The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

From The Social To The Personal

By studying the behavior of chimpanzees, the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky reached the conclusion that thought and speech originate from different processes, and then evolve in parallel but independently of each other. The close correspondence between thought and speech is unique to adult humans.

Children initially behave like chimpanzees: language and thought are unrelated (language is irrational, thought is nonverbal). They learn the names of objects only when told so. At some point the attitude changes: it is the child who becomes curious about the names of things. At that point the child's vocabulary increases dramatically, with much less coaching from adults. The child has learned that objects have names, or, equivalently, that one of the properties of an object is its name. At this point in the development of the child, thought and speech merge.

Vygotsky redrew Piaget's theory of egocentric speech (the kind of speech that ignores the rest of the world) in pre-school children. One generally becomes aware of her/his actions when they are interrupted. Speech is an expression of the process of becoming aware of one's actions. The egocentric child is no exception: its egocentric speech is the sign of a process of becoming aware after something disrupted the action underway. In other words, the child is thinking aloud. A few years later this process has become silent: when the child needs to find a solution to a problem, the "thinking" is no longer aloud, has become an inner conversation. When egocentric speech disappears, it still exists, but has moved inside. The reason it is no longer "vocal" is because it does not serve a social function anymore (it does not need to be heard by others).

According to Piaget, social speech follows egocentric speech, but Vygotsky believes that speech is originally social in nature, and egocentric speech is a specialization of it used when the child has to reflect. Egocentric speech is an evolution of social speech that eventually becomes silent thought. Cognitive faculties are internalized versions of social processes.

The unit of verbal thought is word meaning, which also represents the fusion of thought and speech. Adults and children use the same word to refer to the same object, but Vygotsky believes that the meanings are different. Vygotsky believes that the meanings of words evolve during childhood. Word meanings are dynamic, not static, entities.

Thought is therefore determined by language. And both are determined by society. Language provides a semiotic mediation of knowledge. Language guides the child's cognitive growth. Cognition thus develops in different ways depending on the cultural conditions.

Vygotsky thinks that higher mental functions, too, have social origins.

Language is a system of signs that the individual needs in order to interact with the environment and it is only after this that it is interiorized and can be utilized to express thought. The meaning of a word is initially a purely emotional fact. Only with time will it acquire a precise reference to an object and then an abstract meaning.

Child development is a sequence of stages that lead to the transformation of an interpersonal process into an intrapersonal process.

Children think by memorizing, while adults memorize by thinking. In children something is memorized, in adults the individual memorizes something. In the former case a link is created because of the simultaneous occurrence of two stimuli. In the latter case the individual creates that link. Remembering is transformed into an external activity. Humans are then able to influence their relation with the environment and through that environment change their own behavior. The mastering of nature and the mastering of behavior are interdependent.

Lev Vygotsky was also influential in understanding the importance of play for the development of social skills ("The role of play in development", 1930), an idea also elaborated by the British psychologist Ian Suttie ("The Origins of Love and Hate", 1935) and the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga (who spoke of "Homo Ludens"); as well as, in more recent times, by the US neurologist Paul MacLean and the Estonian psychologist Jaak Panksepp.


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