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Number  27,  XIV, December 2016 - January 2017 "Psychoanalysis and Infant Research"

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       THE PARENT-INFANT DYAD AND THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE SUBJECTIVE SELF

 

 

 

 by Peter Fonagy 1, George Gergely 2, Mary Target 3

click here  to read this article in Italian

1 Freud Memorial Professor of Psychoanalysis, University College London, Chief Executive, The Anna Freud Centre, London 2 Institute for Psychological Research, Budapest, Hungarian Academy of Sciences & The Anna Freud Centre, London  3  Reader in Psychoanalysis, University College London Professional Director, The Anna Freud Centre, London



Abstract in English:

 

Developmental psychology and psychopathology has in the past been more concerned with the quality of self-representation than with the development of the subjective agency which underpins our experience of feeling, thought and action, a key function of mentalization. This review begins by contrasting a Cartesian view of pre-wired introspective subjectivity with a constructionist model based on the assumption of an innate contingency detector which orients the infant towards aspects of the social world that react congruently and in a specifically cued informative manner that expresses and facilitates the assimilation of cultural knowledge. Research on the neural mechanisms associated with mentalization and social influences on its development are reviewed. It is suggested that the infant focuses on the attachment figure as a source of reliable information about the world. The construction of the sense of a subjective self is then an aspect of acquiring knowledge about the world through the caregiver’s pedagogical communicative displays which in this context focuses on the child’s thoughts and feelings. We argue that a number of possible mechanisms, including complementary activation of attachment and mentalization, the disruptive effect of maltreatment on parent-child communication, the biobehavioural overlap of cues for learning and cues for attachment, may have a role in ensuring that the quality of relationship with the caregiver influences the development of the child’s experience of thoughts and feelings.

            

 

 

  

   

 

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INTRODUCTION

 

 

The ability to give subjective meaning to psychological experiences becomes possible as a result of our developing ability for explicit and reflective understanding that others’ (as well as our own) actions are driven by underlying mental states and the establishment of adaptive mentalizing strategies to reason about interactive experiences in terms of such mental states. This review aims to examine evidence and theory that pertains to the relevance of the parent-infant relationship for the emergence of mentalizing. We shall explore if the establishment of the representational and attentional preconditions for such a reflective mentalizing capacity develops optimally in a relatively safe and secure social context and if so, how we might understand this. We will commence our review with considering models that potentially entail a Cartesian view of the nature of subjectivity and overview evidence concerning brain structures known to be recruited by mentalisation. We will consider, on the basis of evolutionary speculation and recent neuroimaging data, why we might consider mentalization and the social context provided by parent-infant relations to be linked. We will also consider in some detail if the literature on the social influences on mentalisation might give us ground for assuming that the parent-child relationship contributes to the ‘construction’ of the psychological self. Finally, we will consider the implications of a recently advanced model for the intergenerational transfer of cultural knowledge, pedagogy theory, for the unfolding of social cognitive competences.

In the 1980s developmental psychology began to investigate when we become able to understand that people can have false beliefs about the world (Perner & Lang, 2000; Wellman, 1990; Wellman & Liu, 2004). A number of researchers consider the resulting construct of theory of mind and its false belief paradigm to be too narrow (Carpendale & Lewis, 2006) as it fails to encapsulate the relational and affect regulative aspects of interpreting behaviour in mental state terms. Developmentalists have also started to use the term ‘mentalizing’ as an alternative, because it is not limited either to specific tasks or particular age groups (Morton & Frith, 1995; O'Connor & Hirsch, 1999).

We define mentalization following a tradition in philosophy of mind established by Brentano (1973/1874), Dennett (1978) and others as a form of mostly preconscious imaginative mental activity, namely, perceiving and interpreting human behaviour in terms of intentional mental states (e.g. needs, desires, feelings, beliefs, goals, and reasons). It is imaginative because we have to imagine what other people might be thinking or feeling – an important indicator of high quality of mentalisation is the awareness that we cannot know what is in someone else’s mind (for a discussion of the definition of the concept see Allen, 2006). We would even suggest that a similar kind of imaginative leap is required to understand one’s own mental experience, particularly in relation to emotionally charged issues and certainly some neural networks subserving judgments of intentionality in self and other appear to overlap (den Ouden, Frith, Frith, & Blakemore, 2005; Frith & Frith, 2003). In order to be able to adopt this stance (consciously or unconsciously), to have and conceive of others as having a "mind", the individual needs a symbolic representational system for mental states and also needs to be able to selectively activate states of mind in line with particular intentions (attentional control, Leslie, 2000).

