The "Science" of Journaling

In the early 20th century Soviet--actually, Belorussian--psychologist Lev Vygotsky proposed something that became known as the Zone of Proximal Development, or ZPD. Wikipedia does a more succinct job at describing it than I can, so here's their description:

The zone of proximal development is an area of learning that occurs when a person is assisted by a teacher or peer with a skill set higher than that of the subject. The person learning the skill set cannot complete it without the assistance of the teacher or peer. The teacher then helps the student attain the skill the student is trying to master, in hopes that the teacher will no longer be needed for that task.

What this means is that there is a mysterious learning area that occurs between what is known and what is hoped to be known. Think about it for a second: You may not understand, for example, how an internal combustion engine works, but you have some information and experience about car engines that can be used to bridge the gap between your current ignorance and your hoped for expertise. A teacher--as Vygotsky originally proposed--would be there to scaffold or assist the student in filling in the missing information by discussing the concept with he student until the aid is no longer needed, which is the goal.

This idea--that learning is necessary for development, and not the opposite--is part of Cultural-historical psychology, that Vygotsky helped form. I buy it, and have some tips as to how you can assist yourself in learning, especially learning about yourself.

Write a journal.

I've journaled off-and-on since 1996, when I was 19 and going through the sort of self-exploration that most young people go through. In earnest, my self-exploration started at puberty, but I didn't learn of the benefits of journaling, alas, until later, and didn't journal routinely until even more years had passed. Journaling has helped me navigate my confusion of life, school, American culture. sexuality, unemployment, death, hobbies, friendship, more death, politics, and on and on. It is indispensable to me, and Vygotsy may be able to explain why. Journaling, you see, provides that zone that Vygotsky observed. My journal entries almost always include some concept or thought that I am struggling to understand more fully. That is why I journal, after all, to understand myself and this world more deeply.

But Vygotsky has shown that already available is a built-in teacher to help bridge the gap between what is known and unknown, and that teacher is yourself, your linguistic abilities. Let me explain:

When you engage in talking to yourself, or private speech as Vygotsky and Piaget labeled it, you have the ability to place the thoughts that are trapped deep inside, and often imcompletely formed, in the ZPD, where they can be observed and studied as though they're no longer personal feelings. This is powerful. This is why we talk to ourselves when we are busy or stressed out. Probably, anyhow. Vygotsky died before completing the theory.

When thoughts are incompletely rendered inside the mind because they are latent or still misunderstood, they cannot be manipulated as easily as they can when they are fully formed outside the mind. And language, which exports thoughts outside the mind, requires some semblance of forming, after all. When concepts are exposed to language, they are much more moldeable.

Journaling, or writing in general, helps take the mysterious or the hidden and shines a powerful light upon it. Talking does too, which is why discussing problems helps us understand them better. Humans, it appears, are better at solving problems when those problems are beyond the conceptual and instead linguistic.

This isn't silliness I am talking about here. We are creatures who thrive in language. We don't require it to think, but we seem to require it to think clearly. At least I do and journaling helps.

TL;DR: When we force incomplete concepts through the language, we can analyze those concepts through our use of language. Journaling--being a type of language, written-- can help.