Double-Helix: A New Model of Developmental Psychology

Double-Helix:  A New Model of Developmental Psychology

Peter A. Kirkup, LCSW

During the 30 years of my clinical community based social work practice, I have used this model as a template for bio-psycho-social-spiritual assessment and systemic treatment planning in my direct practice as well as my clinical supervision and program development, training, teaching and administration.

The model presented here makes the explicit assumption that learning and development are intuitive and spontaneous processes that involve both the conscious and subconscious minds in social interactions.  First, I will put the model in a brief historical context, then describe the main features of the model.  Next I will outline the main contents of the model, finally comparing the model to the ideas of Piaget and highlighting the main benefits of the model.

Models of Change in Development

Humans have always attempted to make sense of the world in order to predict and influence matters of relevance to survival and happiness.  Over time, different models of change have implicitly or explicitly dominated prognostications.  The first models were circular, based on the recurrence of seasons in the agricultural cycle.  As civilizations advanced, linear models became more prominent (particularly in the “West”) in order to account for developments beyond the revolving changes in the circular model.  But linear progression becomes hard to maintain or justify as an accurate model given the twists and turns of development and regressions in the normative progression.  Two models appear to address these contradictions:  the ladder (or staircase) model (which provide foot-holds to prevent severe regression and resting places on the way up) and the vertical spiral model (which incorporates “twists and turns” into the pattern).  Most models of developmental psychology in recent decades are explicitly or implicitly based on the vertical spiral model, tracing consciousness and cognition through the stages and levels (thus incorporating the “ladder” model) as the mind becomes more complex and mature.

This is good, as far as it goes.  But the problem with the vertical spiral is that it can be dis-orienting in the sense that as one moves up it and revolves on the way up, there is an impulse to “look over one’s shoulder” to see what lurks there.  To me, this is a metaphor for the subconscious, and it occurred to me early in my developmental research that a second side to the model would help to track the subconscious information in the developmental process (also referred to as implicit “background” in relation to the explicit  “foreground” of consciousness).  Thus, a double spiral, or double-helix, model is suggested.

But as I sorted this out, I came across an interesting feature:  when tracking the conscious and subconscious sides, it became apparent that there were two types of conscious strands and two types of subconscious strands, and that, at certain junctures of development, they switch places in a recurrent pattern (more circles within the larger pattern).  Those two types are affirmation and negation.  Here is how they work:

Affirmation and Negation

The double-helix model outlines four ways of knowing reality, identified as realms of awareness.  The term “realm” is meant to capture the all-encompassing quality of the experience:  we operate within a realm like a fish swims in water.  By contrast, a domain or sphere can be pictured as a discretely separate thing or domain.

But there are limitations implicit to any way of knowing.  So, first, there is an affirmation of a new way of knowing, and then the negation of the omniscience of that way of knowing.  Here is where we get into the real dynamics of the double-helix:  affirmation and negation are the thesis and antithesis, the yin and yang of the model.  At first affirmation is explicit with the person having a new way of understanding the world.  Negation is implicit at first as the person explores this new understanding, inevitably coming across the limitations of the new understanding.  Then negation becomes explicit while a new affirmation becomes implicit.

My way into understanding these dynamics was through studying what I call “cognitive emotions” (emotions that are shaped by cognitions such as shame and guilt), with affirmation being initiated by “inspiration” as a way of savoring the world, and negation being initiated by “confusion” as the need for self-regulation becomes apparent.  We thereby learn “savoring skills” first (our abilities to enjoy reality) and “coping skills” (our abilities to adjust to reality by regulating our behaviors, thoughts and emotions) in the aftermath.  This is the relationship of consciousness and self-consciousness — the first is the basis, the second is subsidiary to help maintain the basis.  Once the limits of this maintenance are explored, a new basis emerges.  (For an analysis of the similarities and differences with Piaget’s model, see the discussion at the end of this article.)

Each new way of knowing the world and subsequently the self go through three stages of development:  formation, when the new way is first realized; comparison, when two or more formed ideas are compared; and relation, when the ideas become coordinated in a system.