Thus mentalisation entails at least three key overlapping functions: (1) an intuitive ‘theory’ of action that we might term ‘mentalism’ that compels us to interpret (human) actions as caused by intentional mental states (beliefs, desires, wishes); (2) a representation of others’ minds that enables humans to infer, attribute and represent the intentional mental states of others – a capacity that can clearly extend to generate representations of one’s own mind; (3) a capacity to predict, explain, and justify the actions of others by inferring the intentional mental states that cause them. If we are to predict and justify each others’ actions we have to understand that we have separate minds that (often) contain different mental models of reality but that it is this internal reality rather than the external one that causes our actions. To do this we have to be able to infer and represent both the mental models of the other’s mind and the mental models of our own mind.

If they are to achieve this children need to acquire a complex set of cognitive capacities: (1) to represent causal mental states of others with counterfactual contents (false beliefs), (2) to represent causal mental states of others with fictional contents (pretense, imagination, fantasy), (3) to simultaneously represent and differentiate between the mental models of the self and of the other about reality, (4) to infer and attribute the mental states of others from visible behavioural cues as mind states are invisible, and we have to rely on cues such as gaze-direction, emotion expressions, gestures, verbal and non-verbal communicative signals, non-communicative behavioural correlates and signs, (5) to detect our own perceptible (behavioural, physiological, emotional, arousal, etc.) cues in order to infer, interpret, and attribute mental states to our self. This is in our view a substantive question as we shall try to show that the causal mental states of the Self - contrary to Cartesian doctrine - are also invisible to introspection. To put it simply: the mind of the self is not transparent to itself. 

The Cartesian view of the nature of the subjective sense of self

It is a commonly expressed reproach (e.g. Dennett, 1991) that the question of the developmental and social-environmental origins of our subjective sense of affective states has all too often been answered using the Cartesian assumption of a universal, shared subjectivity across individuals and through development. This Cartesian view assumes an innate, prewired organization of our mind that ensures ‘primary introspective access’ to our internal mental states providing us with ‘first person authority’ over the contents of our private subjective mental life (for a critical discussion of this general view, see Carpendale & Lewis, 2006; Fonagy, Gergely, Jurist, & Target, 2002; Gergely, 2002; Gopnik, 1993; Wegner & Wheatley, 1999).

Simulation and the mirror neuron system

The Cartesian approach is often coupled (in so-called ’simulationist’ models of mind-reading, e.g. Gallese & Goldman, 1998; 2004; Goldman, 1993; Goldman & Sripada, 2005; Gordon, 1995; Harris, 1991; 1992) with the idea that the way we come to understand (or, in a sense, to internally directly ’perceive’) other people’s subjective mental states is by (automatically) ‘putting ourselves in their shoes’ using (in our imagination) our self as a mental model of the other (for a fuller exposition see Saxe, Carey, & Kanwisher, 2004). Through this process of internally ‘simulating’ the other person’s goals and particular situation one comes to infer and represent the other’s mental states as well as anticipating the actions these intentional mind states are likely to cause. This involves mentally inducing the internal subjective states of the other in ourselves by imitation, imagination, identification, or lately, through ’neuronal resonance’ evoked by the automatic activation of our brain’s ’mirror neuron system’ during the observation of the other person’s behavior (Gallese et al., 2004). 

