Double-Helix: A New Model for Developmental Psychology

Double-Helix:  A New Model of Developmental Psychology

Peter A. Kirkup

P.O. Box 188206, Sacramento, CA  95818

Ever since patterns of development have been identified, models of development have emerged and been articulated.  The “vertical spiral” model is the most common since the 1970’s, providing the flexibility to incorporate diverse research findings.  Using rarely reported findings from the history of developmental psychology, the author proposes a new model for the field. A double-helix model enriches the vertical spiral by tracking the interactions of conscious and sub-conscious perceptions and ideas, capturing the texture of everyday experience and its cognitive ambiguities and emotional ambivalences.  Additional benefits of the double-helix model include:  1)  key developmental pivots are more clearly identified within a larger pattern (such as the inter-relationships between savoring skills and coping skills); 2)  the role of language in human development is more fully appreciated, particularly in relation to the self-control skills that are essential for adult happiness; 3)  the place of spirituality is explicitly integrated, throughout the life-span and beyond formal operations.  These findings support some of the neglected features of the developmental psychologies of Jerome Bruner and Jane Loevinger.

Keywords:  developmental models, double helix pattern, Jerome Bruner, language development, 

spiritual development, gratitude

This article serves as a review of the history and philosophy of the field of developmental psychology and develops and details a model that makes a theoretical course-correction in line with an admission made by Jean Piaget in a little-cited letter about Lev Vygotsky’s work (1962).  Because the field has ignored Piaget’s 1962 admission that he would have changed his theory in 1934 if he had read Vygotsky’s work back then, the cognitive-constructivists have populated a theoretical branch that is no longer on the main developmental trunk, and have lost contact with the higher limbs that have become apparent to those not constrained by Piaget’s cognitive 


The model presented here makes the explicit assumption that learning and development are intuitive and spontaneous processes that involve both the conscious and subconscious aspects of social interactions.  First, the model will be set in its historical context, then the main features of the model will be described.  Next, the contents of the model will be outlined, and then the model will be compared to the ideas of Piaget, while  highlighting the benefits of the model in relation to controversies in the field.

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”) to account for developments beyond the revolving changes in the circular model.  But, the accuracy of linear progression models becomes hard to maintain, given the twists and turns of development and regressions in the normative 


Two models seem to address these contradictions: 1)  the ladder (or staircase) model — which provides foot-holds to prevent severe regression, and resting places on the way up, and 2) the “vertical spiral” model (personal communication, Cook-Greuter, 1-11-2017, Menlo Park) — which incorporates “twists and turns” into the pattern.  Most models of developmental 

psychology in recent decades, explicitly or implicitly, have been based on the vertical spiral model, tracing consciousness and cognition through stages and levels (thus, incorporating the “ladder” model), as the mind becomes more complex and mature.  (Fowler’s depiction from his  1981 book is shown below.)

However, the problem with the vertical spiral model is that it can be disorienting, in the sense that, as one moves up and revolves on the spiral, there is an impulse to “look over one’s shoulder” to see what lurks there.  This can be considered a metaphor for the subconscious.  Adding a second side to the spiral would help to track the sub-conscious information through 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 here.

When tracking the conscious and subconscious sides of the spiral, it becomes apparent that there are two types of conscious strands and two types of subconscious strands, and that, at certain junctures in development, they switch places in a recurring pattern (more circles within the larger pattern).  Those two types of consciousness are affirmation and negation.  Here is how they work:

Elements of the Double-Helix Model

This section will detail the dynamics of the elements of the model:  sub-consciousness, consciousness of the world, and consciousness of the self.  In this context, the sub-conscious is similar to the concepts of the tacit dimension (Polanyi, 1966), the implicate order (Bohm, 1980) and the collective unconscious (Jung, 1936).  

