The Child and his Behavior. A. R. Luria

Steps Toward Culture

We have discussed what is characteristic of the primitive perception of the small child and his primitive thinking. However, the child develops rapidly, moving ahead and shifting to new forms of activity; the infant turns into a child, the child into an adolescent, while the adult merely remembers that he once passed through childhood, and that at one time he thought, felt and perceived the world quite differently.

The child’s primitive forms of behavior are gradually replaced by other, “adult”, or civilized forms. New skills and new forms of thinking and logic are developed, together with new attitudes towards the world; science must then consider the question of the paths along which the child’s primitive psyche gradually changes into the psyche of the civilized adult.

The developing, the child not only grows and matures, but also – and this is the essential point we wish to make in our analysis of the evolution of the child’s psyche – he receives a number of new skills and new forms of behavior. In the process of development the child not only matures, but is re-armed. It is this “re-arming” that accounts for a great deal of the development and changes we can observe as we follow the transition from child to civilized adult. It is precisely in this respect that human development differs from that of the animals.

Let us consider the paths of development of animals, and their adaptation to the conditions in which they live. We may say that in the process of evolution, all changes in the behavior of animals really amount to two basic elements: their natural, innate properties develop; and new skills acquired through individual experience – the “conditioned reflexes” – make their appearance.

If we examine an animal which has been obliged to adapt to living conditions in the forest: we will find that all of its sensory organs, which help it ward off danger, have become exceptionally sensitive. Its eyesight is keen, its sense of smell is astonishingly well developed and its hearing can, on occasion, strike us as incredible. Moreover, we will see the subtlety and agility of the system in which all of the animal’s organs of perception are combined with its movements, and see how they may be mobilized and activated by any sign familiar to the animal.

This is how an animal adapts to nature, by altering its organism, increasing the subtlety of all its organs of perception, and mobilizing all its motor capabilities.

One would imagine that in the process of evolution, with the transition to ever higher levels of development, these natural properties (vision, hearing, smell, memory, etc.) would become increasingly enhanced; one would accordingly expect all these functions to be exceptionally highly developed in man. If we were to expect this to be so, however, we would be deeply disappointed. Detailed study of the condition of numerous innate human properties will inevitably compel us to conclude that very many of them, far from reaching stages of development more advanced than those found in animals, have at best stagnated; while in most of them there is clear evidence of worsening, degradation and regression.

How is it possible to compare human vision with that of the eagle or hawk, or human hearing with that of the dog, which is capable of identifying slight rustling sounds or differences in tone far beyond the perceptive capacity of civilized adults, or, lastly, human smell, touch and muscular sensation – with the development of such systems of perception in other, lower animals? [23]

Moreover, when one compares these processes in civilized man – say, in an average contemporary Parisian – with their condition in some Australian aborigine at a very primitive level of development, one finds that civilized man is inferior in respect of virtually all the simplest mental functions. The stories told by travelling ethnographers abound with reports of astonishingly well developed hearing and vision in primitives, of their amazing memory, and their exceptional ability to simultaneously perceive and judge the size of a host of objects (for example, to tell when a single sheep is missing from a flock). In all of these natural functions the primitive stands incomparably higher than civilized man; yet we all know that the latter has a far richer psychic life, that he is far more powerful, and that he frequently shows superior orientation in the circumstances of life and a superior ability to subjugate surrounding phenomena.

What is the answer to the riddle of the evolution of the psyche from the animal to man, from the primitive to the representative of a civilized people?

