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Mentalization is a psychological concept that describes the ability to understand the mental state of oneself and others based on overt behaviour.[1] Mentalization can be seen as a form of imaginative mental activity, which allow us to perceive and interpret human behaviour in terms of intentional mental states (e.g. needs, desires, feelings, beliefs, goals, purposes, and reasons).[2]

The concept of mentalization emerged in the psychoanalytic literature in the late 1960s, but diversified in the early 1990s when Simon Baron-Cohen, Uta Frith, and others merged it with research on neurobiological deficits that correlate with autism and schizophrenia. Concomitantly, Peter Fonagy and colleagues applied it to developmental psychopathology in the context of attachment relationships gone awry.[3] More recently, several child mental health researchers such as Arietta Slade,[4] John Grienenberger,[5] Alicia Lieberman,[6] Daniel Schechter,[7] and Susan Coates[8] have applied mentalization both to research on parenting and to clinical interventions with parents, infants, and young children.[9]

Mentalization has implications for attachment-theory as well as self-development. According to Peter Fonagy, individuals without proper attachment (e.g. due to physical, psychologial or sexual abuse), can have greater difficulties in the development of mentalization-abilities. Attachment history partially determines the strength of mentalizing capacity of individuals. Securely-attached individuals tend to have had a mentalizing primary caregiver, and resultantly have more robust capacities to represent the states of their own and other people’s minds. Early childhood exposure to mentalization can serve to protect the individual from psychosocial adversity.[2] [10]

See also[]


  1. UCL (Psychoanalysis Unit) Peter Fonagy's Homepage
  2. 2.0 2.1
  3. Allen, J. P., Fonagy, P. (Eds.), Handbook of Mentalization-Based Treatment. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons
  4. Slade, A. (2005). Parental reflective functioning: An introduction. Attachment and Human Development, 7(3), 269-283.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Coates, S.W. (1998). Having a Mind of One's Own and Holding the Other In Mind. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 8, 115-148.
  10. Mechanisms of change in Mentalization_Based_Treatment_on_patients_with_a_Borderline_Personality_Disorder|mentalization-based treatment of BPD. J Clin Psychol. 2006 Apr;62(4):411-30. Fonagy P, Bateman AW.

Further reading[]

Fonagy, P., Gergely, G., Jurist, E. & Target, M. (2002). Affect regulation, mentalization, and the development of the self. New York: Other Press.

External links[]

  • Anthony Bateman's homepage [1]
  • A summary of mentalization [2]

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