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Mentalize redirects here. For the second solo album of Brazilian vocalist/pianist Andre Matos, see Mentalize (album).

In psychology, mentalization is the ability to understand the mental state, of oneself or others, that underlies overt behaviour.[1] Mentalization can be seen as a form of imaginative mental activity that lets us perceive and interpret human behaviour in terms of intentional mental states (e.g., needs, desires, feelings, such as hope, beliefs, goals, purposes, and reasons).[2][3] It is sometimes described as "understanding misunderstanding." Another term that David Wallin has used for mentalization is "Thinking about thinking".[4] Mentalization can occur either automatically or consciously. Mentalization ability, or mentalizing, is weakened by intense emotion.

While the Theory of Mind has been discussed in philosophy at least since Descartes, the concept of mentalization emerged in psychoanalytic literature in the late 1960s, and became empirically tested in 1983 when Heinz Wimmer and Josef Perner[5] ran the first experiment to investigate when children can understand false belief, inspired by Daniel Dennett's interpretation of a Punch and Judy scene.

The field diversified in the early 1990s when Simon Baron-Cohen and Uta Frith, building on the Wimmer and Perner study, and others merged it with research on the psychological and biological mechanisms underlying autism and schizophrenia. Concomitantly, Peter Fonagy and colleagues applied it to developmental psychopathology in the context of attachment relationships gone awry.[6] More recently, several child mental health researchers such as Arietta Slade,[7] John Grienenberger,[8] Alicia Lieberman,[9] Daniel Schechter,[10] and Susan Coates[11] have applied mentalization both to research on parenting and to clinical interventions with parents, infants, and young children.

Mentalization has implications for attachment theory and self-development. According to Peter Fonagy, individuals with disorganized attachment style (e.g., due to physical, psychological, or sexual abuse), can have greater difficulty developing the ability to mentalize. Attachment history partially determines the strength of mentalizing capacity of individuals. Securely-attached individuals tend to have had a primary caregiver that has more complex and sophisticated mentalizing abilities. As a consequence, these children possess more robust capacities to represent the states of their own and other people’s minds. Early childhood exposure to mentalization can protect the individual from psychosocial adversity.[2][12] This theory needs further empirical support. Normally, when we interact with others, we automatically go beneath the surface, basing our responses on a sense of what underlies the other person's behavior, namely, an active mind and a wealth of mental experience. Thus we are natural mind readers, and mentalizing entails accurate and effective mind reading. By virtue of being human, this process of mentalizing comes so naturally to us that we easily overlook its significance. To understand psychiatric treatment; however, we must pay careful attention to mentalizing and the conditions under which this basic human capacity becomes impaired. We mentalize in relationships with other persons, not in interactions with inanimate objects. A brick is a static object, inert and unresponsive, always behaving in the same way. A person's behavior is based on mental states that are always in dynamic flux, which makes understanding other persons (and ourselves) the most complex problem solving of which we are capable. Evolutionary biologists now argue that the reason we developed such fancy brains is the sheer complexity of making sense of each other for the sake of our cooperative—and competitive—living. Sometimes we mentalize consciously. When we are puzzled about another person's actions, we may wonder, "Why was he so abrupt with me? Is he irritated because I didn't return his call right away?" And we mentalize consciously when we are puzzled by our own actions—"How could I have binged on that ice cream when I was so resolved to stick with my diet?" The majority of our social conversations revolve around gossip, in the benign sense that we mostly talk about ourselves and others—what we are doing and why, and what they are doing and why. Mainly, we seemed to be interested in making sense of our social world and our place in it. We are busy practicing mentalizing. But thinking and talking about what is going on in our own mind and the minds of others is only part of our mentalizing activity, perhaps just the tip of the iceberg. When we interact with others, we mentalize intuitively, just as we ride a bicycle by habit. Thus we don't just mentalize at an intellectual level; we mentalize at a gut level. When interactions go smoothly, we need not think explicitly about states of mind—our own or the other person's. We can respond automatically, mentalizing implicitly. For example, we often respond to others' emotions without thinking about it, nodding sympathetically with a concerned look on our face as we listen to a friend talking about her child's frightening accident. Another example: we naturally take turns in conversation, being sensitive to pauses and unthinkingly keeping our conversational partner's point of view in mind.

