Personal Development as Narrowing and as Broadening

Development involves the interaction of mind and matter, insight and action. I address these factors in this article and leave you with a truth that can be both reassuring and daunting: We have a great deal of responsibility for the course of our own development. Our freedom to act is reason for celebration, but changing habitual ways of feeling, thinking, and being that no longer serve our purposes is hard work. And doing this alone is even more difficult, and for good reason.

The Vital Dynamics of Development

Mental energies and actions, like their physical counterparts, are quite naturally shaped and honed in ways to facilitate our adaptation to present and emerging challenges. In this respect, development involves a narrowing that is specific, purposive, and effective. But what happens when the scene of challenge changes yet again? Perhaps these adaptive narrowings now become maladaptive. What we may need instead is a way to broaden and build new adaptive capacities.

Such narrowing effects can be represented in two visual forms, as a funnel and as a pyramid. We often portray the funnel as a means of filtering. It represents a selective narrowing that is achieved as much by what is sloughed off as by what is retained or created. The pyramid, by contrast, represents narrowing as a mode of growth in which higher levels of adaptive function build upon a broad base of lower levels of function. The pyramid is about integrating and further evolving our capacities.

As the title suggests, vital, life-long development relies on both the narrowing and broadening effects of adaptive action. We build upon the lessons and acquired skills of prior experience. These more basic strata of abilities and personal potentials (like a pyramid) support our growth. But we must sometimes also selectively divest ways of thinking, feeling, and acting and replace them with new capacities that are more relevant to the task at hand, i.e., the narrowing effect.

Both narrowing and broadening directions of action are possible in virtue of our freedom, our brain physiology, and certain relationships and relational dynamics.

The Neurophysiology of Development

The biological basis of these narrowing and broadening effects is a dynamic capacity of our brain called “neuroplasticity”. It is our brain’s ability to adaptively create and modify neural pathways and synaptic connections in response to new and changing experience.[1]  This special malleability is greatest early in life. Then, as we learn and adapt to our environment over time, we become somewhat less malleable.  Some neural pathways (and habits) deepen with wear and our neuroplasticity decreases.

In fact, although we are a virtually unformed mass of potential at birth, by age 16 we have only half the synaptic connections that we had at age 6, which is the zenith of neuron growth and neural connections. But even at this “reduced” level, we have over 100 billion synaptic connections. Moreover, we continue creating new neurons and synaptic connections into old age. And we accomplish this “neural sculpting” of self through interactions with others and in the context of our surrounding environment.  

As we grow up, it is through this adaptive “pruning” that basic patterns of our identity and personality are formed and we become a fit for THIS family, in THIS culture, speaking THIS language. These are the deeply etched layers of habit and brain function that enable us to connect and identify with attachment figures we depend upon for nurture, safety, and care until we are able to fend for ourselves. As such, we hold and act on these ways of thinking, feeling, and being as automatically as we might other survival instincts.

So, while our wonderful, life-long capacity for adaptive development, for generating new neurons and synaptic connections, is testimony to our evolutionary potential, change in our physiologically anchored ways of being in adult life is not easy. That’s because adaptive growth sometimes requires relinquishing old ways of being that made us feel safe as children. We quite naturally feel resistance to acting in ways that take us out of this felt “safe zone”.

The Relational Space for Change

We are social beings. Social-emotional attachment is a basic human need. Infants fail to thrive without it. Our sense of identity forms in the relational context of finding and securing a sense of connection to our attachment figure (mother). Once we’ve achieved a secure sense of attachment, we are better able to explore our surrounding world and our self. We know there is a safe harbor to return to if we become overwhelmed, someone to offer perspective, and to encourage and affirm our growing competence.

Security of that kind emboldens us. As adults, too, a trusting relationship that provides a secure base from which we can explore our challenges is empowering, especially when facing daunting challenges and issues that have resisted our best efforts at resolution. Whether this help is provided live and in situ, or in reflective dialogue, it’s easier in that relational space to discover and examine those aspects of self, experience, and situation which we must understand and reckon with if we are to thrive.

This is a broadening effect. Elements of experience that were marginalized or excluded from view are now seen and queried more directly. They are queried as parts of our challenge that lay "out there" and present something novel, complex, or confusing. But our reflection also focuses on our subjective experience of the "out there," the situation and its social dynamics, i.e., how it feels, how we interpret and respond to it.

The insights gleaned from the interaction in this safe relational space enable us to generate working hypotheses about what might help and hinder our efficacy and growth in dealing with our presenting challenges. Then, as we try new ways of thinking, feeling, and acting, and as some ways prove more adaptive than old ways of functioning, we grow more confident. These ways of being and functioning become more practiced. And as enabling synaptic connections that underlie our change repeatedly  “fire together" they “wire together", forming new, adaptive neural pathways and action potentials.

Thus development occurs through: 1) the security of a trusting relationship; 2) the agency of mindful insight; 3) the courage of experimental action; and 4) the consequent training of our brain. These are the vital interdependent parts of adaptive growth and development.


[1] As a note, I would like to emphasize that biological determinants of behavior seldom operate in an independent manner. They are, in fact, mostly shaped by experience and mediated by meaning-meaning capacities of mind. Therefore, the psychological and social-emotional aspects of human experience, and our freedom as moral agents of action remain central factors in determining the course of development. This is the reason that insight is so vital, it empowers informed choice and responsible action.

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