Symmetry-breaking dynamics in development

Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 16 (4):585-596 (2017)
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Recognition of the plasticity of development — from gene expression to neuroplasticity — is increasingly undermining the traditional distinction between structure and function, or anatomy and behavior. At the same time, dynamic systems theory — a set of tools and concepts drawn from the physical sciences — has emerged as a way of describing what Maurice Merleau-Ponty calls the “dynamic anatomy” of the living organism. This article surveys and synthesizes dynamic systems models of development from biology, neuroscience, and psychology in order to propose an integrated account of growth, learning, and behavior. Key to this account is the concept of self-differentiation or symmetry-breaking. I argue that development can be understood as a cascade of symmetry-breaking events brought about by the ongoing interactions of multiple, nested, nonlinear dynamic systems whose self-organizing behaviors gradually alter their own anatomical conditions. I begin by introducing the concept of symmetry-breaking as a way of understanding anatomical development. I then extend this approach to motor development by arguing that the organism’s behavior grows along with its body, like a new organ. Finally, I argue that the organism’s behavior and its world grow together dialectically, each driving the other to become more complex and asymmetrical through its own increasing asymmetry. Thus development turns out to be a form of cognition or sense-making, and cognition a form of development.

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Noah Moss Brender
Dawson College


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