The Way Humans Learn About Their Culture
The way this kind of learning occurs helps us understand how the knowledge communicated between parent and child becomes “what is known” and “how it is done” in a large group of people, and then what about this gets passed down over generations. This does not occur through intentional, cognitive learning, but instead happens through the use of “ostensive communication cues”. These cues include such behaviors as eye contact, turn taking patterns, and specific tones of voice such as the falsetto voices mothers use to talk to their babies referred to as “motherese”. Fonagy explains that what establishes these ostensive cues most reliably is the same thing that generates secure attachment – sensitive, attuned behavior towards the baby, giving the baby the sense that the adult is trustworthy and therefore that the information is reliable. Fonagy stresses that all human life is built on social knowledge, and that if you deprive the child of “epistemic trust”, you deprive him of the possibility of benefiting from what he needs to succeed in the society into which he was born. Relationships are absolutely crucial to the transmission of cultural knowledge.
The Implications of Mentalization for Helping People Grow (in psychotherapy or other ways)
When you are with someone who is not mentalizing, it is impossible to have a rational discussion with him. That is because he has a rigid position that is heavily influenced by his own internal beliefs and he cannot bring an open mind to the conversation. For example, if he perceives himself as a victim, he will see everything that happens to him as victimization by a cruel world, and if you try to explore with him how he might have contributed to the outcome by some of his actions, he will not agree and will probably feel victimized by you. This is fairly characteristic of many adolescents, and actually occurs in all of us if we are stressed to an extreme enough degree. One of the ways I see “normal” people let go of their mentalizing is when that person is a parent who is desperately worried about his child. In that case, the internal perception of helplessness in an uncaring world (if people really cared, they would do something!) is so overwhelming that the parent cannot imagine a situation in which there is nothing to be done but wait. Another situation is in high conflict divorces in which each parent perceives him or herself as the victim of the other, and cannot empathize with the other at all.
Fonagy stressed the need to insist on a mentalizing process in therapeutic or other helping engagements. This means that if the person you are working with insists on taking a “non-mentalizing”, or irrational and highly personalized point of view, you must focus on bringing the conversation into a mentalizing one instead of just “hearing out” a lengthy non-mentalizing explanation from the other person. That is because the “hearing out” is deceptive in that it involves the person reestablishing his rigid point of view instead of presenting an opinon that is open to alternative perspectives. Fonagy points out that when your interactive partner is not mentalizing, you stop mentalizing!
Most of the patients Fonagy has studied from the point of mentalization have a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, but he makes the point that we are all vulnerable to lose our capacity to mentalize under extreme stress. This personality disorder (BPD), he thinks, is a developmental problem, in other words, the failure to develop a competency (mentalization) that it is possible to still develop. Twin studies suggest that it is heritable and it is also associated with early maternal separation and abuse (Belsky, Caspi, Arnseneault, Bleidorn, Fonagy et al, 2012, Dev. and Psychopathology). This suggests that children with a family history of mental illness (any kind) and early parental separation, neglect, or abuse, should be the primary focus of attention of mental health clinicians.
Fonagy reiterates the genetics and early environmental influences activating the attachment system and disrupting mentalization, giving way to a disorganized sense of self and three problematic activities:
1. Psychic equivalence – in which a person thinks that just because they are thinking something, it is automatically true. Flashbacks are an extreme example, and intolerance of alternative perspectives is a more ordinary one.
2. Pretend mode – the mental world is decoupled from external reality. For example, a woman can be completely convinced that a man in her office is infatuated with her even though he has never given her evidence of this.
3. Teleological mode – physical action is seen as the only way to modify someone else’s mental state. An example is when a person insists on concrete evidence of your caring for them – including extra sessions or telephone calls or physical touching.
Fonagy recommends certain techniques for helping your interactive partner (patient, client, etc) to mentalize:
1. Take a stance of active questioning and “not knowing”. That means that you do not presume to know what is going on until the other person explains it to you. While “not knowing”, you gently insist on alternative perspectives. (“Of course, I don’t know, but when I think about it, it occurs to me that X might be happening instead of Y.”)
2. Monitor your own mistakes. That means acknowledging your inability to really know what is in the other’s mind and apologize for your mistakes.
4. Curiosity about the other’s experience.
5. Staying in the present instead of moving to the past.
6. Lower arousal by bringing it back to you: “What have I said that bothered you?”
7. Quickly step back if the person seems to be losing control.
8. Highlight the experience of “feeling felt”.
9. Identify a break in mentalizing and “rewind” to the moment before.
10. The main idea is to “create a space” in which the rhythms of mentalizing can occur, a safe place where you collaborate in creating a more flexible and adaptive meaning about what is bothering the person.
Fonagy has a new book out about how to understand mentalizing and how to practice it:
Anthony W. Bateman and Peter Fonagy, Handbook of Mentalizing in Mental Health Practice, American Psychiatric Association, 2012.