Let us now consider the contents of the model.

A brief description of the four realms and their accompanying spheres of self-consciousness will be presented here with normed age approximations.  These realms are embedded rather than separate ways of knowing and therefore continue to add to our experience after we have entered a new realm (albeit more tacitly).

The model reads from bottom to top with affirmation and negation moving alternately clock-wise and counter-clockwise as they emerge from the subconscious into consciousness and submerge back again.

Imaginal (0 to 9 months):  Infants first know the world through the images formed by their senses — they learn how to “pick things out” with their eyes, their ears, their tongues and noses and fingers.  As more of the world becomes familiar and they bond with their care-giver, infants come to realize unfamiliar things as “strange.”  With the advent of “stranger anxiety” (approximately 9 months of age), infants use their growing physical abilities to seek out the familiar and avoid the unfamiliar.  They prefer to explore the unfamiliar from the secure base of their bond with their care-giver.  Self-consciousness in this realm focuses on the self as agent of actions that have immediate results (9 months to 18 months).

Symbolical (18 months to 3 1/2 years) Infants in the imaginal realm learn how to imitate the words used by those around them before they understand the symbolical power of words.  Once children understand the symbolical nature of words, they enter a whole new realm with new powers.  Words are very effective tools children use to help them get what they want and need (which helps explain the happy tyranny often referred to as the “terrible twos”).  The fact that most children get through their terrible twos between three and four years of age without significant trauma is a testament to the patience and persistence of most parents.  As a result, children shift from using language to control others to internalizing language to control themselves.  While doing so, children learn modesty, manners, subjective verbs and counter-factual sentences.  Self-consciousness in this realm focuses on the self as a subject whose experience is different from the experience of others:  Junior wants Mommy to clean up after him, but Mommy wants Junior to clean up after himself (3 1/2 years to 7 years).

Cultural (7 years to 12 years) Children and youth in the cultural realm are learning how to be contributing members of society.  Around age seven children start to apply the self-control they have learned to engage in culturally relevant and expected performances.  In the “concrete operations” phase (seven to twelve years old) children become increasingly agile at performing increasingly complex routines of various types (anything from multiplication tables to gymnastic routines).  Their focus is on gaining the approval and admiration of others (“Look at me!  Look what I can do!”).  Children who are competent and successful at these tasks tend to have excessively high self-esteem.  Puberty is usually sufficient to derail that, but not always.  The abstract abilities of “formal operations” and its associated self-consciousness shifts the focus from “how good are you at doing that?” to “how good is it to do that?”  Actions become evaluated by principles and not living up to principles engenders a sense of guilt.  On top of this, principles sometimes contradict each other.  All of this contributes to the notoriously low self-esteem of many adolescents.  Self-consciousness in this realm focuses on the self as character that is stronger or weaker than others (12 years to adulthood).

Spiritual (18 years to death):  Adults in the spiritual realm are shifting from “either/or” formal logic to “both/and” systemic logic.  It is the difference between a closed, formal system, and an open, dialogic system.  This is generally in line with “dialectical thinking” research, some of which tends to be overly complex and jargon-laden (e.g. Basseches, 1984). Remember, this is a development born of inspiration:  we belong to the universe and therefore are inter-dependent and should be grateful to one another.  If this doesn’t put a smile on your face we are not talking about the same thing.  The adult realizes this as a mature attitude that cannot be maintained naively and must be ready to cope flexibly with life’s challenges.  Ultimately, no matter how well life treats a person, the limit on this spiritual way of knowing reality is death itself.  And for those that life treats harshly, the ability to maintain a life-affirming stance in the face of evil is a form of spiritual self-preservation.  Self-consciousness in this realm focuses on the self as a steward of creation, both a creature and a co-creator, who can discern the difference between humility and humiliation, salvaging the time for others while sacrificing the self for the common good.