Here are some of the abilities that mentalizing promotes:

the capacity to make meaning of adversity; the capacity to sustain a positive outlook with hope, initiative and acceptance; the capacity to experience the mastery derived from feeling responsible for our own behavior; the capacity to have a sense of purpose and engage in healing and inspiring rituals based on shared values; the capacity to communicate and solve problems by seeking clarity and speaking the truth; the capacity for flexibility and humor; the capacity to feel connected and to give and receive support; the capacity for open emotional expression and sharing of a full range of feelings and the capacity for mutual empathy which allows us to see both our own and the other person's perspective.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ UCL (Psychoanalysis Unit) Peter Fonagy's Homepage Archived 2007-12-31 at the Wayback Machine.
  2. ^ a b Psychotherapy for Borderline Personality Disorder. Workshop on Mentalisation Based Treatment. Anthony Bateman & Peter Fonagy
  3. ^ Fonagy, P., Gergely, G., Jurist, E.L., Target, M. (2002). Affect regulation, mentalization and the development of the self. New York; Other Press
  4. ^ Wallin, David (2009). Implications of attachment theory. Retrieved 22 Apr 2011. 
  5. ^ Wimmer, H.; Perner, J. (1983). "Beliefs about beliefs: Representation and constraining function of wrong beliefs in young children's understanding of deception". Cognition. 13 (1): 103–128. doi:10.1016/0010-0277(83)90004-5. PMID 6681741. 
  6. ^ Allen, J. P., Fonagy, P. (Eds.), Handbook of Mentalization-Based Treatment. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons
  7. ^ Slade, A (2005). "Parental reflective functioning: An introduction". Attachment and Human Development. 7 (3): 269–283. doi:10.1080/14616730500245906. 
  8. ^ Grienenberger, JF; Kelly, K; Slade, A (2005). "Maternal reflective functioning, mother-infant affective communication, and infant attachment: Exploring the link between mental states and observed caregiving behavior in the intergenerational transmission of attachment". Attachment & Human Development. 7 (3): 299–311. 
  9. ^ Lieberman, A.F.; Van Horn, P.; Ippen, C.G. (2005). "Towards evidence-based treatment: Child-parent psychotherapy with preschoolers exposed to marital violence". Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 44: 1241–1248. doi:10.1097/01.chi.0000181047.59702.58. PMID 16292115. 
  10. ^ Schechter, DS; Myers, MM; Brunelli, SA; Coates, SW; Zeanah, CH; Davies, M; Grienenberger, JF; Marshall, RD; McCaw, JE; Trabka, KA; Liebowitz, MR (2006). "Traumatized mothers can change their minds about their toddlers: Understanding how a novel use of videofeedback supports positive change of maternal attributions". Infant Mental Health Journal. 27 (5): 429–448. doi:10.1002/imhj.20101. PMC 2078524 . PMID 18007960. 
  11. ^ Coates, S.W. (1998). "Having a Mind of One's Own and Holding the Other In Mind". Psychoanalytic Dialogues. 8: 115–148. doi:10.1080/10481889809539236. 
  12. ^ Fonagy, P; Bateman, AW (2006). "Mechanisms of change in mentalization-based treatment of BPD". J Clin Psychol. 62: 411–30. doi:10.1002/jclp.20241. PMID 16470710. 

Further readingEdit

  • Apperly, I. (2010). Mindreaders: The Cognitive Basis of "Theory of Mind". Hove, UK: Psychology Press.
  • Doherty, M.J. (2009). Theory of Mind: How Children Understand Others' Thoughts and Feelings. Hove, UK: Psychology Press.

External linksEdit