Developmental potential in Dabrowski's work

This page includes Dąbrowski’s writing about developmental potential from four of his books. Dr. Chris Wells and Dr. Frank Falk examined these sections as separate documents while working on their presentation for the 2018 Dabrowski Congress, Overexcitabilities: The Drivers of Developmental Potential. It was the beginning of the work which led to their 2021 paper, The Origins and Conceptual Evolution of Overexcitability

You can download a document Chris created called DP Dabrowski Grouped while working on a literature review for NAGC 2017. [Note: It has not been updated since 2017.] 

From Dabrowski (1970) Mental Growth through Positive Disintegration

Differentiated Potentials of the Developmental Instinct

One can already observe in a child one and a half to two years old certain fairly well differentiated potentials of the developmental instinct. These can be expressed through various differentiated forms of psychic hyperexcitability such as sensual, psychomotor, emotional, imaginational or intellectual hyperexcitability.
The first can manifest itself through a need and active search for sensory experiences, gentle touches and caresses. This can be later developed into sensual emotionality and a strong sexual drive. Psychomotor hyperexcitability is often expressed through general hyperactivity, domineering, discord, antagonistic attitudes. The potential for emotional hyperexcitability can manifest itself by a great syntony and sensitivity. These represent nuclei for further growth towards a high level of empathy.
Imaginational hyperexcitability can provide a basis for the development of prospection and retrospection, that is to say, the ability to use one’s past experiences in the planning of the future.
Intellectual hyperexcitability, accompanied by other forms of overexcitability, especially emotional and imaginational, together with some potential for intuition, can lead to an early development of special interests and talents.
Early observable nuclei of a mixed psychological type (schizothymocyclic, introvert-extrovert) indicate the potential, along with some of the above-mentioned elements, for an early development of the inner psychic milieu.
Early observable manifestations of special interests, talents, and abilities are yet another indicator of developmental potential. (p. 31)


The Potential for Transcending the Biological Life Cycle

Psychic hyperexcitability, traits of mixed psychological type (which are, at the same time, the nuclei of the inner psychic milieu), intuition, strong interests and talents, all provide a basis for the slow development of tendencies towards transcending man’s biological life cycle. This process is expressed by gradual elimination of automatic, rigid, instinctive stereotypes, and replacing them with dynamisms which are more creative, more individual, more exclusive, more supratypological.
The individual who passes through this process thereby expresses his strong developmental tension, his weariness of all that is too automatic, too common, too ordinary in man’s biological life cycle. He experiences growing discomfort with his belonging to a definite age and a definite developmental phase. He dislikes the automatic imposition of certain reaction patterns which are expected to be manifested at his age, whatever it is, such as excitability or depression, sexual interests and tensions, the will to power, ambivalences, cyclic feelings of inferiority and superiority: i.e. the usual ordinary content, hierarchy, and evolution of reactions associated with various stages of a man’s life.
The individual with a rich developmental potential rebels against the common determining factors in his external environment. He rebels against all that which is imposed on him against his will, against the typical influences of his environment, against the necessity of subordination to the laws of biology. At the same time there may arise a positive or negative attitude with respect to some of his own hereditary traits and inborn inclinations.
The individual begins to accept and affirm some influences and to reject others from both the inner and outer milieu. There arises a disposition towards conscious choice and autodetermination. Self-awareness and self-control increase: retrospection and prospection become stronger; imposed forms of reality begin to weaken. The individual seeks his own higher identity, chosen and determined by himself. He does not want to be content with only one level of mental life which has been imposed on him by his social milieu. He searches for his own hierarchy of values and is sensitive to the distressing, negative facets of life. When he has a happy experience, he remembers the sad fact that it will not endure. He tries to overcome his sensory and logical world by striving to create, in imagination, a better world. He attempts to go beyond a sense-oriented, rationalist empiricism, since he recognizes it to be only one level of reality, and attempts to reach the higher level of synthesis, intuition, existential and transcendental experience. (pp. 32-33)


The Three Factors of Development.

We have already touched several times, albeit superficially, on the topic of the three factors in the development of man. The first of these factors involves the hereditary, innate constitutional elements which are expressed in the developmental potential, in a more or less specific way, and are already recognizable in a one year old child. They can often be clearly perceived in a child from one to three years of age.

The early differentiation of such a potential could not be explained, despite its plausibility, by environmental factors. Within a family that is cultural and well educated, that manifests love and responsibility for the children, we cannot explain the differences in emotional or imaginational hyperexcitability, the differences in mixed typology, the differences in interests and talents among the children by reference to environmental influences only.

Innate developmental potentials may be more general or more specific, more positive or more negative. General excitability, nuclei of the inner psychic milieu, general interests and aptitudes are examples of general and positive potentials. Specific forms of hyperexcitability such as emotional, imaginational or sensual hyperexcitability, as well as specific interests or aptitudes, such as musical, choreographic or mathematical aptitudes, constitute specific and positive potentials.

Constitutional psychopathy, nuclei of involutionary psychosis, hereditary forms of mental retardation are examples of general negative potentials. Aggressiveness, criminal inclinations, constitute specifically negative potentials.