In the history of developmental psychology, researchers in the Freudian psychoanalytic tradition study the development of emotions, with an emphasis on instinctual processes (oral, anal, phallic), while researchers in the Piagetian constructivist tradition study the development of cognitive processes (sensori-motor, pre-operations, concrete operations, formal operations).  At the same time, the cognitive-behavioral and systems theory traditions of clinical psychology, along with social learning theory, have used the ways that thoughts, behaviors, and feelings 

interact, in order to help clients resume a normal developmental trajectory.

The double-helix model integrates the cognitive, emotional, and social aspects of 

development into one “cognitive spinal cord” (Bhuwan Joshi, PhD, Spring 1977, Santa Cruz). It is based on the circadian rhythm as the context for learning by the newborn, where daytime sights and sounds become distinct and familiar, and sleep restores the nerves and stores the memories.  The visual graphic is depicted in profile, with the front to the right on the conscious side with the sun (day), and the back to the left on the subconscious side with the moon (night).  As a theory of emergence, the model also considers the relationship between consciousness and sub-consciousness to be one of the relationships between what is explicit and what is implicit:  the explicit emerges from the implicit (and feeds back into the implicit).

Since consciousness emerges from the sub-conscious, the relationship between the two is that of the potential to the actual, the focus to the periphery, etc.  But to get to the specific 

dynamic, we need a good metaphor.  Wittgenstein’s later philosophy provides one.

When questioned about the philosophical underpinnings of their developmental theories, both Jerome Bruner (see 1983, as well as Shotter, 2001), and Jane Loevinger (1983) cited 

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophical methods.  In this tradition, the double helix model can be described metaphorically by Wittgenstein’s answer to the question:  What is the aim of your 


“To shew the fly the way out of the fly bottle ”  (Philosophical Investigations # 309, pg. 103).

If we identify the world as we know it as the bottle, and the self as the fly, then the aim of philosophy is to escape the limits of the world as we know them.  When we do so, we ultimately find that we have entered a new bottle with its own limits (unless the bottle we are leaving is the material world, itself).

If we track this through development, we first know the world through images, even though the adults around us communicate in symbols.  Once the infant learns the limits of the world-of-images, he seeks to find ways to get to what he wants and away from what he doesn’t and imitates his parents as ways to try to get out of the bottle.

The dynamic of this involves the interplay of consciousness and sub-consciousness.  

Before infants focus explicitly on the self, their sense of self is implicit, sub-conscious, and 

potential.  This implicit sense of self becomes explicit when the infant consciously imitates the parents and crawls and toddles to seek safety and help.

Similarly, during the time that infants are developing their motor skills, the sense of the symbolic is implicit and potential.  The infant imitates speech because he yearns to join the speech (or sign language) community.   He has become a separate body who yearns to belong, once again.  In this way, the fly escapes the bottle, only to later find that the escape is into a bottle with greater scope and elaboration.  Through training, the child is finally triggered into the inspiration that “everything has a name,” and the world becomes filled with objects that have symbolic value and meaning.  The model depicts this general schema in the following ways (reading from the bottom to the top):

Consciousness is yellow (with the daylight of the sun on the right) and sub-consciousness is blue (with the darkness and the moon on the left).  As consciousness emerges from  sub-consciousness, this depiction reveals the circadian rhythm as the basis of human awareness.  The “saw blade” pattern between the conscious and sub-conscious sides shows the continuous interplay between consciousness and sub-consciousness.

Green is for affirmation and a sense of belonging, 

related to the skills of savoring the world (“Go for it!  The world is your oyster!”).  Red is for negation and a sense of separateness, related to the skills of coping (“Stop and think!  Look before you leap!”).  At first, we enter a new bottle with a new sense of hope, and then we find we are a fly trapped in a limited world-view.

