‘Mentalizing’ is the new word for making sense of oneself, others, and intersubjective transactions in terms of inner motivations. It can be fast and intuitive (implicit mentalizing), as in most informal and routine interactions, or slow and elaborate (explicit mentalizing), when one steps back to indulge in reflective thinking. “Why did she say that?” The thought is such an integral part of being human that it is most often taken for granted. Yet it is an evolutionary achievement.
Mentalization stands at the shoulder of primary emotions. Mammals are equipped with seven primary emotions: seeking/interest, fear, rage, (sexual) lust, care, separation distress, and play/joy. These emotions inform the subject about the qualities of their surroundings: Is the other out there a stranger, a group mate, or a family member? Is he or she an enemy, a potential sexual partner, or a sufferer to be taken care of? Primary emotional responses are the forerunners of the human faculty of interpretation. Archaic forms of interpretation become all the more important when primates come to live in complex social groups. The Other has to be understood in social contexts. Reasons for behavior may be manifold. Certain mental capabilities become selected during evolution and these mental resources shape the very environment (e.g. group complexity) that subjects must adapt to. A spiral loop is set in motion.
Explicit mentalizing presupposes language abilities; it can be seen as a kind of “inner speech”. The very ability to speak presupposes certain brain resources that most probably evolved around 200,000 years before present time (e.g. the FOXP2 gene). However, language as a set of grammatical conventions is a group achievement. It depends most probably on a fruitful interplay of human (Homo sapiens) development and climatic and fauna conditions. Stable and very large groups of humans became possible due to the agriculture revolution around 12,000 years BPT. However, archeological data indicates that stable and large group livings have taken place earlier, most notably in the Ukraine region around 35,000 years BPT. Complicated large group living calls for language as a means for understanding social affairs and for more sophisticated communication and cooperation. Explicit mentalizing most probably developed as a means to understand others, and thereafter was turned towards oneself. Self-understanding is therefore a way of understanding oneself “as another,” as Paul Ricoeur phrased it.
The different timetable for the evolution of primary emotions and the faculty of mentalizing is displayed by their respective brain localization. The sources of primary emotions are to be found deeply subcortical, as interplay between the upper brainstem and the limbic part of the brain (e.g. amygdala, hippocampus). Mentalizing, in a more narrow sense, depends on cortical structures, particularly in the frontal region. Almost literally, mentalizing resides on top of primary emotions. This helps to explain why the capacity for mentalizing shrinks when emotions get high, which is a pity, and a bit paradoxical. Our capacity for sound social and interpersonal judgment disappears when we need it the most (as in emotional turmoil).
Emotions can overflow in any situation, but two arenas stand out: close relationships and groups. Many scholars have tried to explain why humans are so easily triggered and can become so “primitive” in groups. In recent years the (old) idea of contagion has gained momentum. Human brains (also) seem to have so-called mirror neurons. We mirror each other’s emotions. Your pain might easily become my pain. With many people around me displaying the same kind of emotions, my own emotion brain sites start firing quite intensely and the emotion control parts of my cortex have a hard job if I want to resist the temptation to adopt the feelings of my group-mates. Imagine being in the midst of the Manchester United fans in a match against Chelsea. Soon you will be part of the chorus shouting against the referee.
Is it wise then to place patients with emotionally unstable personality disorders (borderline) in groups, for therapeutic purposes? These patients are known to have mentalizing difficulties. They often misunderstand social interaction and, when emotionally aroused, which they often become, resort to black-and-white thinking. It is disputed whether group therapy is good for these patients, but anyhow, they represent a challenge. The good news is that these challenges have stimulated a rethinking of old dogmas, and experimentation with new ways of doing group therapy.
Featured Image: The Conversation. US National Archives and Records Administration. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.