Environmental influences collide with those potentials, strengthen or weaken them, but their outcome always depends on an individual’s hereditary endowment. We can distinguish three main forms of the interaction between innate potentials and environmental influences:

(1) If the developmental potential is distinctly positive or negative, the influence of the environment is less important.

(2) If the developmental potential does not exhibit any distinct quality, the influence of the environment is important and it may go in either direction.

(3) If the developmental potential is weak or difficult to specify, the influence of the environment may prove decisive, positively or negatively.

If heredity may be called the first and environment the second factor, it is necessary to take into consideration the activity of a third factor, i.e. all the autonomous forces. What is their source? How are they developed? What is their genesis? Such questions are difficult to answer. We can only suppose that the autonomous factors derive from hereditary developmental potential and from positive environmental conditions; they are shaped by influences from both. However, the autonomous forces do not derive exclusively from heredity and environment, but are also determined by the conscious development of the individual himself. They appear at various developmental periods; they can be described and differentiated. In most gifted individuals who show accelerated development the autonomous factors can be found and described fairly accurately. As mentioned earlier they are found where we detect developmental potentials, and where we find appropriate social conditions for development. They appear under conditions of inner conflicts, expressing themselves through the development of the inner psychic milieu and the elaboration of a hierarchy of values. The autonomous factors develop and are partially expressed through the development of astonishment with respect to oneself and the external environment, dissatisfaction with oneself, disquietude, feelings of inferiority towards oneself, and feelings of shame and guilt. They are further expressed as the dynamisms of subject-object in oneself, self-awareness and self-control, autonomy, empathy, and the development of a hierarchy of values arid of a program of development, as well as the activation of one’s ideal of personality.

All these dynamisms which are more or less autonomous, or which read to autonomy, are more specifically expressed and embodied in the third factor described in chapter IV.

All such autonomous factors, taken together, form the strongest group of causal dynamisms in the development of man. They denote the transition from that which is primitive, instinctive, automatic to that which is deliberate, creative and conscious, from that which is primitively integrated to that which manifests multilevel disintegration, tending towards secondary integration, from that which expresses reality at one level to that which expresses multilevel reality, from that which depends on biological reality to that which expresses moral autonomy, from that which “is” to that which “ought to be,” from the empiricism of one level to multilevel empiricism which includes intuition and transcendental experiences.

The autonomous factors form the strongest dynamisms of transition from emotions of a low level to emotions of a higher level. (pp. 33-35)

