Levels of Cognitive Development

Levels of Cognitive Development

Levels of Cognitive Development

Levels of Cognitive Development


The proposed levels theory presented in this book concerns some developmental changes in the capacity to selectively encode information and provide rational solutions to problems. These changes are measured by the behavior exhibited in simple discrimination-learning problems that allow both for information to be encoded either selectively or nonselectively and for solutions to be produced by associative learning or by hypothesis-testing.

The simplicity of these problems permits comparisons between infrahuman and human performance and also between a wide range of ages among humans. Human adults presented with these problems typically encode the relevant information selectively and solve the problems in a rational mode. Infrahuman animals, however, typically process the information nonselectively and solve the problems in an automatic, associative mode. How human children encode the information and solve the problems depends on their age. The youngest children -- like the infrahuman animals -- mostly encode the information nonselectively and solve the problems in the associative mode. But between early childhood and young adulthood there is a gradual, long-term, quantifiable increase in the tendency to encode the information selectively and to solve the problem by testing plausible hypotheses.

The theory explains in some detail the structure, function, development, and operation of the psychological system that produces both the ontogenetic and phylogenetic differences. This system is assumed to be differentiated into an information-processing system and an executive system analogous to the differentiation of the nervous system into afferent and efferent systems. Each of these systems is further differentiated into structural levels, with the higher level, in part, duplicating the function of the lower level, but in a more plastic, voluntary, and efficient manner. The differentiation of the information-processing and executive systems into different functional levels is presumed to have occurred sometime during the evolution of mankind with the higher level evolving later than the lower one as the central nervous system became increasing encephalized. As for human ontogeny, the higher levels are assumed to develop later and more slowly than their lower-level counterparts.

In addition to accounting for a substantial body of empirical data, the theory resolves some recurrent controversies that have bedeviled psychology since its inception as a science. It accomplishes this by showing how information can be both nonselectively and selectively encoded, how automatic associative learning and rational problem-solving can operate in harmony, and how cognitive development can be both qualitative and quantitative.


There is a Zen principle that says there are big truths and small truths, and the way you tell the difference is this: The denial of a small truth is clear false, but the denial of a big truth is also true.

-- Anonymous

Since its inception as a science, psychology has been bedeviled by four recurring, fundamental, unresolved controversies. Are living organisms passive recipients or active interpreters of the information they receive from the environment? Does behavior consist of automatic responses to specifiable conditions or intentional actions based on rational decisions? Is cognitive development essentially qualitative or quantitative? Is cognitive development a function of innate or environmental determinants?

Recurrent controversies like these will continue to plague our science until we recognize that each side is a "big truth whose denial is also true." The developmental theory proposed here has, as its broadest purpose, the provision of a paradigm for the resolution of each controversy by incorporating both sides in a levels-of-function format that allows ostensibly incompatible versions of the "big truths" to coexist harmoniously. The narrower purpose is to explain certain objective, empirical facts -- "small truths" -- about developmental changes in basic aspects of cognition, namely the capacity to abstract information and the capacity to provide rational solutions to problems. The general premises of this theory and the nature of the supporting empirical evidence are broadly outlined at the outset in order to sketch in the whole picture before fleshing out some of the requisite manifold particulars.

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