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Revisiting Vygotsky’s double stimulation

As seen in Chapter 2, Section 4, regarding the cultural development of human behavior, Vygotsky (1930b/1999, pp. 58-59) moved beyond the simple binominal “stimulus-response” schema in behavioral psychology. He discovered that this development is mediated by “the creation and use of a number of artificial stimuli” (p. 58). These mediational means such as tools and language, symbols, ideas, and technology play “an auxiliary role and allow man to control his own behavior first from outside and later by complex internal operations” (pp. 58-59). In Vygotsky’s view, the creation and use of mediational means can generate “a new form of cultural-psychological behavior” (p. 47). The unique structural characteristics of human behavior are illustrated through the concept of mediation. In other words, “The central fact of our psychology is the fact of mediation” (Vygotsky, 1932b/1997, p. 138).

However, Vygotsky (1931/1997) does not stop at these constructive characteristics. Going further, citing Pavel Blonsky’s proposition that “behavior can be understood only as the history of behavior,” he explores research methodologies that can reveal the origin and history of the higher mental functions that emerge and change through learning and development.

Vygotsky (1931/1997) not only interrogates the material of research, but, owing to his recognition of the following, he also turns his attention to the method of approaching a problem, expressing research as “an equation with two unknowns” (p. 27).

In the form of a general position, we might say that every basically new approach to scientific problems leads inevitably to new methods and ways of research. ... For this reason, research acquires a completely different form and course when it is linked to finding a new method suitable to the new problem; in that case, it differs radically from those forms in which the study simply applies developed and established scientific methods to new areas.

(p. 27)

In this way, Vygotsky (1927/1997) compares methodology to the following: “Anyone who attempts to skip this problem, to jump over methodologyin order to build some special psychological science right away, will inevitably jump over his horse while trying to sit on it” (p. 328).

Vygotsky (1929, p. 430) calls his genetic approach to the development of higher mental functions the “instrumental method,” and it is based on the concept of mediation, that is, an “instrumental function” fulfilled by tools and signs. Vygotsky also calls this experimental methodology involving educational intervention in the field of developmental research by a different name—the “methodology' of double stimulation” (Vygotsky, 1930b/1999, p. 59; see also Cole & Scribner, 1978; Engestrom, 2006; van dcr Veer & Valsiner, 1991). This methodology' is intimately linked to what is said to be one of the central themes in Vygotsky’s theory of development—the “problem of freedom of the human will” (Vygotsky, 1931/1997, p. 49; see also Yamazumi, 2007).

The methodology' of double stimulation is an experimental methodology in which the subject is given a task that is beyond their present capabilities and cannot be solved by' existing skills (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 74). The subject, faced with a problem situation, is simultaneously provided with “another series of stimuli” as “external auxiliary means,” the tools and signs being available for solving the problem (Vygotsky, 1930b/1999, p. 59; the name “double” stimulation arises from this).

In this experimental context, the task is not designed by the experimenter and then given to the subject in a one-sided manner. The subject is also provided with available instruments (mediating artifacts such as tools and signs) that can be used as second auxiliary means. It can be said that if subjects are able to solve the problem with the secondary' auxiliary stimulus used as an inner “psychological tool” (Vygotsky, 1930a/1997, p. 85), the task given at the beginning will be reinterpreted and reconstructed by the subjects themselves. In other words, the subjects themselves essentially change the character of the task. Thus, with the help of the second series of stimuli, subjects can plan and organize their actions as they work to solve a problem. It is here that the potentiality and new psychological formation of the subject appear as progress is made toward the self-organization of their behavior.

When Vygotsky presents double stimulation, he emphasizes that the agency and free will do not arise from within an individual but rather through the mediation and assistance of a tool. He states the following: “In the instrumental act man masters himself from the outside—via psychological tools” (Vygotsky, 1930a/1997, p. 87).

In other words, Vygotsky (1931/1997, p. 49) focuses on the “active intervention of man in the situation” by' “introducing new stimuli.” It is through this that he seeks to discover the development of freedom and agency' in human activity'. What is referred to by this idea of freedom is that “man himself creates stimuli that determine his response and uses these stimuli as devices for mastering processes of his own behavior” (pp. 49-50). Namely, “[m]an himself determines his behavior with the help of artificially created stimuli-devices” (p. 50).

For example, Vygotsky (1932a/1987, p. 356) interprets Kurt Lewin’s “experiments involving meaningless situations” from the point of view of

Collaborative intervention in expansive learning 55 these stimuli. In an experiment, the subject was placed in a room by the experimenter, who subsequently left the room and did not return. During this time, the experimenter observed the subject’s behavior from another room. As time passed, the subject, who had originally been waiting patiently, gradually grew restless, not understanding what to do. At this point, Vygotsky focuses on how, in a sense, adult subjects placed in absurd situations will display almost the same set of behaviors. This is a search for “some external point of support” (p. 356). Vygotsky goes on to posit the following:

For example, one subject defined his actions in terms of the striking of the clock. Looking at the clock, he thought: “When the hand moves to the vertical position, I will leave.” The subject transformed the situation in this way, establishing that he would wait until 2:30 and then leave. When the time came, the action occurred automatically. By changing the psychological field, the subject created a new situation for himself in this field. He transformed the meaningless situation into one that had a clear meaning.

(p. 356)

Here, Vygotsky clearly illustrates that people use outside instruments as the second stimulus-device (the hands of a clock) to overcome their given situations (being made to wait in a room). This is done by using the stimulus-device to create their own new situations that allow them to determine their behavior by themselves (“When the hand moves to the vertical position, I will leave.”).

Michael Cole and Sylvia Scribner (1978, p. 14) state that Vygotsky’s double stimulation goes beyond the category of a simple psychological experiment in a laboratory, breaking down “some of the barriers that arc traditionally erected between ‘laboratory’ and ‘field.’” This is the methodological foundation for better executing sensitive observations and imaginative experimental interventions in concrete situations of social practice such as play, school, and clinical settings than in the psychologist’s laboratory.

Engcstrom (2009) characterizes the developmental significance of such double stimulation from the point of view of forming expansive agency, breaking away from given situations: “Breaking away from a preexisting trail or terrain requires expansive agency. This can be achieved by employing external cultural artifacts that arc invested with meaning and thus become powerful mediating signs that enable the human being to control his or her behavior from the outside” (p. 313). However, Engcstrom criticizes the fact that the conventional interpretation of double stimulation is acutely limited to issues surrounding the technical mediation of specific performance. By reducing double stimulation to issues surrounding technical mediation, a situation occurs in which no questions of why and where to regarding the occurrence and performance of certain actions are raised. “It is often interpreted merely as a way to enhance performance in specific tasks of learning and problem solving. Such a technical interpretation neglects the developmentalsignificance of double stimulation as essentially a mechanism of building agency and will” (p. 313).

Annalisa Sannino (2015) engages in an expansive reconceptualization of double stimulation that can break through the limit of its conventional interpretation, as Engcstrom criticizes. This reconceptualization enriches the significance of double stimulation as a new promising methodological principle of intervention. In other words, first, dual stimulation is not only a method but also a principle of volition that distinguishes all higher mental functions. Second, double stimulation comprises conflictual aspects, particularly conflicts of motives.

The methodology of intervention research based on activity theory, including the aforementioned DWR, is based on the fundamental principles of human freedom and creativity laid out by Vygotsky. As described above, the new methodology of intervention research is based on the formation of the subjects’ agency to build and change their own lives and future by themselves. In other words, at the core of intervention research is the generation of such agency of participants in their own activities.

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