Neoteny and sensory development in “Instinct of death and knowledge”


Answering the question regarding the origin of the human mind is challenging. According to Massimo Fagioli’s theory, contained in “Instinct of Death and Knowledge”, psychic activity begins at birth with the reaction of the biological matter to the light. This discovery totally reverses the Platonic and Cartesian mind-body dualism. The innovative paradigm determines the appearance of a new anthropology and the possibility of conceiving the neurobiology of the newborn and its sensory development in a totally different way.

What are the ontological and neurobiological features that make “homo sapiens” unique? The first thing to take into consideration is neoteny, that is the evolutionary capacity of some animals to preserve the morphological and physiological characteristics typical of juvenile forms throughout their life.

The neoteny of Homo sapiens is absolutely specific. In fact, compared to the rest of the animal world, Homo sapiens has a relatively short fetal development and at the same time a long period of neurological and psychic maturation. These characteristics have, as a fundamental aspect, the fact that the newborn is at birth both in a situation of sensory overexposure and of extreme sensitivity to external stimuli.

During pregnancy all the sensory channels of the fetus are stimulated except for the sight: these stimulations only have a trophic and morphogenetic significance, determining the development of thalamo-cortical neuronal connections. Precisely due to the particular plasticity that characterizes the human being at birth, a dramatic transformation of the sensory sphere would take place. While in the fetus there was a predominance of tactile stimulation at the moment of birth, sight is the sense that plays the most important role. A role that is no longer trophic but takes on the completely new function of activating the cerebral cortex.

The stimulation of the eye by the light determines that reaction that leads to the appearance of the ability to imagine and therefore to the beginning of psychic activity. However, unlike the animal, whose multi-sensoriality is characterized by rigid hierarchies, what would allow Homo sapiens this very particular reaction is the extreme plasticity and “synesthetic capacity” of the sensory system.

This plasticity determines the possibility of passing from a fixed and predetermined (instinctual) reaction typical of the animal world, to a totally different one that has in itself the matrix of creativity, the pulsion. The perceptual development of the child starting from birth does not occur in a linear way but is characterized by leaps of profound reorganization both neuronal and psychic such as to determine from time to time the appearance of new abilities to the detriment of the old ones. This evolution is linked, as Massimo Fagioli writes in “Instinct of Death and Knowledge”, to the psychic development and sensorial maturation of the newborn. The possibility of integrating these abilities leads to the full development of the child and the possibility of creating a deep and creative relationship with other human beings.



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