1. Development cannot be reduced to psychological development. r8p3po
No matter how much we are professionally trained in (cognitive) psychology,
we have to accept that, probably like no other field of research, the one of
development cannot escape the need of converging lines of research into a unified
framework, covering from neuroscience to anthropology.
There are even voices that suggest the need for training a future generation
of scientists (Johnson, 1997) in developmental neurobiology, cognitive development
and computational modeling, in order to be able reliably to approach the issues
of developmental changes. So, future neural network models that will simulate
the interaction of information processing with gene expression are more reliable
tools that will approach the issues of developmental changes. Models in which
interaction between information processing and gene expression can be simulated,
then compared to real neurobiological systems, are likely to be more adequate
and more informative about the contributions of heredity and environment (Johnson,
1997) in development.
The new emerging concept of “developmental cognitive neuroscience”
is exactly a sample of this new way of interdisciplinary thinking (Johnson &
Gilmore, 1996; Johnson, 1997). Not only the study of developmental change offers
an opportunity to trace the interrelationships between brain functioning and
cognitive processes, but it can also shed light on the neural basis of cognition
If we add to this approach a focus on evolutionary psychology, anthropology
and cross-cultural psychology, there are high chances to build a more comprehensive
foreseeable developmental science.
So, we advice any reader not to be “trapped” by the “cognitive”
level of analysis as it is present in the title of the workshop.
Corrolary: Cognition is not only “cold” cognition
The links between cognitive processes concerning pure physical entities and
those saturated in social cognition might be even stronger than we thought before.
So, although in this book there are included topics about hard-core cognitive
processes like categorization, there are also topics like temperament, defense
mechanisms, or social-emotional development.
2. Development should not be any longer dramatically opposed to “mature”
Developmental biology is more and more aware of the fact that even the concept
of development should be revised, as long as it becomes almost impossible to
find a clear point at which development ends and mature function begins. If
we look, for example, to molecular genetics, development is no longer distinct
from adult functioning because adulthood should no longer be considered the
static “terminus” point of development. We think that developmental
psychology should become aware of this lesson, too.
In other words, the so much invoked plasticity of infant brain and behavior
is no longer that unique as it has been claimed before. The adult neurogenesis
is a strong argument favouring this interpretation.
On the oher hand, there are studies suggesting that another basic assumption,
that of a basic network architecture of immature nervous systems undergoing
progressive maturation to acquire adult properties, might be also questioned.
The study of simpler organisms like Homarus gammarus, with only 30 neurons,
helped Le Feuvre, Fénelon & Mayrand (1999) to show that the embryonic
network, usually programmed to generate a single rhythmic pattern, can be programmed
to produce multiple adult-like programs, distinctively different from the single
output of the embryonic network. This was possible by removing the central inputs,
and the restoration of flow of information descending reversed the adult-like
pattern to the embryonic one.
The main implication of this study is that functional adult networks may therefore
not be necessarily derived from progressive ontogenetic changes in network themselves,
but may result from maturation of descending systems that unmask preexisting
adult networks in an embryonic system. Or this very mechanism contrasts with
already known ontogenetic mechanisms of progressive maturation of an embryonic
network involving a progressive acquisition of synaptic as well as intrinsic
properties of their constituent elements.
Would this kind of findings allow us to reconceptualize the findings about human
infant early abilities, which undergo extinction before they re-emerge months
later? Are we going to get a glimpse into the controversial issue of newborn
imitation, for example? Or such mechanisms would be proved to be limited to
A related theory on infant brain development (Johnson, 2000) goes on the same
direction of contradicting a pure maturationist, stage-like development, in
the virtue of so-called partial functioning of neural pathways. This new framework
suggests that cortical regions are not silent before they mature neuroanatomically,
but structural and functional changes in the cortex codevelop. In the first
weeks after birth many brain pathways are partially activated by task situations,
but most or all of the cortical pathways are unspecialized. Through competition,
cortical structures become “recruited” -; so they become localized
-; for computational functions in adults. So specialization progresses
from cortical output regions toward those closer to input structures. The main
implication of such a model is to figure out all cognitive acquisitions, including
the developmental ones, in terms of multiple competing representations engaged
by particular stimuli or task demands and competing to influence behavioral
3. Developmental issues are not only relevant for basic research -we can turn
basic developmental knowledge into practice.