In the language of the double helix model, we escape the old bottle by entering a new realm of consciousness, experienced as an inspiration.  Once we realize the limits of the new realm, we are thrown back on ourselves in confusion.  As the “fly” explores the new realm, 

inspiration waxes and then wanes as confusion wanes and then waxes back into consciousness of the self, initiating a “sphere” of development secondary to the initial realm (the “sphere” depicts the self as externalized into consciousness).  In this way, inspiration and confusion form a sine/cosine pattern:

Our consciousness of the world is experienced as a “realm” of awareness, in the sense that it 

initially appears immersive and all-inclusive.  As doubts creep in and eventually mount into 

self-consciousness, the “self” emerges as a limited operator projected into the world of action.

In our ordinary, day-to-day life, our cognitions and emotions are mixed:  reality is 

 ambiguous, and we are ambivalent.  But, when we have an epiphany, we have experiences that are unalloyed.  Rudolph Otto (1954) identified these experiences as having a mystical, or 

“numinous” quality, and he named them mysterium fascinans (the positive experience of 

fascination) and mysterium tremendum (the negative experience of fear that makes us tremble).  Translated into terms suitable for developmental epistemology, the model uses the labels 

“inspiration” and “confusion”.  [“Inspiration” means “breathing in creativity” and ” confusion” means the fusion of mind and body, as in “blushing in embarrassment”]. We are drawn into the world through inspiration; we are thrown back on ourselves in confusion.  

These experiences need not be dramatic and can be quite subtle.  They are more likely to be dramatic if the development comes significantly delayed or at great effort, such as when 

Helen Keller finally acquired language.

On a finer scale, each new way of knowing the world, and subsequently the self, goes 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.  A simple, but accurate, example is of the development of the simple declarative sentence:  at first, the “one-word” sentence serves as a holistic symbolic communication, which is then clarified with the “two-word” sentence.  Later, basic syntactic 

categories take over, putting the words into a system which is linguistically called a sentence (e.g. subject-verb-object).  After that, the linguistic knowledge of the world is over-shadowed by the internalization of language, where subjectivity is explored in a similar three-step fashion.

Contents of the Double-Helix Model

A brief description of the four realms and their accompanying spheres of 

self-consciousness are presented here with normal age approximations.  These realms are 

embedded, rather than being separate ways of knowing and, therefore, they continue to add to our experience after we have entered a new realm (albeit more tacitly).

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 their 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 the 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 that 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 for controlling others to internalize language for controlling 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


Figure 4:  The model reads from bottom to top, with affirmation and negation emerging from subconsciousness into consciousness, and then submerge back again.

evaluated by principles, and not living up to principles engenders a sense of guilt.  On top of this, principles sometimes contradict one another.  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 when compared to 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). Simply stated, this is a realization that we belong to the universe, and we should be grateful, as a result (see Capra & Steindl-Rast, 1991).  The adult realizes this as a mature attitude that cannot be maintained 

naively, and one 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 whom 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 as a creature and as a co-creator, who can discern the difference between humility and humiliation, helping others while sacrificing the self for the common good, when necessary.

(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 sub-conscious awareness of this, more than that of some of their peers.  It is not a sentimental notion that joy is inherent in life– the literal and emotional labors of mothers attest to this hard truth.  In the end, it is not individuation, alienation, or autonomy that matters, but rather belonging, meaning and bliss (see Hart, 2013).

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 has 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.  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 “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 fulfill 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 

expected by the rules of 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 ways.”  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 when doing the same tricks on a crowded sidewalk.  He may be sure of his skills for avoiding hitting anyone, but others are likely to be startled, and this could result in an accident.  “Performance artists” tend to become self-centered and thoughtless when they have no awareness, or when they question their own motives.  The abstract skills of “formal operations” allow 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 by their inflexible problem-solving styles.  This is where the “intuition of being” (Jacques Maritain, 1956) and gratitude (David Steindl-Rast, 1984) become life-savers; when a person doesn’t take anything for granted, 

everything becomes a gift for which to be grateful. 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, 1970) — finding patterns between different sets of considerations.  Pattern detection and recognition are the basis of mature discernment.

