Vygotsky's Distinction Between Lower and Higher Mental Functions and Recent Studies on Infant Cognitive Development


Psychology Department, University of Lancaster,

Lancaster LA1 4YF, UK

One of the major theoretical advances of Vygotsky's approach to cognitive development was his thesis that human mental functions were social in origins. In making this claim, Vygotsky was confronted with the difficulty to reconciliate it with the existing fact that newborn infants already possess certain mental functions. Vygotsky's answer to the problem was the introduction of an important distinction between lower mental functions (LMF's) and higher mental functions (HMF's) (Vygotsky, 1983).

The relationships between the two in Vygotsky's theory was not strictly determined. In some cases LMF can be a prerequisite for the development of an appropriate HMF (i.e., unmediated memory can be developed in mediated and voluntarily controlled memory), in other cases HMF's exist in the intersubjective form and are merely learned by the child in the process of education and shared activities (i.e., writing or reading skills). In both cases Vygotsky applied Hegelian developmental scheme to the development of cognitive skills, according to which any cognitive function goes through three major stages, in which it exists at first 'in itself', then 'for others' and finally 'for itself.'

For example, Vygotsky portrayed the development of an indicatory gesture in infancy as a series of stages (Vygotsky, 1983, pp.143-144). In the beginning it is just an unsuccessful grasping movement directed towards a desired object. As such this is not yet an indication, but it can acquire the meaning if interpreted appropriately by the child's caregivers. At this stage the grasping movement becomes mediated by the social environment and acquires a social meaning 'help me to get this' which is quickly absorbed by the child who begins to use it both for the purpose of communication with the caregivers and for achieving his or her practical goals. While doing this, the child can still be unaware of the fact that he or she is exploiting the gesture as a social signal. Still later (my interpretation of Vygotsky's text) this 'gesture-forothers' can become a kind of a 'tool' by which the child would exercise control over his or her own actions and behaviour, for instance, in order to pinpoint a certain fragment of a picture and concentrate his or her attention on it. This time the child is fully aware that what he or she is doing with his or her forefinger (or whatever may substitute for it) is a special act designed not to let his or her attention to wander around the picture but to stick to a certain elected point. This is the stage when the indicatory gesture exists 'for itself' or, strictly speaking, for the child who utilises it being at the same time fully aware of that.

On a more broad scale, the development of human mental functions is viewed by Vygotsky as their transition from their original lower mental functions form into higher mental functions form, with differences between the two being drawn along four major criteria: origins, structure, the way of functioning and the relation to other mental functions. By origins, most lower mental functions are genetically inherited, by structure they are unmediated, by functioning they are involuntary, and with regard to their relation to other mental functions they are isolated individual mental units. In contrast, a higher mental function is socially acquired, mediated by social meanings, voluntarily controlled and exists as a link in a broad system of functions rather than as an individual unit.

However, even in Vygotsky's time there existed some experimental data that posed difficulties for this kind of developmental approach. One of the most extraordinary claims was made by Gestalt-psychologists; according to this claim, some universal structural laws are innate for human perception. These laws (like the 'law of common fate') are not acquired through learning; rather, they are present in the infant from birth and do not change with age. In particular, Folkelt suggested that infant's perception from birth had structural and 'orthoscopic' character (the implication of this claim was, for instance, that infants' possess the inherent capacity to the constancy of perception).

No wonder that Vygotsky (1982) was strongly opposed to this view. His major objection was theoretically, rather then empirically, based: if infants have an inherent capacity to the constancy of perception, then where are we to find the development? In other words, if the final stage of perceptual development is present from the outset, the concept of development becomes superfluous. Searching for evidence to back his claim Vygotsky addressed Helmgoltz's early memories from his childhood in which he suggested that orthoscopic perception was not inborn but had to develop through experience. Although Vygotsky himself qualified the Helmgoltz's report as a shaky evidence he, nevertheless, accepted it as one of the proofs in favour of the assumption of the acquired nature of orthoscopic perception.

Yet recent developments in infancy studies have demonstrated the striking perfection of infant's perception. Let us mention but a few of them: Bower (1979) reported the data suggesting that 3-week-old infants reveal certain 'understanding' of the 'law of common fate'; Slater, Morrison & Rose (1982) found newborns to be able to distinguish between main archetypical figures (like a cross and a circle); Gibson & Walker (1984) demonstrated that 1-month-old infants were able to perceive consistence (rigid vs. elastic) and to transfer the information of object consistence from tactile into visual modality; again, Bower (1979) and later Slater & Morrison (1985) found that 8- weeks-old and newborn infants could perceive objects as constant in shape; Baillargeon (1987) established that 3 1/2 - and 4 1/2-month- old could 'understand' some physical properties of a solid body such as its impermeability for another solid body. Conclusion that follows from this is rather obvious: infants and even neonates do possess understanding of object constancy and other qualities comparable in complexity with higher mental functions.