As McCall and Groark (2000) have wittfully suggested, behavioral sciences concerned
with children, youth and families are in their late adolescence. A good prognosis
for anticipating how an applied developmental science may become a key means
through which behavioral and social scientists, and the universities that employ
them may serve people in the next century (Eccles, 1996) -; by integrating
research with actions that promote positive development and /or enhance the
life chances of vulnerable children and families. This way a “Science
for and of the people” (Lerner, Fisher & Weinberg, 2000), contributing
to social justice, becomes possible.
However, there are a couple of potential dangers facing this attempt of translating
fundamental into applied knowledge.
If we follow the exciting metaphor of Horowitz (2000), developmental science
has to build its message dedicated to the society as if this recipient would
be materialized in the “PITS”- the Person in the Street, a paraphrase
of the “TCPITS” - the Common Person in the Street -; of William
James. Who is this customer of psychological works? In a very simple definition,
is the one who wants simple answers to simple questions, who is really puzzled
by complex answers and has no patience in the faces of all nuances and qualifications
of contemporary theories of development.
The urgency for simple, coherent and quick solutions coming from developmental
theories is justifiable. Supplying exactly this kind of information without
discernment is quite risky, because very attractive materials might be provided,
yet contaminated with exaggeration and overgeneralization. For example, one
of the most common error of these popularization works is the one of claiming
the single-variable responsibility for developmental outcomes (only peers count,
not parents, only genes count, not the environment, for shyness as well as intelligence).
We have nowadays a large database of empirical data, as well as theoretical
perspectives on development, ranging from neurosciences to anthropology, which
hopefully will become unified one day. Till that day, we have the duty of teaching
the PITS to ask less simple questions and of teaching ourselves to communicate
what we know and what are the limits of our knowledge. For example, terms like
genes, innate, acquired have to be carefully used, in order to inform, but not
oversimplify reality, thus limiting experience and opportunity of children.
The concluding phrase of the authors of Rethinking Innateness (Elman et al.,
1998) is highly responsible in this respect “If our careless, under-specified
choice of words inadvertently does damage to future generations of children,
we cannot turn with innocent outrage to the judge and say ‘But your Honor,
I didn’t realize the word was loaded’ (apud Horowitz, 2000).
From this perspective, apparently radical conclusions have to be correctly understood
- like that of John Bruer, the president of James S. McDonnell Foundation (which
supports research in neuroscience and cognition) in “The myth of the first
three years. A new understanding of early brain development and lifelong learning”
-; saying that none of the already available studies support the idea of
a privileged life period in infancy. More specifically, he argues that the current
state of knowledge of early development does not yet provide the basis for social
This is not to say that, if currently there is still equivocal evidence for
positive effects of early “enrichment”, that could promote optimal
brain development, it is not clear that for developmental disorders early diagnosis
and intervention may be more valuable than later in life. For example, even
deficits in the development of attentional networks may be used in early detection
of attention deficit disorder (Berger & Posner, in press) and other abnormalities
So, development, especially early development, should remain in the first line
of research. We know that the human infant has the longest period of dependence
upon caregivers of any mammal, during which he must gain control of his behavior
and mental state. The slow progression of self control in early life allows
society to influence the child’s own control mechanisms through socialization.
Yet the acquisition of these regulatory mechnisms relies on a complex interaction
between biology and socialization, prolonged even later into adolescence and
adulthood, providing a basis for what is attempted in therapy (Posner &
Rothbart, 1998). We belive that this conclusion should be generalized to other
aspects of human development, beyond higher level attention. In light of these,
the first years of life are crucial because what is learned during that interval
provides the foundation for all subsequent learning and experience.
Yet, in order to corectly transmit knowledge from the academy to the worlds
of social policy and human service one has to respect a couple of criteria -;
the taxonomy proposed by Shonkoff (2000) being one of the most operational ones.