In the end, we ultimately come up against the final limit—death— no matter how spiritual we have become.  At the same time, many individuals 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, (which is a difficult challenge, and not just wishful thinking). Regrets are faced with the perspective that “the only sadness is the sadness of not 

being a saint” (Bloy, 1897), 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 and theoreticians 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 

philosophical, theoretical, and empirical  review (to give Piaget credit, his initial findings were so innovative and startling that Einstein called him a genius, making it difficult to dig 

systematically into the many questions posed by his theories).  The double-helix model opens itself 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 considered 

accommodation as a process of slowly replacing assimilation, as the egocentric child becomes more objective (a gradualist model) — at the same time that the developing person is 

“de-centering” his/her perspective, he/she is also “dis-embodying” his/her 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 are the coping skills themselves (the person is self-consciously focusing on how she is going to cope, rather than on the savoring goal that the coping is meant to 

successfully achieve).  First, by being attracted to sensory images, the infant learns that she needs to move herself as an agent, in order 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 are expected by the 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” (or, in 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.  Moreover, it is the reason that all constructivist models of development (including Lawrence Kohlberg’s and Robert Kegan’s) may be on shaky foundations, because any model that excludes the “logic of discovery” (Karl Popper) is not “true to life” (i.e. consonant with our experience).  This perspective appears to be consistent with Vygotsky’s critique of 

Piaget and Jerome Bruner’s related overview of “The Culture of Developmental Psychology” (1986).  Bruner’s article 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).  Piaget’s 1962 admission that, if he had read Vygotsky’s work in 1934, he would have changed his theory (Vygotsky, 1986, pg. 274-5 n9 and supplement) seems to be generally 

ignored in the developmental literature.

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.  While other models (e.g. Kegan, 1982) 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 patterns provide evidence that Vygotsky was correct— that symbolization 

develops through adults shepherding infants into the linguistic world (see: March 2011 TED Talk, “The Birth of a Word”, by MIT researcher Deb Roy, as well as Chin, et al. 2012).  The double-helix perspective further emphasizes the importance of the “internalization of language” in thought, a process crucial to self-control and the stage which Loevinger identifies as 


Loevinger’s “self-protective” stage and Vygotsky’s internalization of language are 

considered by Piaget to be “pre-operational,” being in line with Piaget’s dismissive attitude 

toward developments during this stage/period as “egocentric.”  In the same vein, Kegan totally ignores Loevinger’s “self-protective” stage and the executive functioning skills involved.  

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 in which he had engaged with L. Clark Power and James Fowler (see Kohlberg, 1984).  After Kohlberg’s death, spirituality studies died out in the secular academic world of 

developmental psychology, with Power exiting the field within a few years, and with Fowler 

being unable to maintain secular interest in the issue (probably due to his explicit religious 

affiliations).  Kohlberg’s and Power’s writings made important contributions, but they focused on our position in the cosmos, which can seem remote, when considering our down-to-earth 

concerns.  This present focus on spiritual development emphasizes intimacy and gratitude, which may be considered more feminine themes, in contrast to the more masculine concern of our place in the universe.  Joining the two would seem like the best option for success here, with success being defined as generating theories that promote stability of intimate relationships and social harmony, through creative problem-solving.

Recent Research

Language Acquisition

In their review of cutting-edge research on language acquisition and conceptual 

development, Bowerman and Levinson (2001) find that the relation between language and 

cognition is multi-faceted, in a way described by Langer (2001) as “mosaic.”  Other research finds that this “mosaic” supports Vygotsky’s theories that language is primarily communicative (Tomaselo, 2001), and that language enhances and transforms cognition (Gopnik, 2001), rather than just reflecting it.

The perennial question in language development mirrors the nature vs. nurture argument in psychology: Is language primarily learned through experience or is it a biological instinct that is hard-wired into the human brain.  The answer seems to be that it is an instinct that is triggered by social interaction.  The search for language universals has encountered an increasingly 

shortened list of candidates, including the concept of syntax itself (Chomsky’s “deep structure”).  But now, with the help of advanced statistical computations, MIT researchers have helped 

identify what may be the one truly universal language feature called “dependency length 

minimization”, or DLM (Futrell, 2015).

