Mental functions, which may also be referred to as mental processes, define all things that people can do using their minds. As explained by David (2013), such things can include perception, thinking, volition, memory as well as emotion. The term mental functions can be used interchangeably with cognitive functions, which define a cognitive activity or a mental operation, such as the cognitive process of thinking or remembering, that impacts mental contents. Although scholars have for a long time debated about the relationship between the human mind and varying mental processes, recent advancement in neuroscience has indicated that varying aspects of the human mental life, including perceptions, memories, actions, plans, understanding as well as language are in fact dependent on mental functions. While this indicates that humans reap a great deal of benefits from the complex nature of mental functions, it is obvious that they can as well as become victims of this complexity particularly when mental functions are disrupted. As explained by Glezer (2009), humans’ mental functions can severely be impaired particularly in instances when a person develops dementia or stroke, which may in return perpetuate certain disabling functions. This explains why disrupted mental functions are linked to the wide range of mental illnesses.
The need to extensively understand mental functions in humans has led to the emergence of various professional scholars that seek to comprehensively review the mental processes that occur in the human brain. This new development was particularly triggered by the computer revolution that occurred in the 1940s. This is because the computer evolution triggered another type of evolution, cognitive evolution, which emerged between 1950s and 1960s with a primary focus on information processing. This led to the scholars’ interest in understanding internal mental functions rather than just concentrating on the external behavior that had dominated much of past scholars’ interest particularly those that prevailed in the preceding fifty years (Anna, 2014). While most scholars concentrating on the lower-level mental functions have, for more than a century, generated fairly integrated information pertaining to the underlying psychology, this is not always the case in higher mental functions. This is because certain scholars concentrating on higher mental processes might look into certain aspects involved in these processes in non-specific way while others take a more specific approach. For instance, scholarly focus in mid-nineteenth century looked at the “association cortex” in a non-specified way. This focus was however proven by other scholars that included Broca and Wernicke to have certain deficits. This was due to the fact that the scholars showed that mental processes relating to “association cortex” are not non-specific especially because certain specified language deficits proved to emerge as a result of particular brain damage. Such aspects of mental functions indicate that the topic can best be understood with specific focus on contributions made by individual scholars (David, 2013). This paper aims to understand mental functions with specific focus on contributions made by Vygotsky.
Mental functions as drawn from Vygotsky’s contributions
Lev Vygotsky, who was a Russian Psychologist that lived between 1896 and 1934, is renowned for founding the human cultural as well as bio-social developmental theory, which is also known as the cultural-historical psychological theory. He is also popularly known for heading the Vygotsky circle, which was an influential network that comprised of psychologists, educationalists, physiologists, neuroscientists as well as medical specialists. Although Vygotsky engaged in scholarly works in varying psychological fields, his most famous piece of work was solely on developmental psychology. In this field, Vygotsky proposed a developmental theory explaining that higher cognitive functions among children are usually exhibited through reasoning, which emerges through engaging in practical activities within a social environment. As explained by Glezer (2009), Vygotsky, during the initial stages of his career argued that reasoning as an aspect of higher cognitive functions is usually exhibited through signs as well as symbols, and hence, dependent of cultural practices, language and collective cognitive functions. Vygotsky further established a concept known as the proximal development zone, which is popularly understood to define how previous learning as well as the accessibility of instructions determines the extent to which new knowledge is obtained. Although his theories were largely controversial in the Soviet Union, his thoughts were introduced in the West where they formed basis for the creation of new paradigms both in developmental and learning psychology. Today, Vygotsky’s theories are widely recognized in the West although few scholars are contentious about what he meant. This has in return led to significant reevaluation of Vygotsky’s theories as well as concepts, which explains why he was ranked eighty third among the most cited psychologists of the twentieth century (Anna, 2014).
In terms of his contributions on mental functions, Vygotsky covered a variety of themes such as genetic explanation, social sources of cognition, internalization as well as the function of sign systems in perpetuating human thinking. As noted by Fernyhough (2008), these themes were later responsible for the development of activity theory. Vygotsky began his explanations on mental functions by analyzing their genetic origins. He looked both at the historical as well as ontogenetic aspects of development and concluded that understanding the mental phenomena should solely be based on proper comprehension of their origins as well as evolution. First, he sought to analyze the development notion, whose nature, he believed, was wrongly perceived by most psychologists. As a result of this analysis, Vygotsky criticized the analytical approaches that were founded on preformism, which, he believed, formed the basis of most scholarly thinking pertaining to developmental psychology. Specifically, Vygotsky rejected the initially popular preformist theory, which stated that all organisms emerged from minute versions of themselves and hence there was nothing like the assembly of many parts including different mental function components (Glezer, 2009). He instead argued that every organism was formed from undifferentiated mass through a series of procedures as well as stages that allow new parts to be added. He further rejected the belief that ontogenesis of the higher-level mental functions comprise of a simplistic steady procedure of quantitative rise in a child’s knowledge. By contrast, Vygotsky argued that ontogenesis of higher-level mental processes comprises of qualitative revolutionary processes that ultimately contribute to a fully developed cognitive processes. As such, the qualitative shifts should not simply be ignored as if they were mere interruptions of an otherwise even progression that contributes to development. They should however be given a key position in making genetic explanations on mental functions’ development (David, 2013).