Note:  The spiritual realm is based on spiritual knowledge.  This does not mean that children and youth cannot experience spirituality in life:  the bright eyed smile of the infant bonding with his mother is an implicitly spiritual experience, but the infant does not have spiritual knowledge per se.  Generally, the natural curiosity and wonder of children is spiritual in the intuitive sense, and empathy at all ages speaks to our spiritual bonds.  Indeed, our very capacity for joy may be rooted in inspiration and the spiritual aspect of life — intuitive people have a subconscious awareness of this more than some of their peers.  It is not a sentimental notion that joy is inherent in life– the literal and emotional labors of mothers attests to this hard truth.  In the end, it is not individuation, alienation, or autonomy that matters, but rather belonging, meaning and bliss (see David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God:  Being, Consciousness, Bliss).

Developmental Challenges and Adaptive Responses

Outlined below are the developmental challenges presented at each level of development and the adaptive responses that lead to continued social and emotional growth.  It has similarities to Erik Erikson’s model, but differs in various ways (such as having two stages in infancy — image and agent — whereas Erikson one — basic trust vs. mistrust).

Imaginal Realm:  Initially the challenge for the infant is life itself — for the infant to thrive it must adhere to life.  If the infant’s body or environment are too unhealthy, it can fail to thrive (even with a lack of caregiver bonding, first described by James Bowlby as “hospitalism”).

Next the infant uses the caregiver attachment as a base to explore the unfamiliar and possibly unsafe world.  In order to do this the infant needs to be able to “go to” the unfamiliar and “get back” to the caregiver as an agent.  The infant now can begin to regulate the fight or flight instinct and face fear with wariness as a way to learn about the unfamiliar.

Symbolical Realm:  Language brings the child into the social world of family and visitors where the child has a “place” to belong.  It is important for the child to persevere in learning language and other skills to thrive in the newly symbolic world.  Parents should “bathe” their child in language to boost her learning and ability to belong.

Next the child learns that his impulsiveness and the expectations of self-regulation (clothing, toilet-training) create challenges to belonging that generate shame.  Through the internalization of language, the child learns how to “stop and think” in order not to be rude or an embarrassment. These self-control skills are crucial to life-long social success (generally referred to as “executive skills”).

Cultural Realm:  School age children who have sufficient self-control skills can shift their attention to fulfilling the roles they take or are given.  These roles require that the child promise to learn how to be competent at the tasks involved and promise to perform those tasks when required by the role (e.g. a student promises his parent to do his homework).  Children are “enculturated” into these roles and learn them by trusting a mentor.  These performances are “concrete operations” — the child has no way of evaluating her performance outside the standards of the performance itself. Other ways of doing things are generally considered the “wrong way.”  Children are learning inductive reasoning at this time — generalizing from the particular.

Next the adolescent discovers that a perfectly competent performance can be wrong because it is evaluated in a different context.  For instance, someone who is good at tricks on the bicycle and who might be applauded for winning a competition is likely to get a different response doing the same tricks on a crowded side-walk.  He may be sure of his skills to avoid hitting anyone, but others are likely to be startled and could have an accident because of the unexpected distraction.  Without a sense of guilt and skepticism of one’s own motives and without developing character, “performance artists” tend to become self-centered and thoughtless or dismissive of others.  The abstract skills of “formal operations” allows youth to evaluate their assumptions and beliefs as theories and conceptions rather than as final and absolute truths.  In a similar way, trust in individual mentors can be challenged or broken by disappointments or betrayals.  Young people are learning deductive reasoning, arriving at particular conclusions based on abstract principles.

Spiritual Realm:  Adults who have established a stable identity and a trustworthy character are often burdened by the demands of their own conscience and inflexible problem-solving styles.  This is where the “intuition of being” (Jacques Maritain) and gratitude (David Steindl-Rast) become life-savers because when a person doesn’t take anything for granted, everything becomes a gift to be grateful for. This allows one to have faith in humanity even when trust in an individual has been lost.  It also allows one to entertain, or be entertained by, multiple perspectives which can then help with more imaginative and flexible problem-solving styles, and more harmonious relations.  One learns how to be more giving without being taken advantage of.  Adults are learning abductive reasoning at this time (see Fann). — finding patterns between different sets of considerations.

