The Importance of Assimilation in Adaptation
When you hear the word “adaptation”, the first things that come to your mind probably have something to do with biology, like Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Maybe you remember a certain situation where you were put into a new environment, so you had to “adapt”.
If you think back to such a time, you would probably notice that, at first, you picked up the information that was more similar to what you had already known.
Only after that came the things for which you had to change something about yourself, to grasp them.
You’ve probably experienced this, for example, when you were starting high school or any other level of your education journey.
Also, if you were in a situation to move and change the country you live in, especially if the new country had a different cultural sphere.
In a way, it truly does seem easier to deal with the unknown in such a way.
When you have some years of experience in this world, there are only too many things that could be an absolute mystery to you.
Trying to look for what is familiar in a new situation is certainly a good place to start.
What may draw interest to you is the question of when do we start to function like this?
In what grade did they teach us to use this life hack, and how come it finds its way into your thought process so naturally, that you don’t even notice it happening?
Why are the memories from biology class still the only thing you can associate this with?
Many different interpretations of human memory and development have come and went through the years.
A SHORT HISTORY OF ADAPTIVE THEORIES
For example, in his milestone book on pedagogy and the human spirit called Émile: Or, On Education, the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau theorized human development happened in three broad stages.
Rousseau believed that children would go through three major developmental stages before maturing into proper adulthood.
He called them infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and believed he could come up with a way to properly bring up valorous men by applying precise education to children at each stage.
Later still, when Darwin’s theories became popularised, many tried to apply ideas from evolution to human development. Among them, the most prominent was certainly G. Stanley Hall, occasionally cited as the “father of American psychology”.
Hall and his associates, inspired both by Darwin and Rousseau, believed that children would replicate human evolutionary patterns through birth, infancy and early childhood.
Thus, in their first few months, children were considered to have the psychological skillset much like that of a chimp or macaque, and only later would they progress through the millions of years of human evolution.
When observing the development of his two daughters, Jean Piaget, a French biologist by choice and psychologist by chance, wondered about similar things.
Similarly, it was Piaget’s original idea to introduce the concept of “adaptation” to the scientific field of human development.
WHAT REALLY GOES DOWN ON THE ROAD OF COGNITIVE DEVELOPMENT
As newborns, human babies have one huge trait that makes them different from the rest of the animal kingdom.
They are completely helpless on their own. Adults are their only hope for survival, and newborns depend on them because it is only through them that they can have access to fulfilling their basic needs.
It was actually the helplessness of human babies that which turned out to be so inspiring to psychologists.
The importance of children and their dependence on adults is the reason a lot of theories have a special place in them for explaining such a concept.
Regardless of whether you look at it from a cognitive, emotional or unconsciousness-centered point of view, psychology knows it cannot describe the human psyche without figuring out how it forms and takes shape.
Obviously, this can be done only through observing children.
If you haven’t had a child of such a young age in your home or friends who recently became parents, there is a pretty good chance you could believe that they are up to nothing constructive in particular.
Even when you listen to someone describe in painstaking detail what their toddler tried to gobble down, you might think much of it is aimless.
It is certainly easy to think their whole existence is based on crying when hungry, eating, sleeping, rinse and repeat.
In the blink of an eye—or, rather, a few months later—you suddenly see the kid appear on your friend’s Instagram story waving, holding their pacifier and throwing things around.
To you, an innocent observer, it probably looks like kids have something written in their DNA that just lights up and turns on out of the blue one day.
All of a sudden, the baby can now seem a good bit more social. Even if you don’t think that that’s the literal way it happens, it sure does seem like it.
As innocent as it seems, you probably could never guess that it’s been found that such naïve and simple actions have a huge impact on the further development of intelligence.
It is just one more proof of how small things can path your way in life.
Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development has endured the test of time as one of the leading theories when it comes to understanding cognitive development.
Although old by psychology’s standards (William Jones defined psychology only in 1890!), it is still understood as the fundamentals of how people grow into their personalities and learn how to be independently functional.
What this theory proposes is that intelligence starts to develop as early as a few months after the child is born.
At that point, it’s still not by any means similar to what we consider intelligence in the later stages of life or even early stages of childhood. But, a baby’s actions are also anything but random after those first few months.
So, you may ask yourself now, what is it that your friend’s baby from Instagram has been doing for the past few months? Is it possible that whatever it’s been up to has some deeper meaning to it?
The fact that Piaget was a biologist first and a psychologist second may be a very important piece of information for a better understanding of what he had to say on this topic.
Firstly, as any process you’ve learned about in biology class, Piaget had the process of development divided into four main stages.
The first one was called the sensorimotor stage, followed by the preoperational stage, after which comes the concrete operational stage, and lastly the formal operational stage.
The sensorimotor stage, as the name itself says, is centered on sensorial stimulation and motoric reactions.
Therefore, a child’s knowledge of the outside world is limited to the borders of its physique, and only through their movement do they start creating the primal bits of memory.
This stage has come to an end once the speech makes its grand appearance.