DLM is a technical term which means that speakers arrange words to make their meaning easy for a listener to understand.  For instance, “old lady” gives the listener an idea of who the lady is without first thinking “the lady” is young before later hearing that she is actually old.  This easy ordering of words that are semantically close aids the listener’s short-term memory to be able to focus on the communicative intent, rather than the separate bits of information.  The MIT team sampled 37 languages and found that all were statistically significant for 

“non-randomness” of word order.  This  extensive evidence strongly suggests that the primary function of language is communicative intent, rather than cognitive-mapping of the world.  It is also congruent with the perspective that language not only expresses cognition, but also transforms cognition.  Language’s demonstrated role in memory also highlights the social function of language, in that the ability to recall through linguistic coding makes for a more reliable social partner.

Dan Slobin spent 35 years trying to define the universal generative syntax that would 

account for the language acquisition findings across several languages (Slobin, 2001).  Along with the many researchers trying to define the same universals, he kept finding exceptions to the generative rules they were testing.  The general conclusion in the field now is that syntactic 

devices are not universal generating principles, but common solutions to common problems.  The only word-order universal is: “Say it in a way that makes it easy to understand.”  This was Slobin’s initial theory, and at the end of 35 years of testing the alternatives, he came back to that initial theory—In my end is my beginning” (Slobin, 2001, pp. 442-443).

It is interesting that computers are now necessary to identify the massive bits of 

information needed to clarify the social context of language acquisition (Roy, 2011) and the communicative intent of word-ordering (Futrell, 2015).  No longer can we say that the way 

language is acquired is hidden in “the mists of time” (e.g. Bates. 1976, pg. 72, who uses the “language has no birthday” metaphor).

Being “hidden in the mists of time,”  can mean different things.  One meaning is that it doesn’t really exist except by inference, and that a qualitative shift actually occurs in increments that themselves don’t constitute an “event.”  The other is that the event is elusive but real, 

none-the-less, and that we need more accurate observations to capture it.

There are two ways to capture an elusive event:  1) record things in real-time and then slow-down the recording to analyze the findings, with the help of computers (as with Roy’s MIT TED talk), or 2) study individuals with neurological damage who still manage to achieve a shift, but it would become much more evident because of the length of time it takes to get to that shift.

In the case of language development, the latter was researched by Oliver Sacks in his book, Seeing Voices (Sacks, 1989), about deaf people and their acquisition of Sign Language.  A few things become startlingly clear when someone has no language until later in life (such as Hellen Keller or Ildefonso, pg. 56; see also Schaller, 1991).  First, without language, these 

individuals are isolated, confused, and have a palpable “yearning” for language as the code that needs to be cracked for human communication (pg. 39).  Second, is the realization of the symbolic value of words that comes suddenly, intuitively, and is accompanied with a rush of positive emotion, like escaping from an endless prison sentence.  And last, with both Verbal and Sign languages, the same areas of the brain are used for language development (with Sign Language additionally employing some visual parts of the brain).   Neurological studies show that words are first learned holistically, intuitively and spontaneously, in the right hemisphere of the brain, and are then transferred to the left side of the brain, to develop word order and syntax (pg. 103).  Thus, the one-word sentence is a gestalt for the communicational intent, whereas two-word sentences require an analysis of the way words work together.  This is a neurological depiction of the double-helix model where “symbol formation” pops out of the subconscious into 

consciousness intuitively and is then subjected to word-order cultural communication patterns (“symbol comparison”).


Figure 5:  The entrance into the Symbolic Realm is shown by the green line of affirmation emerging from the subconscious and “popping up” into consciousness, here depicted as a “green button”.