We believe that it lies in the evolution of the existential conditions in which each of us lives, and at the same time in the evolution of those forms of behavior that are determined and caused by such external conditions. Contemporary civilized man does not need to adapt to the external environment in the same way as an animal or a primitive. He has subjugated nature, and now applies his tools to the functions once performed by feet or hands, eyes or ears. Civilized man does not need to strain his eyes to see a far-off object – he can put on glasses, look through binoculars or use a telescope; he does not need to strain his ears and run at top speed in order to transmit news – he now performs all those functions using tools and means of communication and locomotion that carry out his will. All artificial tools and the entire cultural environment promote “the expansion of our senses”, and contemporary civilized man can afford to have worse natural properties, while supplementing them with artificial adaptations that enable him to cope with the external world better than primitive man, who makes direct use of his natural endowment. [24] Primitive man might break up a tree by smashing it against a rock, whereas civilized man would pick up an axe or a mechanical saw and do the job faster, better and with a lower expenditure of energy.

The differences between civilized and primitive man transcend these limits, however. The productive and cultural environment gradually alter man himself; indeed man as we know him is like a stone that has been repeatedly rounded and reshaped under the influence of that productive and cultural environment.

In response to external conditions, the ape stood up on its hind limbs and its body straightened out; those same conditions also caused its extremities to become differentiated and its hand to develop, in due course, into the human hand. In the opinion of Engels, at that point the ape turned into something similar to a human being.

Yet the influence of productive and cultural conditions did not end there. After the hand, the brain had to change, and the need arose at the same time for subtler, more dynamic forms of human adaptation to the environment. Altered conditions naturally required new forms of adaptation, and, with the passage of time, such new forms were elaborated. Under direct pressure from the external conditions of existence, and in an active struggle with the external world, man learned not to make direct use of his natural endowment in the struggle to survive, but to elaborate devices, of varying complexity, to help him in that struggle. In the process of evolution, man invented tools and created a cultural productive environment; yet that same productive environment altered man himself, supplanting primitive forms of behavior with complex, cultural forms. Man gradually learned to make rational use of the properties he had inherited from nature. The influence of the environment created in man a large number of new mechanisms not found in animals; the environment, as it were, turned inwards, and behavior became social and cultural by virtue not only of its content, but also of its mechanisms and devices. Instead of directly remembering something of particular importance to him, man now elaborated a system of associative and structural memory; his speech and thinking developed, the abstract concept came to be elaborated, a series of cultural skills and techniques of adaptation were created – and instead of the primitive, we have civilized man. While the natural innate functions of both are identical, or sometimes even weakened in the course of development, on the other hand what makes civilized man so vastly different from primitive man is his possession of an enormous stock of psychological mechanisms, created in the course of cultural development, including skills, behavioral devices, cultural symbols and adaptations, as well as the fact that his psyche has been altered under the impact of the complex conditions that brought him into being.

Our digression from our analysis of the child’s psyche has been deliberate. It was intended to show in which areas we should expect to find the serious and profound changes that occur in the behavior of the child as he turns into an adult.

As we have already noted, we are not at all inclined to equate the development of the species, to which we have just referred, with that of the child, or even to establish some strict parallel between them. The child is born in a ready cultural and productive environment, and therein lies the decisive, radical difference between him and the primitive. However, when born, the child is not in contact with that environment and is incorporated into it only gradually. That incorporation into cultural conditions is in no way reminiscent of putting on a new set of clothes: as it happens, profound changes occur in the child’s behavior, which forms new, fundamental and specific mechanisms. It is, therefore, perfectly natural for each child to have his own precultural primitive period; while that period lasts the structure of the child’s mental life is marked by certain special features and by peculiar primitive traits in the perception of thinking. Upon inclusion in the appropriate environment, the child soon begins to change and develop new traits: this happens extraordinarily fast because the ready socio-cultural environment creates in him the necessary forms of adaptation, which have been formed long ago in the adults around him.

The child’s behavior as a whole is altered.. He grows accustomed to inhibiting the immediate satisfaction of his needs and attractions, and restraining immediate responses to external stimuli, in order to master the given situation better and more easily, by means of roundabout paths and suitable cultural devices.

It is precisely this inhibition of primitive functions, and the elaboration of complex cultural forms of adaptation that constitutes the essence of the transition from primitive childlike forms of behavior to the behavior of the civilized adult.