Some might ask: Is greater “cognitive development” just another way of saying some people are smarter than others?
Not exactly. As a society, we often equate intelligence with one’s breadth of knowledge. “Cognitive development” is much closer to what we often call wisdom, a depth of understanding or a higher perspective. Beyond that, humans have several different types of intelligences at their disposal: bodily-kinesthetic, existential, intra-personal, interpersonal, logical-mathematical, musical/artistic, naturalist, spatial, and probably many others. One might be less mature in their cognitive development than someone and still be more intelligent (or knowledgeable) in several domains.
The best way to understand cognitive development, mental complexity, or “consciousness,” is through the notions of subject and object. What is subject to us is all the things that we consider ourselves to be: often identity, personality traits, beliefs, values, etc. What’s subjective is everything we are attached to and therefore can’t be objective about. On the the other hand, what is object to us is everything that we are somewhat detached from, everything that we consider outside of us, everything that we can be relatively objective about. In other words, what is subject is what one is. What is object is what one has.
The process of cognitive development at its core is the journey of transforming the subject into the object. For example, those of the socialized mind (in Kegan’s theory) consider the values of their society to be subject. They believe and integrate them into themselves wholeheartedly. The jump to the self-authoring mind is when one can begin to distance herself from and critique the values of their society. The self-authoring mind identifies as a unique entity separate from society. What was once subject (i.e., society’s values and beliefs) has become object. Our sense of who we are has broadened, deepened, and grown more complex and dynamic,
Imagine you are in a theater group acting on a stage. You decide to stop acting and go and sit in the audience. You can see the play happening before you. You once were the performance. Now you are the audience. Next, you walk upstairs to the first balcony. You can now see even more. You can see more of the play and you can even watch the audience below you. You walk up to the second balcony. Now you can see even more, including all of the performance, the ground floor audience, and the first balcony audience. As you keep ascending, eventually you are so high up in the rafters that the performance is just one small piece of what you are experiencing. You are experiencing the performance, the audience, the building, and perhaps even something else happening outside the window.
This ascent is somewhat akin to cognitive development. As our minds become more complex, we gain a wider perspective on what is happening around us and who we are. We see a fuller picture of what is. We continue to separate further and further from what we once identified as ourselves.
No view in the theater is better or worse. All views are true, accurate, and valid. Some just see through a wider lens than others and capture more of what’s happening.