DP in Dabrowski (1972) Psychoneurosis is Not an Illness

The Developmental Potential

In the great majority of cases of psychoneurotic “constitution” the author sees present, more or less clearly, nuclei of a positive developmental potential. In many cases this potential is of the kind that predisposes the individual for an accelerated development, for the development of his talents, or for the development of an eminent personality.
It is our opinion based on extensive experience that there is never, or almost never, a case of accelerated development, and even more so of eminent development, without a psychoneurotic constitution.
(1) Positive developmental potential.
(a) Five forms of psychic overexcitability.
The main form of the positive developmental potential are five kinds of psychic overexcitability namely, sensual, psychomotor, motor, affective (emotional), imaginational and intellectual. Each form of overexcitability points to a higher than average sensitivity of its receptors. As a result a person endowed with different forms of overexcitability reacts with surprise, puzzlement to many things, he collides with things, persons and events, which in turn brings him astonishment and disquietude. One could say that one who manifests a given form of overexcitability, and especially one who manifests several forms of overexcitability, sees reality in a different, stronger and more multisided manner. Reality for such an individual ceases to be indifferent but affects him deeply and leaves long-lasting impressions. Enhanced excitability is thus a means for more frequent interactions and a wider range of experiencing.
An individual who is excessively sensitive sensually possesses a more or less superficial sensitivity to beauty, is suggestible, is more exposed to the difficulties of life. An individual who is psychomotorically overexcitable is restless, curious, cannot sit still in one place, wanders around, has an insatiable need of change and of “wandering into space.” An individual who is emotionally overexcitable is sensitive, takes everything to heart„ is syntonic and even more often empathic though not necessarily in a highly developed manner. He has a need of exclusive and lasting relationships, of help and protection, of understanding suffering. An individual who is overexcitable in respect to imagination is sensitive toward “imaginational realities,” is usually creative, has vivid fantasy and is often full of ideas and plans. He displays abilities in poetry, art or music. He has his “kingdom of dreams and fantasy.” An individual intellectually overexcitable shows strong interests early in inner and in external life, has strong nuclei of analysis and synthesis. Early in life he is capable of asking questions and demanding logical answers. (pp. 6-7)
Some forms of overexcitability constitute a richer developmental potential than others. Emotional (affective), imaginational and intellectual overexcitability are the richer forms. If they appear together they give rich possibilities of development and creativity. If these three forms of overexcitability are combined with the sensual and psychomotoric then these latter two are both enriched and enhanced in their positive developmental possibilities. (pp. 7-8)
(b) Manifestations of the developmental potential in children.
Almost all these forms of overexcitability can be detected between 1 and 2 years of age and the older the child the more they are discernible. We can note these potentials in an excessive and global mobility of the child, in its sensitivity to colours, sounds, tastes, smells, in its need for affection, fondling, in silent moods, early sadness and spontaneous joy, in early syntony—even empathy—far parents and siblings, in richness of observation, in quick penetration into the world of fantasy and imagination, in early reflection about himself, about life and about death. Such reflections can appear already in children 3-4 years, old. For instance, one four-year-old girl said. “Death is a trip but it is hard to get out of the hole in the ground where they put the dead person.” The same girl also asked: “How can you tell whether someone is sleeping or dead?” Another five-year-old girl created for herself whole new realms of existence with leprechauns, birds, squirrels. The door to the attic was the door to these realms which appeared to have a character of sacred mysteries.
Developmental potential can also be observed in children in connection with strong special interests and abilities. If a child has enhanced intellectual excitability then at the age of asking questions he will not be satisfied with automatic answers but will ask a second and a third time, often forming the questions in a new way as a result of new associations. Some children are surprising by their perceptiveness of the world around them, by their childish “philosophical” outlook. Some children show early mathematical abilities in relation to mathematical-philosophical and magical problems.
There is a great number of children who at the age of 4-6 write poetry distinguished by deep content and good form. One six-year-old girl when asked by her mother whether she did not get tired by dancing so often answered: “Mother, I don’t get tired because I don’t dance, it’s only my feet who do the dancing.” In this expression we can see besides a marked refinement of thought, a nucleus of the development of the inner psychic milieu, initial forms of the dynamism “subject-object in oneself” and a developmentally significant dualistic attitude (a manifestation of different levels of experience).
These nuclei of the inner psychic milieu together with psychoneurotic elements appear in the feeling of shame, which is much stronger than usual, in the feeling of guilt when the child has caused sorrow, and in a desire to make good. In such experiences there is frequently hidden the germ of an ideal which in its main outline the child has developed on its own, whether with the support of, or against, its environment. Quite often the child shows some dissatisfaction with himself and is feeling different from what he thought he was and what his parents thought he was. Here is the beginning of an interaction between the developmental potential and the influence of the environment.
A separate group of the nuclei of the developmental potential (although not strictly isolated from the above) are traits which later in life are called neurotic. Such is for example an excessively strong exclusivity of attachment to close persons, fear of their falling ill, longing for their return when they are away. Such are for instance phobias of contact with certain animals like earthworms, lizards or snakes; phobias of dirty water, unknown situations in the environment, possibility of disappointment, and symptoms of neurotic expectation, etc. (pp. 8-9)
(2) The influence of the social milieu on different kinds of the developmental potential.
It goes without saying that the constitutional nuclei are highly modulated positively or negatively by the social milieu. When the developmental potential is very strong and very rich even a negatively acting social milieu is of secondary importance. If the nuclei of the developmental potential are weak, or if they also contain some negative components then the character of the social milieu is of decisive significance. If it is nourishing then individual growth will be supported where it is lacking in its natural endowment, if it is negative then severe pathology is most likely. If the developmental potential has distinctly negative character then the influence of the social milieu is without much significance.
Besides the constitutional endowment expressed as nuclei of the developmental potential and the influence of the social milieu there is a third category of forces that is very important in the shaping of psychoneurotic processes. These are the autonomous factors which develop gradually throughout the individual’s life experiences. Becoming more and more conscious they often come to play the most important role in the evolution of psychoneurosis as a growth towards autonomy and self-determination. These autonomous factors find their expression in education of oneself, in autopsychotherapy, and in richer use of the individual’s creative abilities.
In individuals whose developmental potential is more limited and who also present low psychic resilience because their developmental nuclei are somewhat weak, the stereotyped social influence reduces their abilities for creativity for the sake of adjustment and may lead to negative disintegration. In individuals who are richly endowed and talented the same influence leads to psychoneurotic creative processes which, although rich in their content, are described by the social milieu and the physicians as pathological. Such a label is, of course, detrimental to both the psychoneurotic individuals and the society. In this, way the path of collisions between psychoneurotics with their creative components and the environment takes shape. The path of these collisions is a hard road of liberation for creative individuals, it is a path of suffering—not always necessary and not always useful. It is a path which does not quickly lead to finding one’s own road of development because of the strong inhibitions and frequently high suggestibility of these individuals. (pp. 9-10)
These different forms of the psychoneurotic developmental potential constitute in their totality the “royal path” of hierarchical development—through multilevel disintegration, inner conflicts, creative instinct and instinct of self-perfection—toward secondary integration, i.e. toward the united, harmonious and highest spiritual reality which is liberated from lower levels of the unconscious and in which one experiences contents previously known consciously but only intellectually (i.e. without the dynamic participation of higher emotions). (pp. 10-11)
(3) Negative developmental potential.
In a significant number of cases of isolated forms of sensual or psychomotor overexcitability (i.e. when there is no admixture of other forms of overexcitability), in cases when the nuclei of the inner psychic milieu, wider interests and abilities, and sharp awareness of one’s own developmental path are lacking, we are dealing with a negative potential which is not helped by the influence of the environment, but on the contrary, is harmed by it.
It is difficult to speak of a negative psychoneurotic potential because a negative developmental potential covers the borderline of psychoneurotic nuclei, psychopathy, psychosis and even mental retardation. When enhanced psychomotor and sensual overexcitability is combined with strong ambitions, tendencies to showing off and lying, it constitutes a nucleus of psychopathy with some neuropathic components. This is a potential for the development of characteropathy, or, better, of hysterical psychopathy.
Tendencies toward disintegration with very limited or quite absent activity of the developmental instinct, and with a greater strength and number of disintegrating dynamisms over the integrating ones, are found in the potential on the borderline of psychoneurosis and psychosis. On the borderline of mental retardation and psychoneurosis (or, rather, neurosis) the developmental dynamisms appear weak pointing to a very limited developmental potential.
These forms of the developmental potential—insufficient for positive development—may be called abiotrophic to denote the absence or degeneration of the normal functions of the organism, in this case as applied to mental development.
We can summarize as follows
(1) The presence of neurotic or psychoneurotic positive developmental potential guarantees creative development through higher forms of psychoneurotic processes such as internal conflicts, hierarchization, development of autonomous and authentic dynamisms, towards a high level of personality and secondary integration,
(2) Developmental potential which is not universal and of weak tension may lead either to positive development through nervousness and psychoneuroses, or to negative disintegration, psychosis or suicide. The environmental influence is to a very great degree responsible for the path which will be taken.
(3) A separate obstacle for both groups of individuals with developmental potential either (1) or (2) is the established attitude of society, when physicians and psychologists treat psychoneurotics as abnormal, and worst of all—sick. This attitude is primarily responsible for inhibition, isolation, noncreative feeling of inferiority and lack of a creative and rich development. These conditions create collisions between their creative inclinations timidity, and lack of self-confidence; they create the loneliness of psychoneurotics. (p. 12)


