In previous weeks we have seen how various theories conceptualise the origins and development of the personality, particularly in terms of gender and sexual identity. We have discussed how psychotherapists have taken up these accounts to address the complex ways in which the traumas and lessons of childhood inform adult behaviours and psychopathology, particularly in relation to the transference relationship.
This week’s reading builds on that discussion by looking at the work of another psychologist, Jean Piaget. If Freud can be seen as the father of ‘depth psychology’, then Piaget is the first cognitive psychologist. Cognitive psychologists study human thought processes, the way we process information and solve both practical and theoretical problems. Piaget provides an account – what he calls a ‘genetic epistemology’ of the way cognition develops in the human infant, based on detailed observation of his own and other children. In a series of studies, published from the mid 1920’s onwards, Piaget analyses how children develop ideas like sameness and difference, living, dead and inert, property, causality, morality and fairness. His books provide fascinating insights into how much we take for granted in formulating our understanding of the world. They are fascinating primary texts and merit further reading. What follows is a very basic account of some of them.
Piaget identifies four stages in cognitive development. These are:
1. Sensori-motor stage.
From birth to age two. The chiild experiences the world through movement and their five senses. During the sensorimotor stage children are extremely egocentric, meaning they cannot perceive the world from others’ viewpoints. The sensorimotor stage is divided into six substages:
I. Simple reflexes;
From birth to one month old. At this time infants use reflexes such as chewing and sucking.
II. First habits and primary circular reactions;
From one month to four months old. During this time infants learn to coordinate sensation and two types of schema (habit and circular reactions). Primary circular reactions occur when the infant tries to reproduce an event that previously happened by accident (eg: thumb sucking).
III. Secondary circular reactions;
From four to eight months old. At this time they become aware of things beyond their own body; they are more object-oriented. At this time they might accidentally shake a rattle and continue to do so for their own gratification.
IV. Coordination of secondary circular reactions;
From eight months to twelve months old. During this stage they can do things intentionally. They can now combine and recombine schemata and try to reach a goal (ex.: use a stick to reach something). They also begin to understand what cognitive psychologists call object permanence during this stage ie: that objects continue to exist even when they can’t see them.
V. Tertiary circular reactions, novelty, and curiosity;
From twelve months old to eighteen months old. During this stage infants explore new possibilities with the objects they manipulate – they try different things to get different results.
VI. Internalization of schemata – the child develops basic conceptual schemas that can be articulated in language in the second stage.
Pre-operational stage. This starts when the child begins to learn to speak in basic sentences involving nouns and verbs around 18 months to age two and goes on to about six or seven. At this stage children do not yet understand concrete logic and cannot mentally manipulate information formally but they can play and imagine although they can not extend this to seeing things from different points of view. Piaget calls this egocentrism. In the mountain experiment, Piaget asks children to imagine what they would be able to see from the other side of the mountain – at the pre-operational stage they are severely challenged by this. Contemporary theories of autism take up this question of in times of ideas of ‘theory of mind’ – the assumption that other people have minds which are similar but not identical to our own, and which may have access to different information, particularly that based on context The Preoperational Stage is divided into two substages:
From two to four years of age children find themselves using symbols to represent physical models of the world around them. This is demonstrated through a child’s drawing of their family in which people are not drawn to scale. Accuracy is not yet an issue!
From about four onwards, children become very curious and begin to reason things out for themselves through repetitive and imaginative play. Piaget called this the “intuitive substage” because children start to develop a huge number of concepts and assumptions without explicit training or knowledge as to how these arise. They become intrigued, for example, in whether or not a given volume of a liquid remains the same, irrespective of the container that it is poured into (conservation) or that certain changes are irreversible – the effect of fire for example. From these the child is beginning to develop simple ideas of cause and effect.
From six or seven, children can now conserve and think logically (they understand conservation and reversibility for example) in relation to physical objects and concrete procedures – although not in relation to abstract concepts. They can show another child how to tie a shoe lace, for example – but find it much more challenging to explain how to tell the time (even if they can now read a clock).
From about ten onwards, children develop abstract (formal) thought. They are ready to reason and to predict the outcomes of hypothetical events. They become able to discuss what is meant by fairness or justice (as opposed to simply following rules) and to discuss questions like “What would happen if the world was invaded by aliens?” or “What would happen if we got rid of money?”
Piaget’s chronology has been questioned by subsequent psychologists who often argue that he over estimates the age at which children reach each stage, but the stages themselves remain very much of contemporary cognitive theory. They have also pointed out how regression to a previous stage can often characterise cognitive function particularly under stress – just as psychoanalysts have identified regression from genitality to oral fixations or the anal stage.
In the fascinating paper that follows
John Swan and Alastair Hull use a Piagetian model of cognitive development to analyse how regressive forms of thinking are characteristic of chronic depression and how they emerge and can be treated in the transference with the therapist. It shows the significance of working with transference, whether or not the therapist has a psychodynamic perspective.
Please read the paper so that we can then discuss it in more detail.
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Our complete Diploma Course is a genuine, validated post graduate programme (ADHP recipients are eligible for direct entry to the MA in Counselling and Psychotherapy Practice at Bath Spa University with 90 Credits APL.