Recent work on the mirror neurone system (Gallese et al., 2004; Rizzolatti & Craighero, 2004) suggests that the fundamental mechanism that allows us to understand the actions and emotions of others involves the activation of the mirror neurone system for actions and the activation of viscero-motor centres for the understanding of affect. The claim is made on the basis of the observation that the motor neurones, originally found in the ventral premotor cortex of the macaque monkey respond both when the monkey performs a particular goal-directed act and when it observes another individual performing a similar action (Gallese, Fadiga, Fogassi, & Rizzolatti, 1996). Action observation causes the automatic activation of the same neural mechanism triggered by action execution or even by the sound produced by the same action (Kohler et al., 2002). There is evidence that the mirror neuron system, both in monkeys (Ferrari, Gallese, Rizzolatti, & Fogassi, 2003) and humans (Rizzolatti & Craighero, 2004), also encompasses communicative actions. In an fMRI study, participants observed communicative mouth actions in humans, monkeys, and dogs which led to the activation of different cortical foci with actions belonging to the motor repertoire of the observer’s species (e.g. biting and speech reading) being mapped on the observer’s motor system (Buccino et al., 2004). Since the discovery of mirror neurons, a number of similar experiments (Calmels et al., 2006; Gazzola, Aziz-Zadeh, & Keysers, 2006; Lotze et al., 2006; Molnar-Szakacs, Kaplan, Greenfield, & Iacoboni, 2006) as well as indirectly connected studies for example on facial mimicry (Sato & Yoshikawa, 2006), gender differences (Cheng, Tzeng, Decety, Imada, & Hsieh, 2006), and autism (Dapretto et al., 2006; Williams, Waiter et al., 2006) have been interpreted as implying that we understand the actions, emotions and sensations of others from the perspective of sharing their actions (Keysers & Gazzola, 2006; Rizzolatti, Ferrari, Rozzi, & Fogassi, 2006). It is suggested that a single mechanism (shared circuits) applies to witnessing the actions, sensations and emotions of other individuals and to performing the same actions. Similarly, feeling the same sensations and emotions and translating the vision and sound of what other people do and feel into the language of the observer’s own actions and feelings provides intuitive insights into their inner life. The thesis of embodied semantics holds that conceptual representations accessed during linguistic processing are, in part, equivalent to the sensory-motor representations required for the enactment of the concepts described (Aziz-Zadeh, Wilson, Rizzolatti, & Iacoboni, 2006).

This suggests a dichotomy between an immediate direct, motor-mediated type of action understanding, and a more cognitive type based on the interpretation of visual representations. This is thought to be also true for emotion understanding and we might conceive of a two-level system underpinning mentalisation with a (frontal) cortical system that invokes declarative representations and a mirror neurone system sub-serving a more immediate direct understanding of the other. In the anterior insula, visual information concerning the emotions of others is directly mapped onto the same viscero-motor neural structures that determine the experience of that emotion in the observer (Wicker et al., 2003). This direct mapping can occur even when the emotion of others can only be imagined (Singer et al., 2004) or inferred from visual stimuli (Jackson, Meltzoff, & Decety, 2005). Gallese, Goldman and others hypothesize a shared sub-personal neural mapping between what is acted and what is perceived that can be used to predict the actions of others (Gallese, 2003, 2006; Goldman & Sripada, 2005; Saarela et al., 2006). This automatically established link between agent and observer may not be the only way to understand the emotions of others, but the simulation of actions by means of the activation of parietal and premotor cortical networks may constitute a basic level of experiential understanding that does not entail the explicit use of any theory or declarative representation.

Once such a mental model has been set up, all one has to do is to introspectively access its contents and ‘read off’ from this ‘off-line self-simulation of the other’ what the other must be feeling, intending, or believing in the given situation. In other words, by accessing the thoughts and feelings that one would have in the other’s - internally represented - situation, one can attribute (by analogy) these simulated subjective states to the other person’s mind. The central assumption of this simulationist account of understanding other minds is that the basic set of subjective mental states of different individuals are identical and ‘interchangeable’ and that similar situations generate the same causal mental states and consequent action-tendencies in all of us. However, it has been pointed out that the models do not take full account of the computational burdens on the system that they clearly imply (Oztop, Kawato, & Arbib, 2006).