In the end, we ultimately come up against the final limit, death, no matter how spiritual we have become.  At the same time many experience the living death of oppression, imprisonment and torture.  In these circumstances, a strong-hearted spirituality helps provide the discernment to maintain a sense of humor, perceive who is a friend and who is an enemy or untrustworthy, and project forgiveness as a difficult reality and not as just wishful thinking. Regrets are faced with the perspective that “the only sadness is the sadness of not being a saint” (Peguy), establishing a spiritual resilience that isn’t hampered by unnecessary fear, shame and guilt.  We can see this resilience in the examples of Nelson Mandela (victim of apartheid) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (victim of the Nazis).

The Double-Helix Model and Piaget’s Genetic Epistemology

Many researchers have followed Jean Piaget’s theory of genetic epistemology and its associated concepts of assimilation and accommodation, and the constructivist perspective on the development of logical reasoning, without sufficient critical review.  The double-helix model opens it up to critical review, extrapolation, and development.

Piaget identified assimilation with Freud’s pleasure principle and accommodation with Freud’s reality principle (see Vygotsky, 1986, pg. 262).  Although this is similar to affirmation (savoring) and negation (coping), there are significant differences.  Piaget thinks of accommodation as slowly replacing assimilation as the egocentric child becomes more objective (a gradualist model) — at the same time that the developing person is “de-centering” their perspective they are also “dis-embodying” their thought (making it more abstract — what Kohlberg called “de-ontologizing,” or removing the content, from the process analysis).

In contrast, the double-helix pattern has four phases of accommodation where what is being assimilated is the coping skills themselves (the person is self-consciously focussing on how she is going to cope rather than on the savoring goal that the coping is meant to successfully achieve).  First, the infant, attracted to sensory images, learns she needs to move herself as an agent to obtain what she wants.  Next, the young child, now using language, learns that he is a subject of experience different from others’ experiences, and needs to be thoughtful of what he says and where he does private things.  Further on, the adolescent, having learned to master some of the important performances that comprise their culture, learns that she will be judged by the content of her character — how she balances self-discipline and self-indulgence (and all the other polarities that confuse the adolescent).  Finally, the adult that has gained a spiritual perspective of gratitude will at some point find himself needing to apply the spiritual discernment that is necessary to have good judgment without being judgmental and maintain a life-affirming attitude in the face of adversity.  In Piaget’s model, abstract formal operations are the end point — in the double-helix model, formal operations are one domain of character development which is later subsumed under spirituality (if that is achieved).

In the larger picture, Piaget’s epistemology is stuck in the Kantian assumption that all knowledge is gained by the mind’s “invention” (Piaget’s phrase “to know is to invent”).  In his Insights and Illusions of Philosophy, Piaget puts forward the materialist scientistic view that there is no true wisdom beyond objective scientifically and quantitatively measured knowledge and that objective knowledge will eventually supplant notions of wisdom, making wisdom obsolete (in this, he included both psychoanalytic “instinct” theories and idealistic “wisdom” theories as naive and outside scientific consideration).

An alternative view is that knowledge is not only invented — it is also discovered.  In this sense, we not only impose our mind’s templates on reality, but reality itself is open to discovery in its various aspects.  And it is the reason I think that all constructivist models of development (including Kohlberg and, I would argue, Robert Kegan) are on shaky foundations, because any model that excludes the “logic of discovery” (Karl Popper) is not in my mind “true to life.”  This perspective appears to me to be consistent with Vygotsky’s critique of Piaget (Thought and Language, MIT, 1986) and Jerome Bruner’s overview of The Culture of Developmental Psychology (Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, Harvard, 1986).  In Bruner’s article, he lays out the range of views on developmental psychology, from the emphasis on instinct by Freud, to the emphasis on cognition by Piaget, and finally to the more balanced view of Vygotsky that brings body and mind together in intuition and the “zone of proximal development” (the social process of mentoring by parents, teachers, and peers).