1. The Expression of Psychic Overexcitability in Psychoneurotic Processes

In an earlier section (Chapter 1, Section 4), devoted to the role of the developmental potential in psychoneuroses, it was pointed out that this potential is discovered in different forms of enhanced excitability, in the nuclei of the inner psychic milieu, in special interests and abilities. The development of the inner psychic milieu is strictly related to the activity of autonomous and authentic dynamisms such as the third factor, subject-object in oneself, self-awareness and identification with one’s own development. (pp. 77-78)

The relations and interactions between the different components of the developmental potential give shape to individual development and control the appearance of psychoneuroses on different levels of development. (p. 78)

(1) Limited developmental potential.

In the case of enhanced sensual excitability but without a more pronounced presence of hierarchic and autonomous dynamisms we observe the development of hysteria on a low level. Its characteristic form is a characteropathic hysteria expressed through primitive playacting, lying, intriguing and the like, There is also sexual excitability as a response to feeling threatened, need of defense, or the need to reduce tension.

In the case of psychomotor overexcitability without a more pronounced participation of hierarchical dynamisms we observe functional hyperkineses, tics, psychomotor crises, wanderlust.

In the case of emotional (affective) overexcitability we observe emotional crises with not much awareness, inhibitions or aggressions, primitive fearfulness.

We observe also phobias, affective perseverations, hypochondriacal and neurasthenic reactions.

In the case of imaginational overexcitability we observe waking dreams, unconscious obsessions of imagination, symptoms of psychoneurotic autism, hypochondriacal and neurasthenic symptoms with strong component of imagination.

In the case of enhanced intellectual excitability we observe excessive questioning, excessive analyzing, isolation, introvertization, weak emotional contact with the environment, in other words a marked asyntony.

(2) Strong developmental potential.

The forms of expression of psychic overexcitability described above are those that do not have a strong developmental potential. Those that do take on more complex forms. When the developmental potential is strong then a new and very important factor comes into play, namely hierarchization. This is the beginning of the development of a multilevel inner psychic milieu. (pp. 78-79)

In the case of sensual overexcitability the developmental tensions, i.e. internal and external difficulties, may push a given individual towards conflicts between his primitive sensual and sexual tendencies, and his sexual needs of higher level. This may take the form of hysterical conversion, localized neuroses, nervous stimulation, or sexual “frigidity” during intercourse. We may observe an excess of indirect sensual needs such as for touching as a way of compensating for the feeling of guilt related to sexual frigidity.

In the case of psychomotor overexcitability we observe more complex perseverations of movements, as for example, counting telephone poles, counting steps, fear of surprise, need for spastic expression, excessive talking, impulsive walking, taking walks to release tension, frequent movie-going, etc.

Psychoneurotic processes stemming from emotional overexcitability take the form of depressions related to feelings of inferiority, of shame and guilt, fears of responsibility, fears of death. Suicidal tendencies and suicides are not infrequent.

Psychoneuroses based on enhanced excitability of imagination are often characterized by deficiency of the reality function on a low level (everyday needs and occupations) but its strength on a higher level (life of inspiration, ideas, creativity and experience of other dimensions of reality), imaginational obsessions, richness of dreams, ideas, inventions, creativity, which in the eyes of others usually have an “unreal” character.

In the case of intellectual overexcitability on this level we observe an “intrusion” of affective and imaginational tendencies into intellectual activities. The intellectual processes thus become more complex and enriched. In psychoneurotic processes there are perseverations as to the “negativity” of the intellect, fears of synthesis, search for synthesis, fears of intuition, and a need of intuition. There are obsessions of responsibility and obsessive fears of onesidedness. (p. 79)

(3) Strong developmental potential with marked autonomous dynamisms.