As explained by Fernyhough (1996), the most significant ontogenetic qualitative shift revolves around the integration of cultural aspects of mediation into what was previously known as natural processes. This is mainly concerned about the adoption of the cultural sign systems, which serves an important function in this qualitative shift. This is because the introduction of such sign systems into a child’s mental functioning particularly in areas such as memory as well as problem solving may modify the natural processes in a very fundamental manner. Particularly, there is massive restructuring and modification of a child’s mental functions at this juncture. Although there may even be constant decline in the level of functioning, the child’s psychological processes, after being restructured through attaining the sign systems becomes stronger particularly in the cultural spectrum upon which it will needed to operate.
As evident from this analysis, it is obvious that Vygotsky’s ideas on mental function’s development are a direct expression of Marx’s ideas. This is because Vygotsky insisted that the analysis of a phenomenon within the social as well as psychological contexts must be based on its origins as well as development. Just as Marx stressed that the analysis of any society must be founded on proper comprehension of its socioeconomic history, Vygotsky stated that the analysis of a person’s mental processes must be founded on proper comprehension of the earlier stages that he/she must have gone through (Anna, 2014). Marx also insisted that a society may develop within a lengthy duration of time while making quantitative advancements but important qualitative shifts will intermittently occur and will eventually restructure the overall wider society. Similarly, Vygotsky employed the evolution concept to contrast child development theories that perceive ontogenesis as a constant progression of quantitative advancements in mental functions.
Further explanations on mental functions are founded on social basis of cognition as explained by Vygotsky. As argued by Fernyhough (1996), an important theoretical contribution that Vygotsky made in regard to the development of mental functions is that they have social origins. By merely making this claim, Vygotsky faced a significant challenge in trying to reconcile it with the popular fact that newborns already have certain mental functions. In order to address this problem, Vygotsky distinguished between the lower and higher mental functions. The link prevailing between these two levels of mental functions was however not strictly determined. This is because lower-mental functions in certain instances may form the basis for the development of an appropriate higher-mental function. For instance, unmediated memory can emanate from mediated and intentionally controlled memory. In other instances, higher-mental functions may prevail in the intersubjective form and hence be obtained by a child through learning and shared activities. In both instances, Vygotsky adopted Hegelian approach to cognitive development. According to David (2013), the Hegelian approach to cognitive development explains that development of any cognitive function undergoes three key stages where it prevails “in itself”, “for others” and ultimately “for itself”. Similarly, Vygotsky exhibited the development of an indicatory signal in infancy as going through a series of stages. The stage begins as a non-victorious grasping movement inclined towards a desired object. Although this may not necessarily be an indication, it can successfully acquire important meaning if interpreted well by the infant’s caregiver. At this point, the grasping moment is reconciled by the social environment to attain a social meaning, which is then adopted by the child to aid him in communicating with his/her caregivers as well as acquiring his practical goals (Bodrova and Leong, 2015). Although he/she may not be aware of the fact that he/she is employing the gesture as a form of social signal, he may later use it to regulate his/her actions as well as behaviors particularly when he/she is fully aware of what is going on in his/her environment. Basing this interpretation on Hegelian approach to cognitive development, it is obvious that this is the point where the indicatory gesture prevails for itself given that a child is capable of utilizing it while at the same time being aware of the fact that he/she is doing so.
Certain experimental data generated by various scholars however challenge Vygotsky’s developmental approach as he tried to distinguish between the lower and higher-mental functions. As explained by Fernyhough (2008), experimental studies conducted by Gestalt psychologists challenged Vygotsky’s claim that higher-mental functions are solely obtained through learning and participation in shared activities. According to these scholars, certain common structural laws, including the common fate law, are inherent for human perception and hence are not acquired through learning. That is, these structural laws are present during birth of an infant and do not change as the child advances in age. Additionally, Folkelt suggested that a child’s perception from birth comprised both of the structural and the orthoscopic aspects. As such, infants possess an innate capacity to be constant in their perception. Although Vygotsky was greatly opposed to Folkelt’s claims in regard to perception constancy, it is arguable that his objections were based on theory rather than empirical evidence (Anna, 2014). This is because Folkelt was able to prove that children from as early three weeks after birth could demonstrate certain comprehension of the common fate law. Vygotsky however sought for evidence to back his claims but he drew this evidence from Helmgoltz’s premature memories in his childhood when he had argued that orthoscopic perception was not inherent but had to be acquired through experience. This however raises questions pertaining to the reliability of Vygotsky’s claim given that he had initially rejected Helmgoltz’s report on basis of having questionable evidence but he nonetheless accepted it to support his claim pertaining to the development of orthoscopic perception (Bodrova and Leong, 2015).
