Sunday, June 25, 2006

Of 'unfinished' minds and psychological neoteny

Apparently, "grown-ups are more immature than ever". A rather extended formal education phase seems to be the culprit.

A “child-like flexibility of attitudes, behaviors and knowledge” is probably adaptive to the increased instability of the modern world, [Bruce Charlton] believes. Formal education now extends well past physical maturity, leaving students with minds that are, he said, “unfinished.”

“The psychological neoteny effect of formal education is an accidental by-product — the main role of education is to increase general, abstract intelligence and prepare for economic activity,” he explained. ...

"When formal education continues into the early twenties," he continued, "it probably, to an extent, counteracts the attainment of psychological maturity, which would otherwise occur at about this age.”

It made you go "Huh?", didn't it? The following paragraph in the same article made me go "Uh, oh!".

"People such as academics, teachers, scientists and many other professionals are often strikingly immature outside of their strictly specialist competence in the sense of being unpredictable, unbalanced in priorities, and tending to overreact,” [Charlton said].

You can get more of it here. Link via Slashdot.

* * *

On an unrelated note, the internets are being blamed, partly, for "a drastic decline in the number of close friends that Americans have" [this link too is via Slashdot].

New technology links people over greater distances, but cuts into face-to-face meeting time, the researchers said.


  1. Anonymous said...

    I think that this a controversial theory; it probably explains some aspects of the development of humans but the opposite theory is supposed to explain more. I do not know much about this but read a bit from popular books and articles a few months ago; there is even book wholly devoted to this idea. The following quotations are from Steven Mithen's " The Prehistory of Mind" pp 62-63. First the opposite idea: "In essence recapitulation proposes that the sequence of developmental stages that a juvenile of a species goes through, its ontogeny, reflects the sequence of adult forms of its ancestors, its phylogeny".
    "Today biologists take a more liberal view of the relatioship between ontogeny and phylogeny than that adopted by Haeckel. As Stephen Jay Gould explains, while there is evidence for accelerated development of some traits, just as Harckel proposed, and hence pushing of ancestral forms into the juvenile stages of descendents, there is also evidence for the converse: the slowing up of the development of other traits so that juvenile features of ancestors that appear in adult populations. This is referred to as neotony, and is thought to be as common as recapitulation.. It is most dramatically illustrated by the manner in which juvenile chimpanzees have striking resemblance to adult humanss-a simolarity that is lost as chimpanzees mature. Cosequently if there is any value in notion of recapitulation, it will be found in individual organs, rather than organisms as a whole".
    "Gould devotes much of his book to neotony, demonstrating that this is is of critical importance for understanding human evolution. But as both Kathleen Gibson and the psycho-linguist Andrew Lock have argued, while neotony may help explain the morphological development of modern humans, this cannot account for the development of intelligence and knowledge".
    Mithen takes this point of view (recapitulation) to develop his speculative theory of the development of mind.
    Please see
    for another speculation and
    for a review of Bromhall's book. I read Bromhall's book and felt that it was shallow. But I liked Mithen's book eventhough it is speculative. regards.

  2. Abi said...

    Swarup: Thanks for your comment, and the links. I posted it here simply because the idea of psychological neoteny, and its (hypothesized) origin in formal education sounded at once bizarre and interesting. And, of course, I was ticled by the outrageously funny quote about academics and professors; and as you have probably figured it out by now, I love outrageous (and funny) stuff about professors and academics!

    I too would like to confess that I have very little knowledge in this area.

  3. Anonymous said...

    I, too, the enjoyed comments about academics and scientists. For me, it really hit home. Having spent a lot of years in higher education, I was often confused by the behaviors of college professors because they often acted like children. It was hard to deal with them. This article gives an explanation as to why this trend is so evident. It may not be the final reason. But it is an interesting one.