When the processes of hierarchization move from the phase of spontaneous conflicts and un-programmed searches for solutions to a phase of greater role of consciousness and organization, then the psychoneurotic processes reach a different level of expression. This level of development is reached only when the autonomous components of the developmental potential are very strong, and that means a high level of self-awareness and self-determination.

In the case of sensual overexcitability we now encounter structural complexities. The components of affective, imaginational and intellectual overexcitability push sensuality away from its dominant position. Hysterical tendencies are transformed into playacting on a high level, into suggestibility towards stimuli of high level; there is a development of empathy, contemplation, even ecstasy. There is a development of new attitudes. such as enthusiasm, enchantment, asceticism, striving towards sanctity.

Psychomotor tendencies are inhibited and transformed. There is a cooperation between affective, imaginational, intellectual and psychomotor components of overexcitability. It is expressed in a zeal for organization, planning and programming. There is a need for deeds which may give rise to psychomotor obsessions of existential and organizational nature; or to tendencies to create great works. This is a psychoneurotic trait of an excess of activity developed on the basis of “internal psychomotricity.” Saint Paul and Saint Theresa of Avila are good examples of this inner pressure for deeds on a large scale.

Enhanced emotional overexcitability takes the expression of a need for humility, asceticism, depressions, existential anxieties, affective obsessions in relation to responsibilities. (p. 80)

On this level psychoneuroses express not only individual phenomena and experiences but more and more strongly relate to other human beings. This comes about through compassion, genuine interest in the conditions of the lives of other people, their suffering, their existential difficulties. One could say that these psychoneuroses arise from an excess of empathy and from an excess of authentic attitude towards another (“Thou”) (pp. 80-81)

In the case of predominance of imaginational overexcitability the psychoneurotic processes are also expressed in depression existential anxieties and obsessions, empathy, etc., but perhaps with lesser intensity of symptoms than in the case of emotional overexcitability.

These forms of, psychoneuroses have always to some extent open possibilities of “self-relaxation” in the world of imagination or dreams with the participation of enhanced affective and intellectual activity. This allows an easier systematization and easier finding of solutions to difficulties related to lower levels of reality than those proper to this type of psychoneurosis. This level of development (which elsewhere we call the fourth) is so universally involved in the reality of a higher order that the individual moves there with considerable ease whether it relates to his own individual problems or to the problems and difficulties experienced by others. The imaginational component makes it easier to move in the complicated world of tensions, depressions, or obsessions. For these people the gate into another reality is just wider and more open.

Psychoneuroses with a predominant component of intellectual overexcitability are characterized by a greater systematization of experiences, and hence by a greater need of rationalization. There are also depressions, obsessions and anxieties. One has to keep in mind, however, that on this level the types of psychic overexcitability are invariably mixed being composed of several forms of overexcitability, primarily affective and imaginational. Philosophical obsessions, obsessive criticisms of scientific theories, depressions related to the disillusionment that science is not capable of answering the most fundamental problems of life, are rather frequent. No infrequently one encounters also obsessive intellectual attempts to find scientific answers to the questions of life and existence. (p. 81)


Nervousness, neuroses, and especially psychoneuroses, bring the nervous system to a state of greater sensitivity. They make a person more susceptible to positive change. The high psychic structures gradually gain control over the low ones. The lower psychic structures undergo a refinement this process of inner psychic transformation. This transformation is the fruition of the developmental potential which makes these states possible and makes possible their further development. The components of the development potential like enhanced overexcitability, nuclei of the inn psychic milieu, and special abilities and talents play here an active role. Through multilevel disintegration there occurs positive evolution, making possible the achievement of a high level. (p. 160)


Personality is thus the aim and the result of development through positive disintegration. The main agents of this development are the developmental potential, the conflicts with one’s social milieu, and the autonomous factors (especially the third factor). (p. 181)


Each individual has his own special kind of developmental potential. This developmental potential is individually and concretely coupled with a form (or forms) and level of excitability or psychoneurosis, or both, in a set which is for the most part positive but not without its characteristic developmental dangers. (p. 210)


One may ask what is the origin of the increased tendency among gifted children, who have good conditions of life and learning, to become subject to psychoneurotic states. The origin lies probably in the constitutional hypersensitivity toward the whole of the individual’s experiences. An individual who has a differentiated and multilevel developmental potential not only can achieve outstanding results in learning and in work, but at the same time is equipped with an increased number of points of sensitivity to all experiences; this may accelerate “anomalous” reactions which reveal themselves in psychoneurotic behavior (Dąbrowski, 1958; Dąbrowski, 1959). (p. 211)


Perhaps in the developmental perspective my own views have something in common with Maslow’s, particularly as regards the fact that some psychoneurotic developments are subject to “negative regression” while the majority follows positive evolution through an “individual drama of personality growth.” Both Maslow and I underline that the course of development depends on the strength and character of the developmental potential, on the strength and character of environmental influence, and on the strength and range of activity of the third factor which stands for the autonomous dynamisms of self-determination. (p. 249)


DEVELOPMENTAL POTENTIAL. The constitutional endowment which determines the character and the extent of mental growth possible for a given individual. The developmental potential can be assessed on the basis of the following components: psychic overexcitability (q.v.), special abilities and talents, and autonomous factors (notably the Third factor). (p. 293)