Spiritual Development

1990 was the last year that Lawrence Kohlberg’s associates published articles on 

spirituality and development (see Kohlberg, 1990a & 1990b, as well as Cook-Greuter, 1990), and subsequent efforts have failed to gain the attention of mainstream developmental psychology.  Michael Levenson (2005) wrote the following about the neglect of spirituality studies in 

developmental psychology: “Indeed, this situation perfectly reflects psychology’s discomfort with its most obvious subject matter, conscious experience, in favor of the apparently comforting confines of mechanistic constructs, such as behavior and cognition.”  (pg. 158).  In 2016, Levenson amplified this conclusion by writing: “Given the current focus simply on the development of measures, it is not surprising that, to our knowledge, no longitudinal studies of religious 

development in adulthood exist.”  (pg. 194)

Outside of the academic field of developmental psychology, research on spirituality has continued in the positive psychology movement, especially in relation to wisdom and gratitude (which are the intellectual and emotional doors that open to spirituality in the double -helix 

model).  In practical terms, it is encouraging that Robert Sternberg’s research on wisdom (2005) finds that an essential trait of wisdom is creative problem-solving (see especially Labouvie-Vief, [1990, pg. 75] who correlates creative problem-solving with Loevinger’s stage of autonomy, in which ambiguity is dealt with flexibly, and the capacity for intimacy deepens).  This pragmatic view of wisdom is also shared by the Berlin Wisdom Paradigm (Baltes, 2000).  Some practical approaches to creative problem solving include Donald T. Saposnek’s perspective of Aikido principles guiding professional mediators to be more effective (Saposnek, 1986) and Kirkup’s perspective on forgiveness as an inter-personal value and skill (Kirkup, 1993)

Since the field of developmental psychology appears to have abandoned the study of 

spirituality, we will not go further into the issues involved.  Suffice it to say that, although the study of spirituality is complex and tricky, the ignorance or shunning of spirituality studies has deformed the field, making it too constrained by deductive logic, formal operations and 

quantitative methodologies.

Research Grid

In order to further sort out the details of an optimal life-span developmental pattern, we will employ 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 the ethical dilemma interview methodology of Lawrence Kohlberg.

To make the grid fit the real estate of a book page, it has been divided into three 

sections—One grid of major theorists who have studied life-span development, and two smaller grids focusing on infant/child development and adolescent/adult development.  The two smaller grids include more detailed research findings of the major researchers and of the more 

specialized researchers.

This grid includes many of the research studies that lend supporting evidence to the 

accuracy of the Double-Helix model.  Generally speaking, the researcher whose findings carry the most complete set of information relevant to the double-helix model is Jane Loevinger, whose research appears to be the most empirical of the life-span models.  Neither Piaget nor Kohlberg admit to spiritual development beyond formal operations. In contrast, both Kegan and Fowler, although basing their theories on Piaget and Kohlberg, extend their research 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 though Piaget and Kohlberg identify phases of development during the 4 to 7 year old 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”).

Table 2:  Life Span Grid


* This asterisk signifies that/when Kohlberg went soft and sour on the idea of spirituality at the end of his career.

Table 3:  Child Grid


Table 4:  Adult Grid




Applebee, A. (1978). The child’s concept of story. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Baltes, P.B. & Staudinger, U.M. (2000).  “Wisdom:  A metaheuristic (pragmatic) to orchestrate mind and virtue toward excellence.”  American Psychologist, vol. 55, 122-136.

Basseches, M. (1984).  Dialectical thinking and adult development.   Norwood:  NJ, Ablex.

Bates, E. (1976).  Language and context.  Berkeley CA:  Academic Press.

Bloy, L. (1933).  La femme pauvre.  Paris:  Mercure de France.

Bowerman, M., & Levinson, S. (eds.) (2001).  Language acquisition and conceptual 

development.  Cambridge MA:  Cambridge Univ. Press.

Bruner, J. (1983a).  Child’s talk:  Learning to use language. NY: Norton.

Bruner, J.  (1983b).  In search of mind:  Essays in autobiography.  NY:  HarperRow.

Bruner, J. (1986).  “Developmental theory as culture”in Actual minds, possible worlds, 

(pp. 134-49).  Cambridge MA:  Harvard.