The preoperational stage starts at about 2 years and lasts until children start going to school. At this point, language and memory have moved to higher levels, but their thinking is illogical.
What is the most authentic about this stage is the high usage of egocentric thought process and speech.
When faced with the educational system and a scholar’s life, kids begin to enter the stage of concrete operations.
At this time, intelligence is shown by manipulating symbols of concrete objects instead of the objects themselves.
It is also at this stage that egocentric speech is pushed out of the picture by the internal voice we all hear in our heads.
Simultaneously with the period of prepubescence and puberty we see the fourth and the final stage of the developmental process—the formal operational stage.
During this time, children finally wrap their heads around abstract thinking and formal logic operations, which then stay there for the rest of their lives.
Through numerous experiments and systematic observations, what Piaget found to be inevitable is the fact that there is no possibility of this organization being any different.
While the age of starting and ending of a certain stage differs from child to child, as it is expected to happen, you apparently can not skip a stage or “pass” the stages in a different order—nor would it make any sense to do so.
While you may easily remember yourself from the last three stages, or you might be seeing them in the children around you still going through them, newborns remain a mystery.
And, evidently, they can’t just be asked about it with a test form with seventy checkboxes.
HOW DOES ASSIMILATION BEGIN?
After creating a somewhat of a picture to lead us through further discussion, it is time to once again, look at six-month-old babies, who have just learned to wave and the only thing that they have been doing besides that is smiling back to you.
Even though it is commonly believed that we are born into this world as blank slates that yet have a broad spectrum of colors to be spilled on, the truth is a bit different.
What Piaget finds is that there are a few scribbled lines on that slate thanks to which we know which way to go once we enter the land of the unknown.
Those first-aid guides come in the form of reflexes.
You’ve probably heard the term numerous times, but in case you forgot what the main deal around them was, here’s a quick reminder: a reflex is a form of a movement, which is involuntary and happens almost instantly after a suitable stimulus.
We don’t really get to control our reflexes, our body does this for us.
While we’re aware of them in one way or another, and we learn to manage, control and even change some of them, they are evolution’s back-up plan.
This might be a bit of an annoyance when you’re a functioning adult, but very young children have a poor sense of self and generally act unconsciously.
So, what all newborns know how to do is how to perform the sucking reflex. They do it mainly because that is how they get access to food and water.
But not so long after, the act of sucking becomes the main tool for exploring one’s environment.
We learned this millions of years ago, and it’s the main reflex almost all mammals have. When we don’t understand something, our animal brain tells us we might need to chew on it for a bit, literally or metaphorically.
Of course, there are also other reflexes, such as that of grasping things with your hands or turning your head towards the source of the sound you just heard.
But, probably due to its origin in our early nutritive needs, how the young of an animal seeks to suck on their mother’s teat, the sucking reflex seems to have taken the spotlight.
When you place any new object near such a small child, their first instinct, after grabbing it, will be to suck on it.
Since that is truly the first close contact a child has with the real world, we think oral sensory stimulation is that through which a child understands the world the best. This is where assimilation first starts to happen.
In order to survive, stay alive and consequently thrive, we need to adapt to whatever changes our environment throws at us. Piaget found that our main way to survive is the sum of two sub-processes: assimilation and accommodation.
Assimilation comes first since that is the act of transforming the environment to adjust the new information to the already existing schemas in one’s consciousness.
So having that in mind, it’s easy to recognize how the mere act of sucking on an object makes for a solid base of a cognitive scheme.
Sucking has such an important spot in the development of human intellect since it is the first medium of research.
The critical moment for a reflex to pass from automatism to intentionality is when, basically by chance, it is brought to an infant’s attention how they can manipulate it.
DO WE LEAVE ASSIMILATION TOGETHER WITH OUR DIAPERS?
Piaget didn’t stop his research on kids who were above the two-year mark and assimilation didn’t lose its value.
As said before, it is one of the main concepts in his entire theory, and as such, it is used to explain, among other things, how we reach a new stage after a certain amount of time.
The main point of every stage of cognitive development is to reach a final turning point, which usually results in a new skill that is to be used as the new flagship in the upcoming years.
So, when a child at the end of the first stage learns how to talk, it uses its speech to make the world a better place in its eyes.
If you were to be told that this is the phase that occurs from the ages of two to six or seven, how this manifests might become a bit more clear.
Kids in the second stage have a very significant and possibly quite annoying trait: that would be their constant urge to ask “what is this?” and “why?”.
As said before, they are using their newest skill, their overpowering cognitive scheme of speech, to find as many explanations, so they could merge the unknown information into their internal world.
In this way, their inquisitive nature is much more easily satisfied, especially as they begin to learn and acquire more complex ideas.
Occasionally, these might be innocuous, like a child asking “what is that flying thing?” Sometimes, even the parents might get stumped wondering why the sky is blue.
Even though it is unique to humans among all animals, speech in children often performs a very primal role: a child feels that it doesn’t understand something, and will use whatever it can to learn more about it and explain it.