NEGATIVE DEVELOPMENTAL POTENTIAL. Constitutional predisposition to psychosis, psychopathy, or mental retardation, or other severe disorders preventing development or leading to the dissolution of mental life. (p. 299)


PSYCHOMOTOR CRISIS. Acting out of psychic tension through temper tantrums, destructive behavior, running away, or hysterical conversion. Psychomotor crises are frequent in cases of psychomotor and emotional overexcitability not combined with other enriching components of the developmental potential which in this case is rather limited, and due to the absence of a multilevel inner psychic milieu does not offer the possibility of a positive release. (p. 305)

DP in Dabrowski (1973) The Dynamics of Concepts


Nervousness consists in mental overexcitability which may take emotional, sensual, psychomotor, imaginative or intellectual form. It must be emphasized that clear cases of such forms of overexcitability do not exist. They appear, as a rule, in compounds of two or more forms some of which may be more or less favorable for development. For instance, it seems that the coexistence and collaboration of emotional, imaginative and intellectual overexcitability are very favorable for development, because they are strongly connected with general mental sensitivity, with creative tendencies and with capabilities for prospection and retrospection. However, we do not regard the union of sensual and psychomotor overexcitability as useful for development, because they create a rather narrow structure on the borderline of psychopathy with little reflectivity and limited creative possibilities. (pp. 146-147)

Mental overexcitability is based on hereditary endowment and is shaped through the influence of the external environment and autonomous factors. Freud maintained that nervousness is the product of some psychoneurotic processes, while Janet considered it an introductory global state before the development of psychoneuroses.

The point of view represented here is in partial agreement with the opinion of Janet, that nervousness is an introductory and little differentiated stage of neurosis; but, as we already mentioned, it usually expresses the first stage of accelerated and universal development. Through different forms of mental overexcitability the individual is sensitized to the external and internal world, to different kinds and levels of reality. In this way, mental tension grows and takes the form which may be called “the readiness for development.”

Without mental overexcitability or nervousness the individual has no possibility of “getting out” from the rigid dependence on the biological life cycle which ends in senile deterioration. He has no possibility of transgressing this cycle or transgressing his own psychological type. At the same time the mental structure of individuals not showing symptoms of nervousness lacks the conditions necessary for the development of the inner psychic milieu. Consequently the process of positive disintegration cannot occur. First of all, the individual would have no possibility for the development of an hierarchical differentiation of levels of mental functions, autonomy and authenticity which are indispensable for mental development leading to the full development of personality and transcendence of the biological life cycle. (pp. 147-148)


We call nervousness all kinds of mental overexcitability: sensual, emotional, imaginative, psychomotor and intellectual. Mental overexcitability or nervousness in all forms, especially emotional, imaginative and intellectual are basic components of a developmental potential and the nuclei for the development of the inner psychic milieu and creativity.


The interpretation of nervousness as a substratum of creative processes and as a group of dynamisms which are instrumental in effecting autonomous mental development has application in developmental and educational psychology, in education and self-education, in psychopathology, psychotherapy and autopsychotherapy. It is a basis for the understanding of the essence and the dynamics of creative processes. It is one of the main elements in the, interpretation of the development of personality. It plays a fundamental role in the understanding of the theory of positive disintegration and of the positive meaning of psychoneuroses.

This interpretation of the nature and role of nervousness may assist psychologists, educators, physicians and parents to avoid the error of considering nervousness a pathological process and to try to find a method of “medical treatment.”  (pp. 147-148)


Negative DP in the section on Negative Disintegration:

To this group of people belong the so-called “strong” individuals, who in the usual meaning of this word, do not shun away, from any form of injustice, oppression, terror or crime. In fact, these people have extremely poor developmental potential; they undermine, or even destroy, cultural growth of their societies. We can contrast them with another kind of “strong” people—those who are capable of empathy and reflection. They are the people who show strength and uncompromising attitudes especially toward themselves, and are capable consciously to risk their own lives to counteract injury, aggression and crime (Socrates, Gandhi, Lincoln, etc.). These people, however, have a rather difficult history of experiences, inhibitions, and even depressions in their hard way toward higher stages of mental development. (p. 39)


DP in the section on Psychoneuroses

With regard to medical care, and especially to psychotherapy, the main task should be a detailed diagnosis with a special evaluation of the patient’s developmental potential and, subsequently, the persuasion of the patient, on the basis of thorough analysis of his concrete case, that psychoneuroses represent fundamental creative factors necessary for positive and accelerated development. Positive development of psychoneurotic dynamisms should be stressed, as well as, the transition from education and psychotherapy to self-education and autopsychotherapy.

Such an attitude will give to society many creative individuals with a great developmental potential. It will overcome the patient’s anxiety that he is ill and that he has less mental value than the so-called normal people. From the psychological point of view, a much more multisided approach is needed than that which has been applied by psychologists in their diagnoses and psychotherapeutic recommendations. (p. 152)


DP in the section on Immunization through Psychoneuroses

Psychoneurotics possess the potential for mental—especially emotional, imaginational and intellectual overexcitability—as well as, the nuclei of the inner psychic milieu and, consequently, they exhibit the potential for transcendence of the biological life cycle and of one’s own psychological type, as in the case of an introverted individual gaining extravert qualities. Psychoneurotic dynamisms, with which this developmental potential is closely associated, leads the individual into a new reality which may be dramatic or even tragic: they foster the breaking of rigid, narrow automatisms and forms of everyday life.

