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Updated: Dec 27, 2023

By Brandon Choi

How and why are we so much more intelligent, and how do humans learn?

In all the grandeur of Mother Nature, we humans stand out as remarkable beings, distinguished by a unique characteristic that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom: our unparalleled intelligence. This intellectual superiority renders humans as the superior species on Earth, allowing us to essentially rule over everything. But where does this intelligence begin? Why are we so much more intelligent, and how do humans learn? This leads into the study of cognitive development, defined by Stanford Childrens’ Medicine as “the growth of a child’s ability to think and reason.” Understanding cognitive development may allow for more informed decisions on the most optimal way that people learn. Cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget and Lev Vygtosky attempts to answer these questions and provide their insights on how humans retain information.

Imagine a video game—a virtual realm of human knowledge. Each level is something to conquer, something to learn. One starts at the beginning with the tutorial and slowly works their way up, completing level by level and slowly increasing in difficulty. This allows the player to complete the video game in small, manageable stages that are acclimated to their current skill set. They slowly progress through the levels until they reach the final level and ultimately beat the game. This is how Piaget viewed the process in which humans learned—in stages. Piaget claimed that knowledge is slowly built upon completing the stages, much like experience points and in-game currency one may gather for completing levels and tasks. Piaget broke these stages down into four main categories: the sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and the formal operational stages. He wrote that these four stages are different levels of sophistication to which children have access and should be taught based on a child’s given stage. 



The first stage, the sensorimotor stage, begins at birth and lasts until around two years old, but of course, this varies from child to child. In this stage, Piaget found that children tend to be extremely curious, whether it be to explore that new room, smell that new candle, or try that new food, children in the sensorimotor stage engage in very basic actions to learn. By engaging in these actions, they base their learning heavily on their five senses. As a result, Piaget noted that infants develop a variety of abilities, such as deferred imitation, representational play, and self-recognition. They start to become aware of the world around them and not just their own body. They also begin to do small things intentionally. Later in this stage, Piaget noted that infants will begin to understand object permanence, the idea that even if they cannot see an object, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it doesn’t exist. This then leads to the development of the memory, and the storing of information, recalling that information, and labeling it. 



As the child nears two years old, they enter the preoperational stage, typically lasting five years from ages two to seven. In this stage, thinking is still heavily influenced by the way things appear rather than using logical reasoning. Piaget found that children in this stage do not understand conservation yet, the idea that even if the shape of something changes to seem smaller that the amount remains constant. As the child begins to speak and communicate, they remain curious and seek to gain answers not only through their senses, but also through communication and questioning. Children were noted to be very egocentric in this stage, unable to understand that everyone has different views on the world outside of what they can comprehend. During the preoperational stage, children begin to form vast imaginations and use symbolism to comprehend the world easier. This often leads to the creation of “imaginary friends” and animism, where children give life to inanimate objects to make them seem alive. Piaget also found that as the child progresses through this stage, their egocentric nature slowly declines and they begin to enjoy being around others, often interacting with others and eventually making friends.



At around age 7, lasting up until age 11, the child hits the third stage, known as the concrete operational stage. Here, logic becomes an important factor in the child’s development. As a result, children gain the ability to inductively deduce and reason. This is representative of Piaget’s theory, as they first began as simply observing around them and now have “leveled-up” to where they are able to connect what they see and use it to make conclusions. As their logical thinking improves, children have been noted to be able to begin to solve problems and work things out in their head instead of using the physical world to aid them. Mental reversal of objects and concepts become possible, also connected with stronger image processing. For instance, children are generally able to imagine a box being broken down and folded back up to its original shape, or vice versa. The concept of conservation has become understandable, that no matter the shape as long as the original amount of something is still there it is the same size. Moreover, Piaget observed that children become less egocentric and begin to consider others' feelings. They become empathetic and sympathetic toward not only other people, but toward other living creatures as well, beginning to understand their own and others’ emotions. 



Finally, children reach the formal operational stage at around 12 years old. This stage, according to Piaget, lasts from age 12 into adulthood for the rest of their life. Here, children master abstract ideas and are able to accurately describe different ideas clearly. It becomes easier for them to take in new abstract ideas as well. Children understand complex concepts without needing a specific example to connect statements and visualize what they need to understand. Piaget noted that they are able to tackle hypothetical problems and overall think on a deeper level than they were able to before. The formal operational stage is where the child has beaten the game and has acquired all of the skills, all of the tools, and all of the upgrades necessary to tackle any problem thrown at them in the future.

cognitive development in children is heavily influenced by a child’s culture, social factors, and ultimately their upbringing.

Lev Vygotsky, however, provides insight on another method in which children may develop and learn. His theories can be visualized through an image of a building under construction. In the construction of this building, each story is built with meticulously planned materials and assistance. The help and work of construction workers and machines alike allow for the building to be fully built and reach its full potential, its maximum height. As learning develops, the level of assistance is adjusted in order to more efficiently erect the building. Vygotsky’s theories were based on a similar system; a system of constant adjusting and accommodating for the growth of cognitive development. Vygotsky proposed that cognitive development in children is heavily influenced by a child’s culture, social factors, and ultimately their upbringing.



