Academic journal article The Psychoanalytical Study of the Child

Emerging Adulthood and Nonlinear Dynamic Systems Theory

Academic journal article The Psychoanalytical Study of the Child

Emerging Adulthood and Nonlinear Dynamic Systems Theory

Article excerpt

In the last twenty years contemporary developmental researchers and theorists have studied the many complex nonlinear factors that contribute to a child's development. Research in neuropsychology (Edelman 1987), the development of cognition (Thelen and Smith 1994; Spencer et al. 2007), motor development (Corbetta and Thelen 1996), socioemotional development (Lewis, Lamey, and Douglas 1999), and psychological development in middle childhood (Knight 2005, 2011) has shown that development is a complex interaction of the dynamic systems of the brain, the body, and the environment that are continually in flux. This continuous interaction produces a complex interplay of systems that are fluid, variable, function driven, flexible, and nonlinear-leading to emergent development. During these periods of growth there are times of significant disorganization in which structural systems break down and reorganize in transformational ways. This is the central thesis of nonlinear developmental systems theory.

Whereas it is easy to see the linear growth through infancy, childhood, adolescence, and emerging adulthood to becoming an independent adult, these papers underscore the features of nonlinear development that takes place within emerging adulthood and pulls development forward in this age group. The passage through emerging adulthood to adulthood is a time of continuous flux and change, different in its system changes than any period of development before it. Although most progressive brain and body developments that are hieratically based have occurred by the end of adolescence, individuals in this developmental age group still have to cope with the interplay of their biology, psychology, and culture that determine adult life choices, and every emerging adult will have his or her own particular way of assembling the variables of biology, psychology, and the environment.

This view does not eliminate the linearity seen from one developmental phase to another. Developmental progression takes a linear path when observing it on a broad scale. For instance, we all know that development generally proceeds in a linear way from infancy to childhood to adolescence and adulthood. As Thelen and Smith (1994) put it, "Development is linear and quantitative, as growth is always incremental. At the same time, development is also nonlinear and qualitative, since complexity invokes new forms and abilities."

These papers on emerging adulthood describe a developmental phase that, as Miller and Shulman note in their papers, is one of transition-influenced more by culture, environment, and psychology than biology. Cultural influences affect education, work, and relationship decisions after adolescence, as well as gender choices; and psychological factors influence how successfully the phase of emerging adulthood can be traversed (Arnett 2015; Shulman, this issue). Brain development in the twenty- to thirty-year-old age group, although no longer changing at the rate it did from infancy through adolescence, allows for the formation of more mature judgment and executive functioning, which leads to the reliability and consistency of behavior present in mature adults (Taber-Thomas and Perez-Edgar 2015).

I briefly summarize each of the papers and then bring their central contribution into the framework of nonlinear dynamic systems theory. Stambler's and Miller's papers note that emerging adulthood is a developmental stage that is conceptualized differently depending on the culture of the time, and how different scholars and theories track this stage of development.

Attending to the here and now time in each particular culture through the centuries, Stambler delineates the changes in culture and environment that influenced the periods of adolescence, emerging adulthood, and early adulthood. In the hunter-gatherer culture, slow male development in early adolescence allowed the boys to practice skills longer and protected them from potentially fatal conflict with male adults. …

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