Capra, F. & Steindl-Rast, D. (1991).  Belongingto the universe:  Explorations on the frontiers of science and spirituality.  SF:  HarperSanFrancisco.

Chin, S.V., Goodwin, M., Roy, D. & Naigles, L.  (2013). “Dense data collection through the speechome recorder better reveals developmental trajectories.”   San Sebastián, Spain:  

The Extended Abstract of the International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR).

Cook-Greuter, S. (1990).  “Maps for living:  Ego-development stages from symbiosis to 

conscious universal embeddedness,” in Adult Development, Volume 2:  Models and Methods in the Study of Adolescent and Adult Thought (pp. 79-104), Commons (ed). NY:  Praeger.

Fann, K.T. (1970).  Peirce’s theory of abduction.  Martinus Nijhoff:  The Hague.

Fowler, J. (1981).  Stages of Faith.  NY:  HarperOne.

Futrell, R. &  Mahowald, K. & Gibson, E. (2015).  “Large-scale evidence of dependency length minimization in 37 languages.”  Cambridge MA:

Gopnik, A. (2001).  “Theories, language and culture:  “Whorf without wincing” in Bowerman, Language Acquisition and Conceptual Development (pp.45-69).  Cambridge MA:  Cambridge University Press.

Hart, D.B. (2013).  The Experience of God:  Being, consciousness, bliss.  New Haven CT:  Yale.

Jung, K. (1936).  “The concept of the collective unconscious” in Collected works, vol. 9.  

Middlesex England:  Viking Portable Library (1971).

Kegan, R. (1982). The evolving self.  Cambridge MA:  Harvard.

Kegan, R. (1985).  “The loss of Pete’s dragon:  Developments of the self in the years five to 

seven,”in The development of the self, (pp. 179-203) Leahy (ed.).  NY:  Academic Press.

Kirkup, P.  (1993).  “Some religious perspectives on forgiveness and settling differences.” In D.T. Saposnek (ed) Beyond technique:  The soul of family mediation, Special Issue, Vol. 11, 

no. 1.  SF:  Jossey-Bass.

Kohlberg, L. (1968).   “Private speech:  Four studies and a review of theories,” Child 

Development, vol. 39, pp. 691-736.

Kohlberg, L. (1968b).  “Early education:  A cognitive-developmental view,” Child Development, vol. 4, pp. 1013-1062.

Kohlberg, L. (1975).  “The cognitive-developmental approach to moral education.Phi Delta Kappan, vol. 56, no. 10, pp. 670-677.

Kohlberg, L. (1981).  Essays on moral development, volume 1.  SF:  Harper and Row.

Kohlberg, L. (1984).  Essays on moral development, volume 2.  SF:  Harper and Row.

Kohlberg, L. (1990a).  “Which post-formal levels are stages?,” in Adult development, volume 2:  Models and methods in the study of adolescent and adult thought (pp. 263-8) Commons (ed).  NY:  Praeger.

Kohlberg, L. & Ryncarz, R. (1990b).  “Beyond justice reasoning:  Moral development and 

consideration of a 7th stage,” in Higher stages of human development, (pp. 191-207).  NY:  

Oxford University Press.

Labouvie-Vief, G. (1990).  “Wisdom as integrated thought:  Historical and developmental 

perspectives” in Sternberg, R.  Wisdom:  Its nature, origins, and development , (pp. 52-83).  Cambridge MA:  Cambridge University Press.

Langer, J. (2001).  “The mosaic evolution of cognitive and linguistic ontogeny” in Bowerman, Language acquisition and conceptual development (pp. 19-44).  Cambridge MA, Cambridge University Press.

Levenson, M., Aldwin, C. & D’Mello, M. (2005).  “Religious development from adolescence to middle adulthood” in Paloutzian, R. Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality 

(pp. 144-161).  NY:  Guilford Press.

