By A.R. Luria and F. Ia. Yudovich
I've been trying to catch up with Luria's work lately, especially his early work on behavior (via cultural-historical psychology) rather than his later work in neuropsychology. This book, which was originally published in the USSR in 1956 and in the West in 1959, describes some of this early work. Here, Luria recounts one of his twin studies from the 1930s—although I don't think Luria clearly situates the date of the study. (Recall that psychologists in the USSR kept their heads down during the Stalin years and published their major works after Stalin's death in 1953.)
My version, which is a 1971 reprint, has an admiring introduction by James Britton. Britton economically discusses the principles of cultural-historical psychology; he does not actually cite Vygotsky's Thought and Language, which was published in an abbreviated form in 1963, but this introduction could have just as easily been an introduction to that book.
Luria's book itself also does a nice job of explaining cultural-historical psychology, citing Vygotsky liberally as a central influence. Luria outlines three principles of Soviet materialist psychology:
- Reject any approach to mental activity that postulates "unanalysable 'abilities' which are innate in the organization of the brain" (p.21). Luria cites Sechenov and Pavlov for support and points to Lenin's notion of reflection.
- Introduce the "role of development into study of the formation of mental processes" (p.21). Luria again cites Sechenov and reflex theory, then adds: "Only a clear understanding that, at each particular stage of development, concrete forms of activity present the organism with new problems, new demands, which necessitate the development of new forms of reflex action, only such a conception can ensure the development of scientific research into the basic laws governing the formation of complex aspects of human mental activity" (pp.21-22). He adds: "This is the direction taken by Soviet psychological research" (p.22). Notice that "concrete forms of activity" is not necessarily a focus of Soviet psychology in general, but does neatly summarize the focus of cultural-historical psychology.
- Study the "child's mental activity as the outcome of his life in certain determined social circumstances" (p.22). He adds that animals develop individual experience, but "with the transition to man the basic form of mental development became acquisition of the experiences of other people through joint practice and speech" (p.22). (cf. Vygotsky and Luria.) Indeed, language "incorporates the experience of generations or, more broadly speaking, of mankind" (p.22).
Luria goes on that argue that language "locks a complex system of connections in the child's cortex and becomes a tremendous tool, introducing forms of analysis and synthesis into the child's perception which he would be unable to develop by himself" (p.24). And "by subordinating himself to the adult's verbal orders the child acquires a system of these verbal instructions and gradually begins to utilize them for the regulation of his own behavior" (p.24).
It's about this point that Luria begins to cite Vygotsky, who he portrays as "one of the first to express the view that speech plays a decisive role in the formation of mental processes, and that the basic method of analysing the development of higher psychological functiosn is investigation of that reorganization of mental processes which takes place under the influence of speech" (pp.25-26). Luria discusses Vygotsky's discussion of external speech's role in problem solving and the notion of speech mediating behavior (p. 29).
After some discussion, Luria gets to Ch.3, where he discusses the case under investigation: uniovular twins, the youngest in a large family. These twins did not speak at all until the age of two, and "at four years their speech consisted only in a small number of barely differentiated sounds which they used in play and communication" (p.39). They had developed some "autonomous" speech (that is, private language) (p.40). They did not understand others' speech well, and "speech which did not directly refer to them usually completely passed them by" (p.40). Their play involved "manipulation of objects independently of any other aspect of the play materials provided"—that is, they did not role-play, tell stories, or sequence complex play actions, nor did they show interest in primarily symbolic play, e.g., games such as lotto (p.41). They played primarily with each other and did not show much interest in other children's games (p.41).
How were Luria and his collaborators to help these twins? The cultural-historical principles, set out earlier, suggested that language was an important precursor to more complex activities since it provided the means to symbolically mediate them. It also suggested that mental capacities developed in relation to cultural-historical activities. These insights grounded Luria's interventions: as Luria put it, "The essential moment, which calls forth the development of speech, is undoubtedly the creation of an objective necessity for speech communication" (p.72). The resulting interventions ultimately helped the twins to develop their language, abilities, and participation in play.
In Ch.4, Luria more carefully inventories the challenges the twins faced, focusing specifically on play activity:
The researches of Vigotsky, Elkonin, Fradkina and others have shown that it is precisely during the play of children of pre-school age, when their behavior becomes subordinated to an imaginative pattern, that there appear those peculiar features of activity which give promise of future development, which lay the foundations for a transition to new, more complex forms of mental life. (p.74)Luria first discusses observations of the twins at play. The twins could take part in primitive play, in which an object was assigned a conditional meaning. But "complex meaningful play, which proceeded from some preliminary project and involved the steady unfolding of this project in a series of play activities, was inaccessible to them" (p.75, their italics).
- First, he separated the twins into two different sections of the kindergarten. Since they could not longer play with each other, they had to learn to play with other children, which meant communicating with them, playing with them, and learning to engage in their activities.
- Second, he identified the weaker twin—the one who lagged developmentally—and gave that twin special activities that amounted to what we would now call speech therapy. The other twin was the "control," receiving no additional intervention.