So, was Vygotsky wrong in his denial that young infants could possibly possess such complex psychological abilities as, for instance, the capacity to perceive an object as constant in shape or size? The affirmative answer, which seems inevitable, can not, however, be given but with serious reservations.

Firstly, the way the infants' early capacities are presented and discussed by many authors provokes questions. A characteristic feature of most of recent accounts on the problem is that the infants' early cognitive skills are portrayed in exactly the same terms as are similar capacities in adults: for instance, the infants are supposed to be able to 'infer' that a physical object without a support would fall down rather than hang in the air, they can 'understand' that a solid object can not go through another solid object, they are able to 'appreciate' object permanence or object constancy, and so on. It is not that the qualitative difference between psychological functions of infants and those of adults is openly denied; rather, it is taken for granted that either these differences do not extend to cover the capacities in question or they are not really important. In a result, the question about what exactly distinguishes, for instance, the 5-months-old infant's behaviour testifying that the infant can understand object permanence from a similar behaviour of an adult person is very rarely asked, and when it is asked the usual answer is that the difference is nothing but a scope of applicability of the cognitive skill: if an infant can apply the permanence rule to a limited number of cases, an adult person is able to generalize the rule to a much larger number of observable physical events. In other words, a careful reading discovers that the development of cognitive skills is indeed interpreted by many as a quantitative perfection of the early acquired (or genetically transmitted) capacity rather than a series of qualitative changes that the capacity has to go through in order to reach its higher stage. Therefore, despite the fact that the Vygotsky's answer may have been wrong, his question was correct: indeed, where is (and what is) cognitive development if major psychological capacities in their almost completed form are here in the first few months of life?

Secondly, if we look at the potential content of the Vygotsky's answer, rather then at it's literally meaning, we can see that it was rather contradictive. On the one hand, Vygotsky denied the inherent character of the constancy of size on the ground that it was an internally complex psychological quality and hence it must be a socially formed quality. On the other hand, if we look at the criteria that distinguish LMF's from HMF's, we won't find the internal complexity among them. Indeed, as it was already noted, in contrast to LMF's which are inherent, involuntary, unmediated and isolated one from another, HMF's are socially created, voluntarily controlled, semiotically mediated and united in systems with other functions. Clearly, there is no claim here from which it would follow that LMF has to lack the internal complexity and perfection which is normally attributed to adults, but not to newborns and young infants.

Taking this into consideration and ignoring Vygotsky's misleading, although sincere, disbelief in the possibility of inherent and genetically transmitted complex mental function, we can assume that Vygotsky's distinction between LMF's and HMF's still has something to offer to the recent findings in infancy studies. Clearly, the extraordinary capacities of infants that are now being displayed in a growing number of studies, although complex, are still LMF's and have to go through the route of development (becoming semiotically mediated, voluntarily controlled, and united in systems with other mental functions) that so ingeniously was outlined by Vygotsky.


Baillargeon, R. (1987). Object permanence in 3 1/2- and 4 1/2-month-old infants. Developmental Psychology, 23, 655-64

Bower, T.G.R. (1974). Development in infancy. San Francisco: Freeman.

Gibson, E.J and Walker, A.S. (1984). Development of knowledge of visual-tactual affordances of substance. Child Development, 55, 453-60

Slater, A. M. and Morison, V. (1985). Shape constancy and slant perception at birth. Perception, 14, 337- 44.

Slater, A., Morison, V. and Rose, D. (1982). Visual memory at birth. British Journal of Psychology, 73, 519- 25

Vygotsky, L.S. (1982). Vosprijatie i ego razvitije v detskom vozraste. In Vygotsky, L.S. Collected works. In 6 volumes. Vol.2, pp.363-81. Moscow: Pedagogica.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1983). Istorija razvitija vystchych psykhicheskych functsyj. In Vygotsky, L.S. Collected works. In 6 volumes. Vol.3. Moscow: Pedagogica.

It has to be noted here that psychological capacities like 'constancy of perception' can only be viewed as internally complex within the traditional empiricist approach to the understanding of the development of mind which mostly has been shared by Vygotsky. The claim about the internal complexity can be dropped out within the nativist (or within the more recent Gibsonian) view on mental development.