view of the world from others’ view, and join in the common but variable mind space there.... Only when this process is well under way is the concept of ‘mind’ likely to come into question, together with the salience of belief states such as ‘think’ and ‘know’....[Moreover,] the differentiation of time in terms of past, future, and present, and the differentiation of memory into self (episodic) and other (semantic) must be extended to third persons, as related in narratives or observed in life. Experience with these distinctions is found in personal narratives as well as in fictional stories, which provide a rich source of information about the complexities of characters, their actions, and their motives.”
(Nelson, pp.119-20)

Katharine Nelson’s Young Minds in Social Worlds is a triumph, a synthesis of the traditional strengths of developmental psychology with that of the best in related evolutionary and developmental systems thinking. Much as I had admired her earlier work, Language in Cognitive Development (1996), which essayed an earlier version of the same approach, I would have to say that the intervening years have seen the maturation of the theory, which sets a formidable challenge to any psychological approach that would seek to discount developmental complexity, in any way...

Caveats? As always, I have a few... I’d’ve liked more on the neurobiology than some scattered references and one dense page (page 61), however well-informed - especially since the emerging neurobiological story appears to be so supportive of her approach. And, I also think a link to Kieran Egan’s highly compatible educational theories - see The Educated Mind (1997) - would not have gone astray. Even more disappointing, however, was the omission of Peter J. Hobson’s marvellous Cradle of Thought (2002) from her discussions, even though it is comparable in its basic approach, and she draws upon Hobson’s earlier work in discussing infant attunement and the emergence of joint attention. Finally, I do think that it’s long-overdue that emotional & moral development was fully restored to the centre of concern - rather than being gestured at, however aptly - particularly since Nelson is clearly aware of (and receptive towards) Antonio Damasio’s arguments re emotion grounding reason. Unfortunately, we’re still awaiting the rebirth of this area as a major focus of research activity, and so it’s arguable that Nelson is here merely reflecting the more general backwardness of cognitive science - as opposed to neurobiology - as a whole.

Still, we can’t have everything...

But, between Hobson’s fluent & highly detailed experientially-oriented account of early childhood (and its autistic counterparts), and Egan’s consilient framework re the development of understandings in formal education, we can now place Nelson’s Young Minds in Social Worlds. Theoretically broad-ranging & clear, backed by a wealth of data, and seriously bent upon grasping the whole, it is very likely to remain the most important work in developmental psychology for quite some time, I feel.

Just perhaps, you might like to give it a go?


“Meaning sets the goals of the self-organizing system. The central cognitive component of the system is memory, which is organized in terms of meaning, derived from experience, and continuously recomposed by operations of the system. The basic unit of experience is the event, extracted from the experiential transactions guided by the search for meaning. This formula is in place in the mind even before birth, and serves the child throughout infancy, as critical aspects of neural development proceed, strengthening and expanding memory in the process. Thereafter, two major transitions take place, that change the nature of human cognition and communication. The first of these transitions involves the capacity for explication and externalization. This capacity is at the heart of what Donald identified as mimesis [and] it enables the individual to represent in internal and external form aspects of what is conserved in the meaning memory. Prior to this development, all memory is what memory theorists refer to as implicit memory, which guides action and perception, but is not consciously accessible, and cannot be voluntarily called up out of the context of its relevance and use. The first move toward a higher level is the voluntary recall that Donald attributed to mimesis, a move that essentially involves representing for the self in thought - a first level of representation.... [Moreover,] internal memory may not be reconstituted as internal representation before being externally expressed; instead the external form may be the basis for a newly composed internal representation, which then becomes part of the memory.... Either way, the significance of externalization is twofold. It invites the participation of a social partner and initiates changes that can lead to new content for the child to contemplate, and it enables the child to view the action anew, to reexperience it, and subject it to transformations and repetitions (practice). [However,] some parts of the memory system remain forever inaccessible to recall and representation. It may be that a first bifurcation of the system takes place in the transition from infancy to childhood, allowing some parts to be represented in a different form, while others - for example, pattern detectors - remain inaccessible to conscious thought, and manipulation. It may also be that the ability to visualize, or enact (or later, verbalize) a representation is what determines the possibility of intentional recall.”
(Nelson, pp.260-2)

“The second major transition takes place when symbolic representation becomes possible...[which] takes the child beyond the early, intimate social world, into the larger world of common culture, into time and space, beyond immediate experiential possibilities.... In Donald’s conception of the hybrid mind, a level of language representation supplements the earlier implicit and explicit levels of memory, and in turn supports the move to graphic symbolic representations at a still more powerful functional level. In this solution, language representations are not fused with other levels, nor do they override them; instead, they provide a separate level of representation and thought. In my reading, it is not the structure of language that constitutes this level, but symbol use itself.... From this perspective, meaning pervades this level, attaching itself to words and higher-level structures, in effect fusing symbol and meaning, as Vygotsky proposed. But meaning is also maintained at each of the other levels, in interconnections between them as well as in multiple interconnections (integrations) at the same level, [and] meanings may differ at each level, in terms of connections, degree of vagueness or articulateness, metaphoric possibilities, and so on.... What level reigns at any time depends on the function being served, and its usefulness to the current activity.”
(Nelson, pp.262-3)


John Henry Calvinist