Levenson, M, Aldwin, C. & Igarashi, H. (2015).   “Religious development from adolescence to middle adulthood” in Paloutzian, R. Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality, Second edition (pp. 183-197).  NY:  Guilford Press.

Loevinger, J. (1976).  Ego development.  SF:  Jossey-Bass.

Loevinger, J. (1983).  “On ego development and the structure of personality,” in Developmental Review 3, pp. 339-50.

Loevinger, J. (2002).  “Confessions of an iconoclast:  At home on the fringe,” Journal of 

Personality Assessment, 78 (2), 195-208.

Maritain, J. (1956).  Existence and the existent.  Garden City, NY:  Image.

Otto, R.  (1954),  The Idea of the holy.  NY:  Oxford.

Piaget J. (1952).  The origins of intelligence in children. NY: International Universities Press.

Piaget, J. (1962).  “Comments on Vygotsky’s critical remarks concerning The Language and Thought of the Child, and Judgment and Reasoning in the Child, by Jean Piaget.”  Professor Piaget wrote these comments after reading in manuscript Chapter 2 and excerpts from Chapter 6 of Vygotsky’s 

Thought and Language;  His comments were translated from the French by Dr. Anne Parsons; the translation was revised and edited by E. Hanfmann and G. Vakar; THE M.I.T. PRESS. 

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1962.

Piaget, J. (1971).  Insights and Illusions of Philosophy, NY:  Meridian Books.

Polanyi, K.  (1967).  The tacit dimension.  NY:  Doubleday Anchor.

Riegel, K. (1975).  “Toward a dialectical theory of development,” Human Development, 18:  


Roy, D. (2011).  “The birth of a word.”  March 2011 TED Talk, Cambridge MA:  MIT.

Sacks, O. (1989).  Seeing voices:  A journey Into the world of the deaf.  Berkeley:  University of California.

Saposnek, D.T.  (1986).  “Aikido:  A systems model for maneuvering in mediation.”  In D.T. Saposnek (ed) Applying family therapy perspectives to mediation.  Mediation Quarterly, no. 14/15, SF, Jossey-Bass.

Schaller, S. (1991).  A man without words.  Berkeley:  University of California.

Selman, R. (1976).  “Social cognitive understanding:  A guide to educational and clinical 

practice,” in Lickona (ed) Moral development and behavior:  Theories, research and social 

issues (pp. 299-316).  NY:  Holt, Reinhardt and Winston.

Selman, R. (1981).  “The child as a friendship philosopher,”  in Asher & Gottman (eds)

The development of children’s friendships(pp. 242-272).  Cambridge MA:  Cambridge 

University Press.

Shotter, J.  (2001).  “Towards a third revolution in psychology:  From inner mental 

representations to dialogically-structured social practices,” in Bakhurst & Shanker (eds) Jerome Bruner: Language, culture, self (pp 167-183).  London:  Sage Publications.

Slobin, D. (2001).  “Form function relations:  How do children find out what they are?” in 

Bowerman, Language acquisition and conceptual development (pp.406-449).  Cambridge MA:  Cambridge University Press.

Steindl-Rast, D. (1984), Gratefulness, the heart of prayer:  An approach to life in fullness.  NY, Paulist.

Sternberg, R. & Jordan, J. (eds).( 2005).  A Handbook of wisdom:  Psychological perspectives.  Cambridge MA:  Cambridge University Press.

Sutton-Smith, B. (1972).  The folkgames of children.  Austin TX:  American Folklore Society of the University of Texas Press.

Sutton-Smith, B. (1975).  “The importance of the story-taker.”  Urban Review  8, pp. 82-95.

Tomasello, M. (2001).  “Perceiving intentions and learning words in the second year of life,” in Bowerman, Language acquisition and conceptual development (pp.132-158).  Cambridge MA:  Cambridge Univ. Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1986).  Thought and language.  Cambridge MA: MIT.

Wittgenstein, L.  (1953). Philosophical Investigations.  NY:  Macmillan.