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Down the Rabbit Hole
Paul Kiritsis, PsyD candidate, DPhil., MA (Psychology), MA (History)

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Human Development: Life in the Context of Piaget's Stages of Cognitive Development

Paul Kiritsis - Saturday, January 31, 2015


If psychobiological research is to be believed, then the dynamic experiences of early attachment are encoded by the immature brain after birth as implicit memories. Consequently there aren’t many formative engrams competing for remembrance or conscious awareness in a mature adult, save for when their quality is value laden, charged with ebullient emotion, and deeply meaningful. Both empirical science and personal experience declare that traumatic separation from primary attachment figures cleaves treacherous land mines into our neural hardware. These, it seems, are likely to implode when subsequent environmental contingencies closely mimic or replicate the original traumatic event. I, myself, can only recall two such instances, both involving the adaptive response bequeathed to us by natural selection called fight-flight-or-freeze and self-preservation. The first involved being torn from the grasp of my beloved mother; the second getting lost in a rambunctious crowd in the middle of a shopping center.

According to my Hellenistic parents my core characterological traits manifested during the first few years of my development–Jean Piaget’s sensory-motor, pre-verbal stage. While object permanence may have been a fixed feature of my cognitive furniture back then, it never confounded parental convictions that I was indeed an inwardly-turned, inquisitive, and unobtrusive infant with a natural predilection for structure and meaning-making imposed and mediated by multiple attachment figures. Even though my language centers were largely unformed and my semantic capacities non-existent, my mother professes that there was never a time when I didn’t listen to verbalized instructions and commands. Machinery and railroad cars pushed by locomotive engines held my proto-attention for more protracted periods than what was expected (I loved Thomas the Tank Engine), and nothing was able to placate and sooth me as much as an extended trip into the beautiful countryside, or so I’m told. Frequently my mother and grandmother would narrate popular Greek tragedies, myths, and folktales from imported books, and I would spontaneously fixate upon the pictures and point towards the protagonists. My parents are convinced that I was born equipped with a love for literature and learning. They also believed the sphere of my forming personality encompassed the aesthetic and hedonic, for on innumerable occasions they bore witness to my little fingers running up, down, and between the crocheted lace and satin edge borders of my blankets, as if I were really relishing the smooth texture.   

The inauguration of Piaget’s pre-operational representation (2-7yrs) involves a swift detonation in language and locomotion, launching the child into the consensual physical and social worlds. Here, the maturation of the limbic structures, the amygdala and hippocampus, as well as the higher cortical structures enable explicit memory systems to organize semantic, sensory, and motor information within personalized episodes and narratives. These exist as subconscious repositories and are available to conscious recall. My father says that at three years of age I would ignore calls of my name because I was so absorbed in my perambulations and explorations of the house. I spoke at one and a half; I could recite the entire alphabet without any misnomers by the time I turned three; and I could also write my name at three. The absence of conservation was of no detriment to my powerful attachments, particular the love and adoration I held towards my father who would furtively sneak out of the house early on Sunday mornings before I could awake and devise emotional machinations to stall him. On the same note my primary attendances at kindergarten were permeated with traumatic affect for two very valid reasons: I suffered from severe separation anxiety and could not understand the English language. Both my parents affirm that my colors of choice have always been the iridescent blues and greens; that I was constantly writing and drawing; and that sometime after four I developed an unusual fixation with African palm trees which expressed itself as a constant need to play around them, to reach out and touch their fronds, and to draw them with coloured Derwent pencils. “Something about their shape really captivated you,” my mother says. Their recollections spurred first-person memories–I actually remembered…

At seven I moved into Piaget’s concrete operational stage (7-10yrs) whereby the continued evolution of higher order neural structures like the prefrontal cortex makes possible the wonders of rational analysis and internal computation. According to Piaget children in this developmental phase can “think” before engaging in social interaction. Both the anecdotes told by my parents and the continuum of explicit memories associated with those periods of my life swear that I was the scheming and conspiring type. At eight I had the gumption to switch the deteriorating batteries of my train set with newer ones belonging to my dear cousin when nobody was looking; at nine I was unwrapping Christmas presents brought for the entire family by relatives, picking out the most interesting and appealing ones, and then claiming them as my own; and at eleven I was threatening to shift the gearstick of my dad’s thrifty Kingswood from parking to reverse if my cousins capitulated to a frivolous ruse. I also “thought” about it for a while before joining the school choir and dancing group along with martial arts training.

At about eleven moral reasoning and hypothetical thinking appeared, a phase Piaget calls formal or hypothetic-deductive operations. This phenomenon worked to my advantage, for the most part. I excelled at school, practiced karate, and fed my innate introversion with hours in front of the television soaking documentaries on history, adventure travel, and natural science; popular Hollywood flicks; and Disney cartoons. More significantly, the internal narratives relating to my own identity and self-definition served as potent catalysts for neural network integration occurring within the associational areas of my frontal, temporal, and parietal lobes. I entertained grandiose fibs about the Midas touch of my gold-plated fingers and when behaviors and their underlying intents didn’t spontaneously turn to gold, I would rationalize the phenomenal incongruence in the context of external attributions. The reason for losing at tennis or soccer had nothing to do with the formidable play of the opposition, but rather because I, myself, had performed at subpar levels.

Yep, that was me!

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