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Bridging the representational gap in the dynamic systems approach to development


Address for correspondence: John P. Spencer, Department of Psychology, 11 Seashore Hall E., University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA 52242-1407, USA; e-mail:


We describe the relationship between the dynamic systems approach to development and a recent approach to the dynamics of representational states – the dynamic field approach. Both approaches share an emphasis on the concepts of stability (attractor states), instability (especially bifurcations), soft-assembly and flexibility. But the dynamic field approach adds the concept of ‘activation’ to capture the strength with which behaviorally relevant information is specified. By explicitly linking these dynamic systems approaches, we allow for more direct comparisons between dynamic systems theory and connectionism. We note three current differences between these two approaches to development: (1) the notion of stability is central to how representational states are conceptualized in the dynamic field approach; (2) the dynamic field approach is more directly concerned with the sensorimotor origins of cognition; and (3) the dynamic approach is less advanced with regard to learning. We conclude that proponents of the two approaches can learn from the respective strengths of each approach. We suspect these differences will largely disappear in the next 20 years.