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Harrison, A.M. (2003). Affect regulation, mentalisation, and the development of the self By Fonagy Peter, György Gergely, Elliot L. Jurist, Mary Target Other Press 2002 577 pp.. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 84(5):1382-1387.

(2003). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 84(5):1382-1387

Affect regulation, mentalisation, and the development of the self By Fonagy Peter, György Gergely, Elliot L. Jurist, Mary Target Other Press 2002 577 pp.

Review by:
Alexandra Murray Harrison

This important volume provides an integration of developmental research and psychoanalytic theory for researchers and clinicians. The main concept developed in the book is what the authors call ‘mentalisation’, or the capacity to create mental representations of oneself and others that allow one to reflect on one's own and others' mental states. This capacity is essential for healthy adult functioning and provides a basis for affect regulation, impulse control and empathy. (The authors relate mentalisation to the achievement in cognitive development of what others have called a ‘theory of mind’ (Wimmer and Perner, 1983; Mayes and Cohen, 1992).) They ground their theory of mentalisation in early infancy and give it an affective dimension by linking it to Attachment Theory. The mechanism by which the infant is prepared for later developmental steps is explained by the ‘social biofeedback theory’ of Gergely and Watson (1996). The authors explore other concepts relevant to mentalisation that are recognizable in patients with personality disorders, and their theoretical points are illustrated with clinical cases.

This review provides a summary of the book's major points and contributions to the literature and then suggests four areas that the authors may want to expand in future research: (1) the interactional aspect of the theory; (2) the age-specificity of developmental capacities; (3) an alternative to the method of working backwards from a developmental end-point; and (4) a closer connection between the new theory and recommendations for changes in clinical techniques.

Major points and contributions

According to the authors' theory of mentalisation, the infant learns to make sense of his affective state through the contingent mirroring responses of his mother. The authors relate their ideas to Winnicott's remarks about facial mirroring: ‘What does the infant see when he looks at his mother? He sees himself’. According to the authors' concept of mirroring, the adequately attuned mother forms representations of the infant's affective state that she then reflects back to the infant. The reflected expression of affect is imperfectly contingent, because the mother does not have exactly the same feelings as the infant.

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