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Stechler, G. (1982). The Dawn of Awareness. Psychoanal. Inq., 1(4):503-532.

(1982). Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 1(4):503-532

The Dawn of Awareness

Gerald Stechler, Ph.D.

Summary and Conclusion

Awareness, according to this model, comes into being in the latter part of the first year—long before children can pass the test of recognizing their own face in a mirror after a rouge spot has been surreptitiously placed on their nose (Lewis and Brooks-Gunn, 1979). This should not be terribly surprising, because in general the appearance of a function in a naturalistic, self-occurring way is likely to precede the possibility of experimental elicitation of the function in what is often an unnatural setting. The naturalistic situation, on the other hand, suffers in comparison by being more ambiguous. Both situations share the common problem of having to resort to somewhat arbitrary definitions and cutting points regarding what will and will not be admitted as qualifying within a particular concept.

Awareness comes into being when the ubiquitous monitoring functions have advanced or have been raised to a higher level of organization. It is not an all-or-nothing event. It can vary in its sharpness, in its pervasiveness, and in its own level of organization. It can vary within an individual from moment to moment. It can vary among individuals, some being more aware or differently aware than others. And it certainly changes developmentally. The 1-year-old may be aware and the adult may be aware. Although the same word is used and certain properties may exist in common, the processes in the two individuals are certainly not synonymous.

Like language, awareness has precursors: there are gray areas at its ontogenetic boundary; once it comes into being it creates a qualitatively different organization for further experience; and finally, although its emergence may signify the achievement of a new plateau of organization, that plateau is only the starting point for a whole new line of developmental steps. Awareness itself grows, becomes more complex, more articulated, and more organized, as both cause and effect in the continuing developmental enterprise.

By invoking the conceptual framework provided in the model of self-organizing systems, a number of prevalent but misleading ideas have been avoided. Epigenetic models, ones in which qualitatively new, higher-order functions emerge as part of psychological development, have been the accepted theories throughout this century. However, explanations as to how these dramatic changes are occurring have necessarily relied on the available range of explanatory mechanisms. This range has been confined to such limited concepts as innateness, imitation, trial-and-error learning, adaptive resolution of mismatch, etc. Furthermore, most of these models have themselves grown under the heavy influence of drive reduction, or homeostatic assumptions.

The introduction of the concept of self-organizing systems refocuses our attention on the behavioral details and the ways in which they are hierarchically and sequentially ordered. It becomes superfluous and misleading to invoke external or prior causes to explain emergent organizations. Self-organization can be demonstrated to be one of the properties of energy-consuming complex systems, the existence of which does not require a special mechanistic or vitalistic explanation. The investigation of the rules by which such processes take place, particularly in human psychological development, will no doubt occupy us for many years. But these investigations can take place under the aegis of a set of principles that are hospitable to the assumptions of epigenesis. The congruence between the model of self-organization and what we know of the realities of development is remarkable and should be of great heuristic value.

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