Kegan discusses stages of consciousness

discussed stages in the development of consciousness. Kegan spoke specifically about human psychology and its ability to cope with society’s demands.

Kegan began the lecture with a classic psychological experiment, showing a slide that, depending on one’s point of view, could be seen as either the profile of a young woman or a picture of a much older woman. Without mentioning these two perspectives, he polled the room on what they saw, illustrating significant differences in how different individuals interpreted the same image. He made the point that each of us has to construct a reality by organizing and interpreting what we see in the world and that we do this in different ways.

Kegan argued that we are all taught to construct reality in certain ways, beginning in our early childhood. “Think of modern Western culture as a school in which we are all compulsorily enrolled,” he said. Part of this construction, Kegan said, is learning our different roles in society, including our family roles as parents and spouses and our roles in the workplace.

He discussed the relationship between different stages of psychological development and individual abilities to cope with society’s expectations. He said that as infants we have only the most basic level of psychological development. According to Kegan, our reality constantly changes based on perspective, and we are unable to assume any viewpoint other than our immediate one. The second stage, which develops in the first 10 years of life, involves the ability to form a concrete view of the world that remains consistent with changing perspective, as well as the ability to see through another’s eyes. He gave one illustrative example from childhood. “If you ask a toddler who has a younger brother if he has a brother, he’ll answer yes. If you ask him if his brother has a brother, he’ll say no, because he’s unable to assume his brother’s perspective,” said Kegan.

Kegan then discussed the third order of consciousness, which is generally developed during adolescence and marks the change from the “instrumental mind” to the “socialized mind.” Kegan said that the development of the socialized mind “allows us to take in values from others around us.” “I become shapeable, I become made up by the world around me,” he said. He offered an example of parents confronting a teenager who has been out past curfew-an example he said that as a parent he has seen play out many times. Kegan stated that parents expect the children to obey curfew not only out of a fear of punishment, but because they believe it to be the right thing to do; in other words, to take on those same values as the parents. A child that is able to do this is often called “responsible,” a sign of the development of this third order of consciousness.

Psychological changes continue well into adulthood. Kegan argued that this third order of consciousness is in many cases inadequate to deal with the demands of our society. For example, he referred to expectations of long-term, stable commitments in adult relationships, which are incompatible with this fickle state of consciousness. Our society demands more stability and accountability; thus, a more advanced order of consciousness. Kegan referred to this fourth order as the “self-authoring mind,” capable of maintaining its own ideologies and principles without relying on outside references.

According to Kegan, one of the essential uses for this higher order of consciousness is in our culture’s emphasis on respecting diversity. “As enlightened and broad-minded as we are, we can’t help having reactions, even visceral reactions of disgust and distaste, to difference,” Kegan said. “These cultural influences are so powerful, we will never be able to eliminate these reactions. But this isn’t what diversity requires of adults. It requires that we not be so made up by these reactions.” He also discussed other prejudices like homophobia and explained that a homophobe projects personal distaste for homosexuality into a broader moral judgment.

Kegan cited that some studies indicate that roughly 58 percent of adults have not reached this fourth order of consciousness. According to Kegan, the only solution is to create institutions in society, especially in higher education, that seek to foster this transition to self-authorship. He suggested that individuals such as professors can attempt to create a bridge for students who require more developmental work, but the student must make the change.

Kegan ended the lecture with a clip from the movie version of the play “A Doll’s House,” in which the protagonist, Nora, leaves her husband and family in order to discover her position in life. Kegan claimed that we are all faced with this self-authoring task. The task will not involve abandoning our “previous lives,” but will focus on a significant, independent effort. According to Kegan, the rewards-the ability to be fully self-authoring and able to meet the expectations of society­-are worth the effort.