A Dynamic Systems Approach to the Development of Cognition and Action

From Cognitive Psychology

A Dynamic Systems Approach to the Development of Cognition and Action

By Linda B. Smith and Esther Thelen

Bradford Books





A Dynamic Systems Approach to the Development of Cognition and Action presents a comprehensive and detailed theory of early human development based on the principles of dynamic systems theory. Beginning with their own research in motor, perceptual, and cognitive development, Thelen and Smith raise fundamental questions about prevailing assumptions in the field. They propose a new theory of the development of cognition and action, unifying recent advances in dynamic systems theory with current research in neuroscience and neural development. In particular, they show how by processes of exploration and selection, multimodal experiences form the bases for self-organizing perception-action categories.

Thelen and Smith offer a radical alternative to current cognitive theory, both in their emphasis on dynamic representation and in their focus on processes of change. Among the first attempt to apply complexity theory to psychology, they suggest reinterpretations of several classic issues in early cognitive development.

The book is divided into three sections. The first discusses the nature of developmental processes in general terms, the second covers dynamic principles in process and mechanism, and the third looks at how a dynamic theory can be applied to enduring puzzles of development.

Cognitive Psychology series

Bradford Books imprint


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262200950 402 pp. | 6.875 in x 10 in


$55.00 X ISBN: 9780262700597 402 pp. | 6.875 in x 10 in


  • A radical departure from most of current cognitive developmenttheory.... Nativists, structuralists, empiricists and socialconstructivists will disagree with different parts of this book.Yet this landmark volume is essential reading for all of them.

    Annette Karmiloff-Smith and Mark H. Johnson


  • Those of us who study development have been searching for years for ways to make the field more dynamic. Here finally Thelen and smith have put together a choherent dynamic systems framework on which we can build. They not only portray the best dynamic systems research, but they ground it in an exciting, powerful way of thinking that will serve as a new foundation for helping to remake the study of developing behavior.

    Kurt W. Fischer, Ph.D.

  • The emphasis this book places on dynamic processes and change in development is welcome and will benefit developmental psychology. We badly need both theory and research on how change comes about. That, after all, is the reason for a developmental approach. I welcome, too, the strong view that change and development have to be the result of interactions of multiple factors, not single causes, either enviornmental or genetic.

    Eleanor J. Gibson

    Susan Lynn Sage Professor of Psychology, Emeritus, Cornell University

  • In this provocative monograph, Thelen and Smith propse a dynamical systems approach to child development as an alternative to the commonplace approaches of nativism-rationalism (emphasizing inborn hypotheses and conceptual representations), epiricism (emphasizing specific learning experiences), Piaget (emphasizing stages of logical competence), and information processing (emphasizing strategies of encoding and retrieval). Thelen and Smith's emphasis is on very general principles that govern the progressive formation and differentiation of patterns in physical, chemical, and biological systems. Through argument and experiment, they convey the messages that a dynamics approach offers a fresh and productive perspective on traditional developmental issues and that it discloses essential but nonobvious aspects of the developmental process that would be forever hidden from traditional perspectives. Thelen and Smith have chosem a path to understanding the characteristics processes of humans and other animals that D'Arcy Thompson (1917) lamented was a path taken over the ages by only a small band of travelers. To his delight, this book of Thelen and Smith's will encourage many more investigators of development, both beginners and seasoned veterans, to tread the difficult but inevitably rewarding path of dynamical analysis.

    Professor M. T. Turvey

    Center for the Ecological Study of Perception and Action, University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut and Haskins Laboratories, New Haven, Connecticut