But, let’s move away from looking at newborns, toddlers, and preschoolers.
Even though Piaget’s theory and the stages which it is famous for do not go into detail about what happens after most early physical development ends, it is undeniable that we assimilate through adulthood.
Assimilation can be seen in many different aspects of human functioning; it might even be that it’s best to talk about it from a sociologically informed point of view.
It can manifest in one-on-one conversations, and it can be the factor that decides how a group dynamic is created and structured.
As a social construct, assimilation can be easily recognized when dealing with cultural differences, when someone who is a part of a minority is on their way to adapt to the majority of the society.
The main group targeted by this is the people in the process of immigration.
But, on a more day-to-day note, people learn to undergo such a process sometimes even without much conscious effort involved.
Think about it, and you will easily remember an example, whether it is something you’ve heard of or a situation in which you were the one who assimilated.
Humans tend to, when they find themselves in a new situation, do exactly what a baby does.
They reach out to the parts which hold some similarity compared to their past experiences, and only through them, they begin to meet the unknown.
IS ASSIMILATION BOTH A STARTING AND AN ENDING POINT?
As was mentioned earlier, assimilation is only a part of the process of adaptation. To be completely clear, assimilation is the process that puts everything to work and triggers what happens afterward.
And that is accommodation. This process represents the complete opposite of assimilation.
Its purpose is to push a person to change their internal schemes for them to be at peace with the external world, with ideally none of the information left unclear.
Piaget found that adaptation must have this antagonistic flow because, once both assimilation and accommodation have done their work, a person will remain adapted to the new surroundings and thus remain in complete harmony both internally and with the external world.
This peace of mind is a concept which Piaget also took from biology and found it useful in psychology and it goes by the name of homeostasis.
In biology, this term is used to describe the state in which living creatures resist change in order to maintain a stable internal environment.
Transferring this concept to developmental psychology, Piaget gave it a new name – Equilibrium.
So, in his words, the process of adaptation was led by the determination to reach the state of equilibrium, and such a state could only be reached by an ongoing circle of two processes antagonistic to each other.
It may be interesting to point out how he wasn’t the first one, nor the only one to use this concept in psychology.
In most cases, it is used to describe the usually unconscious tendency of the human psyche to stay calm and balanced. But, it still has something to do with biology.
What mostly is a trigger for homeostasis to be ruined, is the appearance of an urge, which is known to be a physiological sign that our body is experiencing some kind of a need.
Once we register what the set point of that change is, we go and pursue psychological and behavioral responses meant to get our body back to its starting point.
Just like how a toddler will throw things over and over again to adapt to their structure and function, we, as adults, go over these circles of action through the day, just so we can keep our body and mind at peace.
Just how when you feel thirsty, you take a predictable behavioral action to get up and pour yourself a glass of water, and when stressed you’ll reach out and get in touch with a friend.
One may be purely depended on our biology, the other may completely be emotional—what they have in common is that they both start a disharmonic state inside of a person, and as such can’t really have a positive impact.
A FINAL HOMAGE TO ASSIMILATION
What remains an undeniable truth is that, as Piaget himself said, none of those processes could function isolated, nor would it make any sense for them to do so.
With his intangible love for biology in psychology, he shared an idea that truly nothing in nature could be possible on its own, without relying on other systems.
And, even with the determination to make it clear how all that ever happens to us should be leading to a peaceful, eventless state, it is pure logic that we need the opposite of those in order to know that there is a need for such a state.
If it wasn’t for the unknown, we would never really start exploring the external and adapting the internal.
We would know everything and we would be in need of nothing. And, for a research process to be started, and cognitive functions to be developed, there must be something unknown yearning to be discovered.
That would make an impactful and eye-opening conclusion in some views, but all it takes is to just rewind your memory a bit and realize for yourself that that is actually how your life went on before reaching this point.
Not even your own, it can be seen in the history of human civilization.
The reason people started looking for something, which they later found out was fire, was because the feeling of coldness and loneliness being in the dark.
Those states were a form of an aggressive stimulus, and they for sure tore down the stable homeostatic state, therefore inspired the man to wander.
They changed existing reality in order to fit it into their scheme of being in homeostasis.
That could lead us to thinking – wasn’t then the all remaining history up until this point of time just a huge assimilating process people keep developing?
And then, wouldn’t all the climate changes, which make mankind rethink the mentioned history, just be considered a call for changing and turning towards accommodation?
Because it seems like changing ourselves in order to fit into the external reality is the way to go, the way such a huge number of people of all ages keep proposing.
The beauty of adaptation as a process could in some way lie in the fact that it is something broadly applicable.
It doesn’t fail to live up to the expectations which are formed before adaptation is used in order to explain something.
It starts from toddler’s basic instincts, all the way to the questionable future of humanity as a whole.
The special place for assimilation among everything that happens afterward lies in the simple fact that it is assimilation without which we wouldn’t have a start, let alone a full process.
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