Advantages of the Double-Helix Model

The double-helix model identifies four phases of individuation in the fullest life span:  agency, subjectivity, character, and discernment.  Whereas other models (e.g. Kegan) identify alternating phases of belonging and autonomy (individuation), the double-helix provides a more holistic, integrated, and detailed perspective.

Two significant controversies in the field of developmental psychology are addressed with the double-helix:  the nature of language and the basis of spirituality.

Piaget considered language to be secondary to the symbolic function of cognition, whereas Vygotsky considered language to be primary (making symbolization part of a social process).  The double-helix perspective and the evidence I have found relevant to it provides what I find to be convincing evidence that Vygotsky was correct (March 2011 TED Talk, “The Birth of a Word” by MIT researcher Deb Roy) — that symbolization develops through adults shepherding infants into the linguistic world.   The double-helix perspective further emphasizes the importance of the “internalization of language” in thought, a process crucial to self-control and the stage Loevinger identifies as “self-protective.”

Loevinger’s self-protective stage and Vygotsky’s internalization of language are considered by Piaget to be “pre-operational.” this being in line with Piaget’s dismissive attitude toward developments at this time as “egocentric.”  In the same vein, Robert Kegan totally ignores Loevinger’s “self-protective” stage altogether.  For humans as tool-makers, language is the “mother of all tools,” and if we dismiss its importance, we weaken parents’ and teachers’ abilities to help children gain the “executive skills” they need to become articulate young adults who are able to creatively solve problems.

Before his untimely death in 1987, Lawrence Kohlberg had turned sour on the spirituality studies he had engaged in with L. Clark Power and James Fowler.  After his death, spirituality studies died out in secular academic world of developmental psychology, with Power exiting the field within a few years and Fowler being unable to maintain secular interest in the issue due to his religious affiliations.  I think Kohlberg and Power made an important contribution with their articles, but they focussed on our position in the cosmos, which can seem remote from our down-to-earth concerns.  My focus on spiritual development emphasizes intimacy and gratitude, which may be considered more feminine themes than the more masculine concern of our place in the universe.  Marrying the two would seem like the best option for success here, with success being defined as the stability of intimate relationships and the generation of social harmony through creative problem-solving.

Research Grid

In order to further sort out the details of an optimal life-span developmental pattern, I will employ the commonly used method of a research grid where various research findings are lined up in relation to each other.  This methodology built on the initial clinical findings of Andrew Stack Sullivan and Erik H. Erikson, and was elaborated by the sentence completion methodology of Jane Loevinger and ethical dilemma interview methodology of Lawrence Kohlberg.

In order to make the grid fit the real estate of a book page, I have divided it into three sections:  major theorists who have studied life-span development, and two smaller grids focussing on infant/child development and adolescent/adult development.  The two smaller grids include more detailed research findings of both major and more specialized researchers.

This grid includes many of the research studies that lend supporting evidence to the accuracy of the model.  The explanation and articulation of how these research findings fit with the model can be found in the Research Findings section of my website  Generally speaking, the researcher whose findings carry the most complete set of information relevant to the double-helix model is Jane Loevinger’s, whose research is the most empirical of anyone’s.  Neither Piaget nor, in the end, Kohlberg, admit to spiritual development beyond formal operations. In contrast, both Kegan and Fowler, although basing their theories on Piaget and Kohlberg, extend their researches into the “meaning making” of spiritual development.  A significant remnant of their reliance on Piaget is their dismissal of the importance of the developments that Loevinger identifies as “self-protective” and Vygotsky identifies as the “internalization of language.”  Indeed, even thought Piaget and Kohlberg identify phases of development during the 4 to 7 age range, neither Kegan nor Fowler bother to identify any distinct developments at this age range (other than Kegan’s interesting but limited article on “The Loss of Pete’s Dragon”).

Life Span Grid

* is because Kohlberg went soft and sour on the idea of spirituality at the end of his career.


Child Grid

Adult Grid

This article is dedicated to psychologists Bhuwan Lal Joshi (1930 – 1977), M. Brewster Smith (1919 – 2012), and Jerome Bruner (1915 – 2016).  My special thanks to Donald T. Saposnek, PhD, for his help revising this article.

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