The direct matching account of understanding others’ actions in terms of goals and intentions by mapping them directly onto one’s corresponding motor actions through the mirror neuron system has been criticized on a number of other grounds as well. Csibra (in press) reviewed evidence showing that brain areas that are not part of the mirror neuron system (and have no motor properties, such as the superior temporal sulcus - STS) are routinely activated during action observation and seem to play a crucial role in assigning goals to actions. In this view, the premotor action representations of the mirror neuron system are activated in a top-down fashion by such previously assigned goal representations (rather than through ‘direct matching’) and play a predictive (rather than a recognitive) role by anticipating (and monitoring) the other’s action to achieve the goal through simulation. There is developmental evidence from human infants showing that infants as young as 6 months of age can understand and anticipate goal-directed actions of others even when they are performed by unfamiliar, inanimate, or abstract (animated) agents (e.g Csibra, Gergely, Bíró, Koós, & Brockbank, 1999; Kamerawi, Kato, Kanda, Ishiguro, & Hiraki, 2005; Luo & Baillargeon, 2005; Wagner & Carey, 2005) or by computer-generated simulations of human hands performing biomechanically impossible actions (that, nevertheless, involve an efficient goal approach, see Gergely & Csibra, 2003).

These findings cannot be easily accommodated by the mirror neuron account as such observed actions cannot be directly mapped onto the self’s own existing motor action representations (as there are no corresponding action schemes in the infant observer’s motor repertoire). In a recent fMRI study in which adults were viewing a person performing (non-rational vs. rational) goal-directed actions (such as someone pushing an elevator button with her knee while her hands were either free or occupied, Brass et al., 2007) reported a specific increase in the case of non-rational goal-approach (the hands-free condition) in the activation of brain areas (such as the superior temporal sulcus (STS), the temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) and the anterior fronto-median cortex) that have no mirror properties and that are typically involved in mentalization and belief attribution tasks (Ferstl & von Cramon, 2002; Fletcher et al., 1995; Gallagher et al., 2000; Goel, Grafman, Sadato, & Hallett, 1995; Grezes, Frith, & Passingham, 2004; Saxe & Kanwisher, 2003; Saxe & Wexler, 2005; Vogeley et al., 2001). These findings support the view that action understanding in terms of reasons is primarily mediated by functional brain mechanisms other than those involved in motor simulation through direct neuronal ‘resonance’. In short, according to these criticisms, while the mirror neuron system may provide an important simulation-based predictive mechanism for the anticipation and monitoring of others’ observed actions, the more radical claim of standard mirror neuron accounts that understanding the intentions or goals of others’ actions is solely accomplished by the direct matching of observed actions onto one’s own corresponding motor schemes seems untenable.

The mirror systems view also has strong implications for the self-other distinction. If understanding of others’ actions and emotions is directly mediated by shared representations that are equally activated by the self’s or the other’s behaviours, then it becomes hard to explain why we do not confuse others with ourselves and how we manage to attribute actions to either ourselves or to other agents. Recently, Schütz-Bosbach, Mancini, Aglioti, & Haggard (Schutz-Bosbach, Mancini, Aglioti, & Haggard, 2006) investigated this problem by an ingenious method (the so-called "rubber hand illusion") through manipulating experimentally – by induced contingency experience – whether the brain attributed the same observed action to the self versus to another agent. The study demonstrates that while the same actions attributed to another person facilitated the observer’s action system, when it was attributed to the self the observer’s action system was suppressed rather than facilitated. The authors conclude that contrary to the radical "shared representation" model of self-other understanding, "the motor system….includes representations of other agents as qualitatively different from the self." (p. 1834).

   

    

   

   

  

   

 

(end of  part 1 - the whole paper is to be published inside a next Frenis Zero publisher's book)

    

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliografia

 

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Allman, J. M., Hakeem, A., Erwin, J. M., Nimchinsky, E., & Hof, P. (2001). The anterior cingulate cortex. The evolution of an interface between emotion and cognition. Ann N Y Acad Sci, 935, 107-117.

Amaral, D. G. (2003). The amygdala, social behavior, and danger detection. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1000, 337-347.

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