In order to further elaborate the social basis for cognitive development, Vygotsky proposed that higher mental functions as exhibited by individuals usually reflect the social processes that a person may have engaged in at early stages of ontogenesis. As explained by Fernyhough (1996), Vygotsky argued that higher-mental functions are first perpetuated through an inter-psychological plane but later translated into an intra-psychological plane. At this point, an issue of critical concern revolves around the social processes that may impact mental processes at each level as well as how these regulatory processes are taken up by the developing child to allow him become an autonomous cognitive being. As Vygotsky explains it, the mechanisms that underlie higher-mental functions are a reflection of social interactions, which explains why these functions are perceived to be a product of social relationships rather than inherent structures Fernyhough (2008). A keen analysis of Vygotsky’s explanation of higher-mental functions as a product of social interactions is closely linked to what has been studied in the recent past in the West under titles such as metacognition as well as executive routine. A key distinction between Vygotsky’s explanation and the Western investigations is that the western scholars have only limited their inquiries on the mental functioning of a person only when he/she is operating as an autonomous being. They have however failed to examine the social basis of cognitive development at the inter-psychological level. As such, a key point that differentiates Vygotsky’s approach from a huge variety of those adopted in the West is his portrayal of the intra-psychological level’s processes as a reflection of the way processes are perpetuated at the inter-psychological level (Anna, 2014).
An important concept that is evident in Vygotsky explanation of social basis for the development of mental functions is the internalization concept. As explained by Fernyhough (2008), Vygotsky does not simply claim that social interaction directly translates into mental functions that enhance a child’s capacity in problem solving or even memory. However, Vygotsky argues that the basic means that promote social interaction are usually taken up by each child and eventually internalized. In order to elaborate on the internalization concept, Vygotsky looked at the acquisition of language, which he believed constituted to the most basic and important tool that facilitates the acquisition of various other mental tools. He specifically used one of the best known forms of language, private speech that originates from the social speech. He explained that a child takes up the audible aspects of social speech, which mainly include the initial aspects of speech that are directed to other people (Anna, 2014). The audible aspects are then internalized so they can be used in private speech or what may be termed as self-talk. The private speech, which mainly peaks during preschool years, then starts becoming evident in a child when faced with more challenging activities. At this point, Vygotsky explained that a child may tend to engage in an audible self-talk that is similar to that of an adult person, which is intended to address particular challenging issues that emerge in his/her play activities. However, the use of private speech starts declining when self-talk translates into inners speech and eventually into verbal thinking. Hence, the evolution of speech, from the social speech to self-directed speech and eventually to verbal thinking is what Vygotsky equated with internalization, which he believed constituted to the basic law for the formation of higher-mental functions. At this point, it is evident that Vygotsky made a powerful statement pertaining to internalization as well as the social foundations of mental functions. It can therefore be concluded that among other psychological factors, Vygotsky is solely concerned about explaining the basis for the development of mental functions (Bodrova and Leong, 2015).
Mental functions, which refer to all the mental activities that a person engages in, appear to form an important component of human brain. This is because they regulate all things that people can do using their minds and hence can impact the overall mental contents. Although scholars looking the lower-level mental functions have for a long time generated similar information pertaining to the underlying psychology, those looking at higher-level mental functions have generated distinct information, which indicates that higher-level mental functions can be understood in different ways depending on contributions made by individual scholars. Vygotsky was one of the most important psychologists that made significant contributions on this topic and eventually influenced how people understand mental functions. His elaboration on this topic specifically concentrated on the genetic origins, social foundations, internalization and the role played by sign system to promote human thinking. From want Vygotsky outlined, it is apparent that lower-level mental functions forms basis for the higher-level mental functions. Similarly, higher-level mental functions may as well originate from learning and other social activities. Mental functions usually emerge from a genetic spectrum that allows the modification and restructuring of an undifferentiated mass through various stages and procedures to form a fully functioning cognitive system. Social interactions are also critical in the development of mental functions especially because they allow for the internalization of various cultural systems that a child may obtain from the external environment to constitute to the overall mental functions that are unique to each individual being.
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