Kegan's Revolution

Robert Kegan published his book, The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development, in 1982. With this, Dr. Kegan broke ranks with the world’s leading adult development experts, launching a new way of looking at the issue of adult development.

The Evolving Self shifted the focus of our attention away from age-related development and turned it toward the dynamics that animate personal transformation. Dr. Kegan accomplished this by simply integrating two fundamental human processes -- maturational growth and adult meaning making -- that, before The Evolving Self, had been separate fields of study. He did it, most specifically, by offering us four new propositions about the developmental processes at the heart of adult development: 

  • Adult development is not just an age-based process through which men and women progress by mastering certain stage-related accomplishments.
  • Rather, and perhaps most importantly, adult development is also a meaning-making process, one that adults use to grasp their raw sensory experiences and transform them into conscious perceptions, schema, and intentions related to the world in which they’re living.
  • Adult meaning-making is a set of lifelong transformational activities. Activities that begin in infancy and across an individual's lifespan expand the mind’s capabilities.
  • Adult meaning-making processes progress by advancing through a discrete series of "evolutionary truces." These mindset balances are made up of evolving sets of schemas. 

Kegan summed up his revolutionary vision this way: "It is not that a person makes meaning, as much as that the activity of being a person is the activity of meaning-making." 

Before Kegan, it’s fair to say that adult development was focused on age-based accomplishments and stable age-related stages. After Kegan published The Evolving Self, it’s fair to say that adult development became a set of process-based meaning-making activities and a discrete number of fluid, evolutionary truces through which an individual's consciousness could evolve, grow, and develop.

The adult development revolution that Dr. Kegan launched in 1982 is still in motion. This is true in at least three ways:

  • Until recently, those of us most who were invested in using Dr. Kegan's insights as guideposts for our coaching and consulting had apparently fallen into the habit of implicitly assuming that our adult clients generally progress forward with their developmental efforts. For us, adult development is pretty much a vertical progression.This was, and still is, an understandable mis-step. But, over the last couple of years, some of us have started to realize that our assumption that adult development is a growth process that just naturally evolves "upward" is a step too far. Perhaps, on an ecological timeline, adult development does inevitably progress upwards. However, as an individual human process, today it seems likely that individual adult development doesn't just move upwards through successive levels of consciousness. Instead, it’s pretty clear that researchers in the field of Biosychosocial Development are now demonstrating that people don't naturally move upwards from one evolutionary truce to the next. Rather, most adults, at least occasionally, also move backwards along their developmental pathways. To use Freud’s term, they "regress.” For instance, Arnold Sameroff is demonstrating that adults move backwards along their own developmental trajectory because, in his view, the environmental factors that individuals are embedded in are forces that are just as capable of prompting regressive movement as they are likely to encourage transformational activity. For Sameroff, the context in which each of us is living has the power to determine when and how we evolve, and whether we progress or regresses. Whether we progress or regress simply depends, in important ways, on whether the environmental triggers, signs, and signals an individual is subject to are supporting their growth or activating their regression. Context matters.
  • Kegan's revolution is also being extended and expanded through the research that's currently being done in the field of Embodied Cognition. Researchers in this field are advancing the hypothesis that our brains are actually not "in charge" of our bodies. Rather, our brains are powerfully influenced by our bodies. These two systems are actually linked; together they create for our minds' their meaning-making systems. This proposition, of course, stands in sharp contrast to the theory of mind that Rene Descarte so famously proclaimed in the 17th Century, when he said “the mind or soul of man is entirely different from the body.” Today, the world's leading Embodied Cognition researchers, people like Benjamin K. Bergen, are showing us that our meaning-making is not just a cognitive process that’s going on in our brains. It’s actually activity that's going on in our brains and our bodies synchronously. Dr. Bergen, through what he’s calling his Embodied Simulation theories, is showing us that our bodies are directly involved in our meaning-making. He’s showing us that it's our bodies and our brains together that are crafting “embodied simulations” of actions that we've previously experienced, and that these two systems and subsequently using their simulations to create meaning for us. Evidently the bodly precepts we create experientially and the meanings develop conceptually both are tied to the physical experiences we have while we're moving our bodies. Essentially, Embodied Cognition's key assumption is that our bodies are never simply passive perceivers or actors that are just acting as our brains' servants. Instead, our bodies and our brains are linked together into a larger meaning-making system, and it's this one body/brain system that our minds use to create the embodied simulations that are necessary to activate our meaning-making processes.
  • Self-Directed Neuroplasticity is the third new field that's further revolutionizing Kegan’s understanding of adult development. Self-Directed Neuroplasticity is a new science that's focused on exploring our ability to intentionally influence the neurobiological architecture of our brains, bodies, and minds. In the past, we thought the structure of our brains was fixed, stable once we were past adolescence. And that the prospect across most our lives was for the loss of functions and the reduction of capabilities. Today, Self-Directed Neuroplasticity is showing us that our brain/bodies are not fixed, that post adolescence their architectures are not deteriorating, In fact, we learning that the brain is not the hardwired machine that eventually wears out that we thought it was. Instead, it's a highly adaptable, malleable, and dynamic organ, capable of generating new axons, dendrites, neurons, synapses, neurobiological connections and networks throughout our lives. Neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni, who's working at UCLA's Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center, says it this way, “The brain has an almost boundless capacity for reshaping itself over the years, for adapting, for expanding its power, while accumulating knowledge and recording experiences. Modern neuroscience tells us that the aging brain is no longer a declining brain. Instead, it's a learning organ built for resilience and adaptation. One whose limits are still being explored. Put simply, Self-Directed Neuroplasticity is telling us that we can use our minds to change our brains, and we can also use our brains to change our minds.

Given the research we're aware of, the two of us believe there’s just one question that emerges out of a preliminary study of these three new, revolutionary research fields:  

"Which approach should come first? The mind we use to change our brains? Or the brain we use to change our minds?"

For us, Self-Directed Neuroplasticity's favorite aphorisms suggests the answer: The maxim is this one, "What I see is down to me." And for us, this it say the answer to our "Which comes first question?" is the proposition that the best place to start any adult development learning effort is the one that starts things off by using our minds to chose the best way to go about changing our brains.