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 -- which, before The Evolving Self, were separate fields of study. He did this, most specifically, by offering us four new propositions about the adult development process:

  • 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 can be active across an individual's entire lifespan, especially if the individual makes a conscious decision to pursue his or her own development.

  • 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, 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.

New Insights

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 using Dr. Kegan's insights as guideposts for our coaching and consulting were implicitly assuming that our adult clients always moved forward in their developmental efforts. Adult development was pretty much a progressive process. Over the last couple of years, I’ve started to realize that the assumption that adult development is a growth process that naturally evolves "upward" is a step too far. Today it seems more likely that adult development doesn't only move upwards through successive levels of consciousness. It (an adult’s development) can also stall out, and settle into some sort of equilibrium. Moreover, for most adults, it seems their development, at least occasionally, can also move backwards. To use Freud’s term, they "regress.” For instance, Arnold Sameroff’s research suggests that, given the right “biopsycholsocial context,” adults can encounter situations and circumstances that prompt them to move backwards along their own developmental trajectory. In this view, the environments that individuals are living in can occasionally exert forces that are just as capable of prompting a regressive move as they are likely to encourage progressive 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 on whether the environment we’re in is strong enough to activate signs and signals that support an individual’s growth or activates 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. 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 bodily precepts we create experientially and the meanings we develop conceptually both are tied to the physical experiences we have while we're moving our bodies. The 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, I 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 me, Self-Directed Neuroplasticity's favorite aphorisms suggests the answer: The maxim is this one, "What I see is down to me." So, 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 off by using our minds to chose the best way to go about changing our brains.