On the other hand, the self-consciousness of development, the consciousness of one’s own psychic richness is, in itself, a factor of defense and immunization against involution and dissolution. (pp. 162-163)

Psychoneurotic states foster the growth of self-awareness of one’s own creativity: they consciously or unconsciously help in the realization of developmental potentials, and thus, as we mentioned, contribute to the formation of nuclei of the inner psychic milieu and the unfolding of talents. The psychoneurotic states generate painful psychoneurotic experiences, create conflicts and everyday difficulties. At the same time they protect man from more serious disturbances because they contain developmental elements which realize the prophylaxis against grave involutional and dissolutional breakdowns.

This is the immunization through self-education and autopsychotherapy— a developmental, creative and prophylactic immunization.

The defense forces in most of the psychoneurotic experiences, the immunological forces, do not defend the retreating dynamism, but defend the active new forces and new higher dynamisms of the inner psychic milieu.

The internal conflicts, positive maladjustment, and dissatisfaction with oneself undergo specific, deep inner psychic transformation and are instrumental in the formation and growth of the dynamisms of authenticity, empathy, and personality and its ideal.

Growing awareness of and insight into disintegrative dynamisms in their coexistence and co-operation with creative dynamisms, inner psychic transformation, and self-consciousness constitutes a prophylactic factor against involutional disintegration. (p. 163)

DP in Dabrowski (1996) Multilevelness of Emotional and Instinctive Functions, Part 1

The concept of multilevelness is thus the starting point for the analysis of all forms of behavior and their development. It represents the new “system of thought” which we see as necessary to represent the developmental approach on the official map of psychology and the clinical sciences as well. Nevertheless, this conceptual orientation, however fruitful for the analysis of behavior and development, requires something more which would account for the fact that not all individuals, in fact very few, reach the highest level of development. If it is not the length of time needed to complete the ‘cycle of individual evolution’ through many levels, and it is not, it must be something else. At this point a new concept is needed.

In order to account for differences in the extent of development we introduce the concept of the developmental potential (Dąbrowski, 1970, Piechowski, 1974). The developmental potential is the original endowment which determines what level of development a person may reach if the physical and environmental conditions are optimal. The concept of developmental potential is a necessary one. In a later section we shall describe the components and manifestations of the developmental potential and its interaction with three basic sets of factors affecting development. (p. 10)


Developmental potential is the original endowment which determines what level of development a person may reach under ideal conditions. (pp. 13)

Developmental potential describes the relationships between individual development and three sets of factors which control development (Dąbrowski, 1970). The first set of factors embodies the genes and the permanent psychical changes in the organism’s constitution which may occur during pregnancy, birth, or soon after. For the sake of simplicity we consider only the changes in the physical makeup of the organism. The first factor thus represents innate constitutional characteristics and potentialities of the organism.

The second set of factors represents all the social environmental influences which come from other persons individually or as group pressures. One could venture to say, for example, that the theories of H. S. Sullivan and A. Adler are an elaboration of the role of the second factor in individual development.

The third set of factors represents those autonomous processes which a person brings into his development, such as inner conflict, self-awareness, choice and decision in relation to personal growth, conscious inner psychic transformation, subject-object in oneself. When the autonomous factors emerge, self-determination becomes possible, but not before. This means that an individual can transcend, at least to some degree, the sets imposed on him by his constitution and by the maturational stages of the life cycle.

The developmental potential does not necessarily include a measure of each one of these sets of factors. It can be limited to the first factor alone, or to the first and the second (Piechowski, 1974).

Piaget (1967b, p. 103) also mentions three factors of development, heredity, physical environment, social environment, and adds a fourth, equilibration. The first two of Piaget’s factors correspond to our first factor. But equilibration cannot legitimately be considered a factor in development because just like the time variable (Wohlwill, 1970) it cannot be separated from the process of development itself. One would be making the same logical error were one to consider positive disintegration a developmental factor. Positive disintegration is the process of development. Thus the difference between Piaget and the theory of positive disintegration lies primarily in the inclusion of most psychoneuroses and autonomous factors in development.

When the developmental potential is limited to the first factor we are dealing with a psychopathic or sociopathic individual indifferent to social opinion and social influence, pursuing only his own totally egocentric goals. Such individuals are incapable of reflection on their actions. Their life is a function of externals. This would correspond to Kohlberg’s (1963) stages 1 and 2. For instance when Jimmy Hoffa described to an audience the depersonalization he suffered in prison he could only describe it in terms of being deprived of the choice of haircut, clothing and unlimited use of his money. (p. 14)

The developmental potential can be limited to the first and the second factors only. In that case we are dealing with individuals who throughout their life remain in the grip of social opinion and their own psychological typology (e.g. social climbers, fame seekers, those who say “I was born that way” or “I am the product of my past” and do not conceive of changing). External influences from groups or individuals shape their behavior but not necessarily in a stable fashion. Changing influences shift the patterns of behavior or can deprive it of any pattern altogether. Autonomous developmental factors do not appear, and if they do only briefly, they do not take hold. (pp. 14-15)

The developmental potential may have its full complement of all three sets of factors. In that case the individual consciously struggles to overcome his social indoctrination and constitutional typology (e.g. a strongly introverted person works to reduce his tendency to withdraw by seeking contacts with others in a more frequent and satisfying fashion). Such a person becomes aware of his own development and his own autonomous hierarchy of values. He becomes more and more inner-directed.