He distinguishes between established knowledge, defined by the scientific community,
highly rigurous yet relatively limited in volume; reasonable hypotheses, generated
by scientists, policymakers and practitioners, that advance knowledge, have
a greater flexibility yet are theoretically limitless; and unwarranted assertions,
that can be propagated by anyone and are quite far from the boundaries of established
knowledge, being at the extremes misinterpretations of the state-of-the-arte
in science. On example of the last would be to conclude that children who are
abused or wittness violence undergo ireversible changes in their developing
brains, resulting in permanent emotional damage and inevitable violent behavior
later in life. A more responsible message for the public would be that, in the
light of present neurobiological and developmental data, early maltreatment
and violence should be considered in the framework of “prevention is better
than treatment, earlier is better than later, and it’s never too late
to make a difference”.
AN OPEN WAY FOR BRIDGING THE GAP BETWEEN FUNDAMENTAL RESEARCH AND PRACTICAL
There are a couple of strategies that might be taken into account when we foresee
a way of merging basic and applied knowledge domains.
I. First, we might think of applied developmental research.
Three ways of doin applied developmental research have been proposed (Schwebel,
Plumert and Pick, 2000):
1) to discuss the implications of basic research for applied issues.
There are already a couple of tentatives in this respect, like taking the representational
changes as a framework when considering the questioning of young children about
alleged sexual abuse incidents (DeLoache, Miller & Rosengren, 1997) or when
considering childen’s suggestibility before trials (Welch-Ross, Diecidue
& Miller, 1997) or even more interesting links like that between children’s
difficulty with using three-dimensional objects as symbols and impediments in
using manipulatives in math learning (Uttal, Scudder and DeLoache, 1997).
The second way of integration for basic and applied research is
2) to ground applied research in basic developmental findings and theory
Good examples of this kind of approaches are the extension of research and theory
on parental scaffolding to the improvement of children’s mathematical
skills (Shumow, 1998) or the use of ecological models that postulate a complex
interplay among the individual, the family and other contexts in understanding
risk factors for social abuse (Emery & Laumann-Billings, 1998).
Recently a third strategy of integration has emerged
3) to conduct basic research in the context of an applied problem
This strategy address the role of basic psychological processes in some type
of problem behavior.
For example, Ornstein and his collegues have studied the development of memory
abilities in the context of children’s eyewitness testimony (Baker-Ward
et al., 1993, Greenhoot et al., 1999, Ornstein et al., 1998). In the same spirit
Plumert and his collegues have examined children’s ability to judge affordances
in the context of unintentional injuries (Plumert, 1995, Plumert & Schwebel,
1997, Schwebel & Plumert, 1999) -; assessing basic developmental changes
as well as individual differencies in children’s judgements as related
to injury proneness.
II. Intervention programms and social policies
Another strategy is that of testing hypotheses derived from fundamental research
throuh interventions on reality.
One generic example of this kind is the research on how modifications in children’s
relationships with family, school, community can reduce adolescence problems,
the results being considered as answers to questions related to developmental
dynamics or gene-environment relationships.
This way social policies and intervention programms are real natural experiments
- planned interventions dedicated to institutions or individuals. The assessment
of such activities become the main target of developmental research.
It is a basic shift because this way programms and politics are not only collateral
secondary implications of basic research but part of the research itself.
The aims of such interventions are not only to reduce problem behaviors, to
prevent problems and to promote health and positive behaviors, but mainly to
promote “outreach” -; making value-added contriutions to community
III. Focus groups/work groups
The third strategy regards co-involvment of researchers and practitioners in
order to answer the specific problems of the community.
Stronger links between academics and non-academic partners will make research
not any longer top-down oriented, having community only as a target of investigations.
Different sources of information (laboratory research, natural experiments,
conselling, observation of behavior in different contexts) can offer much more
valid answers to hard questions like those concerning the applicability of research
Fragment din New trends in development and cognition, O. Benga, M. Miclea, “Development
and Cognition” (editori O. Benga, M. Miclea, Presa Universitara Clujeana,