Human Development

Development refers to the physical, cognitive, and psychosocial development of humans throughout the lifespan. What types of development are involved in each of these three domains, or areas, of life? Physical development involves growth and changes in the body and brain, the senses, motor skills, and health and wellness. Cognitive development involves learning, attention, memory, language, thinking, reasoning, and creativity. Psychosocial development involves emotions, personality, and social relationships.

Figure 1.2.1. Physical, cognitive, and psychosocial development are interrelated.

Physical Domain

Many of us are familiar with the height and weight charts that pediatricians consult to estimate if babies, children, and teens are growing within normative ranges of physical development. We may also be aware of changes in children’s fine and gross motor skills, as well as their increasing coordination, particularly in terms of playing sports. But we may not realize that physical development also involves brain development, which not only enables childhood motor coordination but also greater coordination between emotions and planning in adulthood, as our brains are not done developing in infancy or childhood. Physical development also includes puberty, sexual health, fertility, menopause, changes in our senses, and healthy habits with nutrition and exercise.

Cognitive Domain

If we watch and listen to infants and toddlers, we can’t help but wonder how they learn so much so fast, particularly when it comes to language development. Then as we compare young children to those in middle childhood, there appear to be considerable differences in their ability to think logically about the concrete world around them. Cognitive development includes mental processes, thinking, learning, and understanding, and it doesn’t stop in childhood. Adolescents develop the ability to think logically about the abstract world (and may like to debate matters with adults as they exercise their new cognitive skills!). Moral reasoning develops further, as does practical intelligence—wisdom may develop with experience over time. Memory abilities and different forms of intelligence tend to change with age. Brain development and the brain’s ability to adapt and compensate for losses is significant to cognitive functions across the lifespan, too.

Psychosocial Domain

Development in the psychosocial (or socioemotional) domain involves what’s going on both psychologically and socially. Early on, the focus is on infants and caregivers, as temperament and attachment are significant. As the social world expands and the child grows psychologically, different types of play and interactions with other children and teachers become essential. Psychosocial development involves emotions, personality, self-esteem, and relationships. Peers become more important for adolescents, who are exploring new roles and forming their own identities. Dating, romance, cohabitation, marriage, having children, and finding work or a career are all parts of the transition into adulthood. Psychosocial development continues across adulthood with similar (and some different) developmental issues of family, friends, parenting, romance, divorce, remarriage, blended families, caregiving for elders, becoming grandparents and great grandparents, retirement, new careers, coping with losses, and death and dying.

As you may have already noticed, physical, cognitive, and psychosocial development are often interrelated, Puberty exemplifies this interaction well. Puberty is a biological change that releases hormones that spurs the maturation of sex organs and physical growth. However, puberty also triggers changes within the brain that affect cognition, emotions, and social relationships. Puberty often comes with mood swings, but also, improved ability to self-regulate. Puberty is also when relationships change with parents and peers. While puberty may be a topic within the physical domain, there is clearly an interaction with the other areas.

Video 1.2.1. Domains in Development describes the three domains and how those domains interact.

Who Studies Development and Why?

Many academic disciplines contribute to the study of development and developmental psychology is related to other applied fields. The study of development informs several applied fields in psychology, including educational psychology, psychopathology, and forensic developmental psychology. It also complements several other specific areas of psychology, including social psychology, cognitive psychology, and comparative psychology. This multidisciplinary course is made up of contributions from researchers in the areas of biology, health care, anthropology, nutrition, and sociology, among others.

The main goals of those involved in studying development are to describe, predict, and explain changes. Throughout this course, we will describe observations during development, predict courses and milestones for change, and then examine how theories provide explanations for why these changes occur.

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