Conversely, unlike Piaget, Vygotsky proposed that cognitive development in children is heavily influenced by a child’s culture, social factors, and ultimately their upbringing. Vygotsky, however, first mentioned that infants are all born with basic abilities for intellectual development and growth, which he called “elementary mental functions.” These include attention, sensation, perception, and memory. Through social interaction, these functions develop and become what he calls higher mental functions. These social interactions would vary between cultures and ultimately determine a child’s order of thinking. Because cultures can be vastly different, Vygotsky noted that therefore different cultures produce children who grow up with a variety of different skills in different cultures. Vygotsky defines the term tools of intellectual adaptation, which refer to means of thinking that children learn through socialization within their respective cultures. Children growing up in 2 different societies and cultures may have completely different views on a subject simply because of how they were raised and how they were taught to view the world around them. For instance, Western cultures like the United States’ promotes a value of individuality among people and that standing out is a good thing. For instance, individualism is notably prominent in our advertisement system. The main selling point of a product will often be to stand out, to be better than those around you, to be different. Conversely, many East Asian countries, such as Japan, promote ideas of conformity. Many of their advertisements urge the purchase of a product because everyone else is buying it, more often than not including a celebrity promoting the product.



During the process of socialization among cultures, Vygotsky identified a key figure: the presence of a more knowledgeable other,” as he calleds it, also known as an MKO. According to Vygotsky, an MKO can be anyone in the child’s environment who has more knowledge than the child. This includes but is not limited to people such as a parent, teacher, sibling, peer, or even a stranger. As explained by Vygotsky, a successful MKO should be able to guide the child to learn what is possible within their proximal zone, or the area between what a child can do independently and what can achieve with guidance. Vygotsky argues that without social interaction, children will still develop—just not to their full potential. An MKO should ultimately help the child explore their proximal zone and optimize their learning experience. This is explained by an example of scaffolding. Here, it is described that the actions of an MKO’s actions should align with how scaffolding works, where the MKO provides the students with the tools they need in order to obtain information and learn, to achieve higher levels of thinking, similar to how scaffolding helps a building reach higher heights. 



Vygotsky also discussed the importance of language among the learning processes. He believed that language develops from socialization and interactions, for the purpose of communication. He believed that language was humankind’s greatest tool for communicating to the outside world. According to Vygotsky, language holds two important roles in cognitive development. He stated that language was the main means of communication where adults, or an MKO, could transmit information to children. The second purpose of language was a tool for intellectual adaptation, where language would make gaining information easier the more it was absorbed and learnt. Within language, Vygotsky categorizes it into 3 different forms: social speech, private speech, and private speech goes “underground.”

Social speech is the simple means of communication that we all should be familiar with. It is defined by Vygotsky as the form of external communication that is mainly used to talk to others and used to socialize. This typically begins from around the age of two.

The second form, private speech, is the form of speech which is directed to the self. This form of speech mainly serves as an intellectual function, as well as serving the purpose of self-regulation. Private speech has been typically observed to emerge at around the age of three.

Finally, private speech goes “underground.” This is defined as when private speech becomes inaudible and takes on the form of silent inner speech. This form occurs inside of the brain and is only heard by the person speaking, and is usually noticed in children around the age of seven. Vygotsky also discussed a process called reciprocal teaching. In reciprocal teaching, both the child and the MKO are engaging in conversation through the use of the different language forms and take turns leading the conversation. This results in the building of ideas and knowledge. Vygotsky found that this results in a heightened ability to learn from one’s social surroundings and language. He highlighted the importance of language in a child’s learning process , and suggested that language is one of the most important aspects of a child’s upbringing that contributes to their learning.

While Piaget emphasizes self-initiated discovery and individual progression through distinct stages, Vygotsky stresses the importance of social interactions, cultural influences, and the guidance of more knowledgeable others in shaping cognitive abilities.

Ultimately, Piaget and Vygotsky each presented distinct perspectives on human cognitive development. While Piaget emphasized self-initiated discovery and individual progression through distinct stages, Vygotsky stressed the importance of social interactions, cultural influences, and the guidance of more knowledgeable others in shaping cognitive abilities. Both theories contributed valuable insights to our understanding of how humans learn.

When people can’t differentiate between two people of the same race, it can be seen as “racist.” But even in my own experience, I have been mistaken for other people in my same racial group. This made me wonder whether our ability to accurately perceive differences in other people’s faces was related to the biases and stereotypes we may hold.

Kelly and colleagues (2007) may help provide some answers. These researchers investigated a phenomenon called the other-race effect, which may develop in the early stages of life. The researchers concluded that at 3 months, infants could differentiate all faces, 6 month olds could only differentiate between Chinese and Caucasian, and at 9 months, infants could only recognize people from their own race. The other-race effect exists in adults, where many adults have a harder time differentiating people in racial groups not of their own. This could be due to the fact that adults may spend most of their time with people of their own race, giving them ample time to learn the subtle nuances between faces over time. Thus, it is possible that the other-race effect emerges from nurture-- the environment around us and the people to which we are exposed.

Throughout one’s life, people could try to “unlearn” the other-race effect. But perhaps this case of “perceptual narrowing” could be strengthened too via different stereotypes and biases. If we were to conduct a study with this question, we could recruit adults who show the other-race effect in varying degrees. Then we can survey the participants to find out what kind of stereotypes and biases they have, especially relating to race. You could see if there is a relationship between the extent of the other-race effect depending on the stereotypes and biases an individual has. These questions and ideas show the complexities behind how society thinks about race today, bringing in more questions about how children develop with these ideas.


Kelly, D. J., Quinn, P. C., Slater, A. M., Lee, K., Ge, L., & Pascalis, O. (2007). The other-race effect develops during infancy: evidence of perceptual narrowing. Psychological Science, 18(12), 1084–1089.

In this episode, we discuss how confirmation bias can limit our perspectives. Why do we choose to ignore other possibilities? Why do we close off our minds to one side?

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