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What is mentalization? The concept and its foundations in developmental research

Fonagy, P; Allison, E; (2012) What is mentalization? The concept and its foundations in developmental research. In: Midgley, N and Vrouva, I, (eds.) Minding the child: Mentalization-based interventions with children, young people and their families. (11 - 34). Routledge: Hove, UK. Green open access


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When we mentalize we are engaged in a form of (mostly preconscious) imaginative mental activity that enables us to perceive and interpret human behavior in terms of intentional mental states (e.g., needs, desires, feelings, beliefs, goals, purposes, and reasons) (Allen, Fonagy, & Bateman, 2008). Mentalizing must be imaginative because we have to imagine what other people might be thinking or feeling. We can never know for sure what is in someone else’s mind (Fonagy, Steele, Steele, & Target, 1997). Moreover, perhaps counterintuitively, we suggest that a similar kind of imaginative leap is required to understand our own mental experience, particularly in relation to emotionally charged issues. We shall see that the ability to mentalize is vital for self-organization and affect regulation. The ability to infer and represent other people’s mental states may be uniquely human. It seems to have evolved to enable humans to predict and interpret others’ actions quickly and efficiently in a large variety of competitive and cooperative situations. However, the extent to which each of us is able to master this vital capacity is crucially influenced by our early experiences as well as our genetic inheritance. In this chapter, we discuss the evolutionary function of attachment relationships, arguing that their major evolutionary advantage is the opportunity that they give infants to develop social intelligence, as well to acquire the capacity for affect regulation and attentional control. We outline the neurobiological substrates that may link secure attachment and mentalization or social cognition, and describe how secure attachment facilitates both the release of hormones enhancing social sensitivity in mothers and the activation of reward processing regions of the brain in mothers’ interactions with their infants, even when the infant is upset. We review evidence from the developmental literature on the social influences on attachment and mentalization. We then describe how our understanding of ourselves and others as mental agents grows out of interpersonal experience, particularly the child-caregiver relationship (Fonagy, Gergely, Jurist, & Target, 2002), and how the development of the ability to mentalize may be compromised in children who have not benefited from the opportunity to be understood and thought about in this way by a sensitive caregiver. Such individuals are then at greater risk of developing personality pathology, particularly if early neglect is compounded by trauma. Finally we offer some reflections on the challenges of mentalizing in family interactions.

Type: Book chapter
Title: What is mentalization? The concept and its foundations in developmental research
ISBN-13: 9780415605250
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Publisher version: https://www.routledge.com/products/9780415605250
Language: English
Additional information: Copyright © 2012 Routledge.
Keywords: Psychology
UCL classification: UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences > Faculty of Brain Sciences
URI: http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1430329
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