There is thus an important difference between the first two factors of development and the third. The first two factors allow only for external motivation, while the third is a factor of internal motivation in behavior and development. This is another example where a question of determinants of behavior cannot be properly settled outside the context of development. Aggressiveness, enterprise, and leadership of “self-made” men may often appear to spring from an internal locus of control but more closely examined often show no evidence of autonomous developmental dynamisms. Such individuals may be driven by a great deal of energy but their motives and goals are geared to external norms of success.

The developmental potential may be particularly strong when in addition to the three components there are special talents and particular strength of self-awareness and self-determination, such as manifested in great saints and leaders of mankind. Here development is characterized by great intensity and often severe crises. It is accelerated and universal, meaning that it encompasses the whole personality structure and goes in the direction of high human values and ideals which hold across time and across cultures.

The above description of the developmental potential and its breakdown into three components does not allow one to measure it independently of the context of development. So far we have considered the three factors of development as general sets of conditions which allow only to distinguish an externally from an internally controlled type of development. We need now to identify specific factors whose presence is a condition of development through positive disintegration and whose absence would limit it to primary integration.

In the Introduction we discussed the significance of emotional development. It was mentioned that creative and gifted individuals react and experience in an intensified manner, and that this particular characteristic can be observed in intellectual, imaginational and emotional areas. We now add the psychomotor and the sensual as well. The enhanced mode of reacting in these five areas was called psychic overexcitability (Dąbrowski, 1938 and 1959). (p. 15)

The three forms of overexcitability mentioned first are always associated with accelerated and universal development, that is development in which autonomous factors are particularly strong (Dąbrowski, 1970). The psychomotor and the sensual forms of overexcitability may enhance such development by giving it more energy and more numerous areas of conflict. However, the psychomotor and sensual overexcitability by themselves alone do not contribute to the autonomous factor. In the case when intellectual, imaginational and emotional overexcitability are weak, or completely absent, development remains under strong, if not total, external control. (pp. 15-16)

The five forms of overexcitability are the constitutional traits which make it possible to assess the strength of the developmental potential independently of the context of development (Piechowski, in press). They can be detected in small children, already at the age of 2-3 (Dąbrowski, 1972, p. 8-9). These five forms are described in a different section.

Developmental potential is strongest if all, or almost all forms of overexcitability are present. The three forms, intellectual, imaginational, and emotional, are essential if a high level of development is to be reached. The highest level of development is possible only if the emotional form is the strongest, or at least no less strong than the other forms. Great strength of the psychomotor and the sensual forms limits development to the lowest levels only.

The five forms of overexcitability undergo extensive differentiation in the course of development. One of its products are developmental dynamisms, i.e. the intrapsychic factors which shape and direct development. Emotional and imaginational overexcitability, in cooperation with the intellectual play the most significant role in their formations.

A more precise definition and resolution of the relationships between the three sets of factors and the five forms of overexcitability awaits future analysis. The developmental potential is a conceptually necessary structure. When the human organism begins to grow and interact with its environment, this structure responds to the three groups of factors determining the course of development. If the developmental potential is limited then development is also limited although there might be no limitations on the external conditions to be the most favorable to nourish even the richest endowment. When developmental potential is present in its full complement then multilevel development becomes possible, i.e. development in which many different levels of experience become active.

Developmental potential may be negative. When enhanced psychomotor or sensual overexcitability is combined with strong ambition, tendencies toward showing off, lying, and cheating, then it constitutes a nucleus of psychopathy and characteropathy (Dąbrowski, 1972, p. 11). (p. 16)

A strong developmental potential will manifest multilevel components already in childhood (Dąbrowski, 1972, p. 8). In consequence, the developmental sequence of a person so endowed from the start cannot be limited at any time totally to primary integration. One could say, of course, that the period of infancy is one of primary integration. However, we cannot at that time identify the developmental factors such as those we shall be concerned with here. By the time a child begins to speak in sentences we can attempt to discern developmental factors and establish whether the developmental trend is integrative or disintegrative. Perhaps it would be worthwhile to indicate that the neurological examination outlined in Part 2 does offer some suggestions for possible avenues of exploration of indicators of developmental potential in infancy.

A week [sic] developmental potential will limit development to primary integration and unilevel disintegration. However, already, here, if potential for extensive unilevel disintegration is present it will manifest itself early, for instance in forms of psychosomatic lability (Dąbrowski, 1972). This means that if there is the potential to proceed beyond primary integration, then development can never be limited totally to primary integration because of the nuclei of disintegration which have to be present from the start.

The developmental sequences of positive disintegration are nonontogenetic. They are measured in terms of levels attained in the course of development which has no distinct time schedule just as the process of evolution has no distinct time schedule. The levels of development are, therefore, a nonontogenetic evolutionary scale. Any individual developmental pattern may cover part of this scale but none can cover the full extent of it (Piechowski, in press [1975]). (p. 23)