Reflections on the Evolution and Deep History of “Mentalization”

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Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar has just released a new book entitled Thinking Big: How the Evolution of Social Life Shaped the Human Mind. Dunbar wrote his book along with two archaeology colleagues, Clive Gamble and John Gowlett. For simplicity, at times, I’ll refer to Thinking Big as Dunbar’s book. In the rest of this post I’d like to provide a few first impressions concerning Thinking Big. I may write a more in depth review in the future.

At it’s core Thinking Big is the deep history of what psychology types call mentalization (which I’ll define a bit further along). Dunbar and his colleagues view “history” as extending back, oh, say, ten or fifteen thousand years. Deep history goes back roughly 200,000 years. So, yes, the history of mentalization goes back into deep history. Dunbar et al. argue that researchers typically do not look at the underpinnings of human psychology back in deep history for one overarching reason: there are very few “hard parts” back in deep history such as buildings and clay tablets. Apparently the only real hard parts researchers can look at back in deep history are myriad forms of handaxes. Here’s where it gets interesting.

Dunbar et al. argue that the bias against deep history expressed by evolutionary psychologists and archaeologists tracks the bias often expressed by behaviorists with respect to feelings and emotions. Here’s how Dunbar et al. put it:

Psychology is in origin about the working mind, and the behaviorists had argued that since mind itself could not be observed directly, it was not even open for discussion. For human origins, too, many scholars felt that any advanced capabilities had to be demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt. Only if they expressed their ideas in material form—as art or skilled crafts—could earlier humans hope to be included in our modern club.

Dunbar et al. argue that once “hard parts” appear on the scene, a whole lot of history—deep history— has taken place in the area of “soft parts,” namely, psychology. To discount any soft part history because it is hard to see or observe is simply so much poppycock. I would argue that it is political bias at best and academic laziness at worst. (For a different take on the soft versus hard controversy, see note one below and the example taken from geology.)  As one quick example, here’s how Dunbar et al. describe the relationship between the handaxe and early humans:

[H]omins who made handaxes show a preference for certain raw materials [making them the first geologists]. … [B]ig handaxe accumulations [within deep history] show us organization in the landscape. They suggest that hominins were mapped to their landscapes through rule systems [e.g., the rule systems governing the construction of handaxes] that had to be obeyed, that gave guidance in much the same way that a powerful religion can prescribe every facet of life for some people today. … [The making of handaxes] required concentration, in a way that is echoed by the practice of social skills —in which greater attention is paid to others. We would argue that this concentration was first directed towards the business of building stronger bonds in increasingly large groups.

So, the main thrust of Dunbar’s book is the idea that mental focus or concentration within the social realm (which consists almost entirely of soft parts) was necessary before concentration could be focused on the making and use of technology, like handaxes. And what did concentration within the social realm mainly consist of? Yup, mentalization. Now would probably be a good time to define mentalization (although I have discussed mentalization on this blog many times before). Here’s how Dunbar et al. define mentalization:

[A] capacity known as mind reading or mentalizing—the ability to understand or infer what another individual is thinking. This allows us to keep several people’s intentions in mind at the same time, and so adjust our behavior in such a way as to allow for their interests as well as ours when we act in a particular way. We have been able to show … that this capacity for coping with many individuals’ mental states depends crucially on the volume of neural matter in particular parts of the neocortex. These regions, in the frontal and temporal lobes, form a network of neural clusters that are known to be crucial to mentalizing.

Here are a few additional frames often used to convey a conceptual understanding of the process of mentalization:

  • minds knowing minds
  • mind in mind
  • “I know that he knows that I know” (third level intentionality, which we will look at below)
  • intersubjectivity or a mingling of subjective experience

Yup, Dunbar et al. are talking about the upper brain. As I have written about many times before, Executive Function skills reside in the upper brain. And, yes, mentalization could be looked at as an EF skill. To review, here are some of the EF skills: planning, mental modeling, appropriately focusing attention, appropriately shifting attention, mental time travel, and delaying gratification. It would seem that to make a handaxe (which, according to Dunbar et al., can be found as far back as 1.75 million years ago in parts of Africa) one would have to employ some level of EF skills—at a minimum, planning, focusing attention, keeping a model in mind, and delaying gratification. Hopefully the reader is gaining the impression that the history of mentalization and even EF is very “deep.” For more on this theme I’ll direct the reader to Russell Barkley’s 2012 book Executive Functions—What They Are, How They Work, and Why They Evolved. The information that Dunbar et al. present concerning the evolution of mentalization dovetails nicely with the information that Barkley presents concerning the evolution of EF.

OK, I can see you Bowlbians out there rolling your eyes: “Why is any of this important to us?”

If you’re a Bowlbian (such as myself), then the topic of mentalization takes on special significance. You could say that there is a branch of Bowlbian psychology that focuses on the development of mentalization. The idea here is simple: early safe and secure attachment relationships (if all goes well) form the foundation upon which the cognitive process of mentalization rests. The chief animator here is Peter Fonagy. I’ll point you toward the 2003 book Fonagy wrote (along with several colleagues) entitled: Affect Regulation, Mentalization, and the Development of the Self.

OK, I saw a hand go up. Yes. “That above statement sounds a lot like the statement you use frequently concerning executive function: early safe and secure attachment relationships (if all goes well) form the foundation upon which robust executive function skills rest.” Good observation. Yes, again, mentalization (MZ) could be looked at as an EF skill. And, yes, both MZ and EF are “housed” in the neocortex or the “new brain.” Effectively Dunbar et al. argue that rise of the social brain goes hand in hand with rise of the mentalizing brain. Dunbar’s social brain model holds that the social brain gave way to the mentalizing brain which then gave way to such things as myth, religion, and even science. Let me return to a topic that I touch on above: intentionality.

As Dunbar et al. make clear, there simply is no way to understand a cognitive process like mentalization without an understanding of intentionality. Apparently there are different levels of intentionality (third level intentionality was mentioned above). To recognize that a self is in fact a self is first order intentionality. According to Dunbar et al., some higher order animals, like elephants, dolphins, and certain primates, have first order intentionality in that they are able to recognize themselves in a mirror. First order intentionality is about knowing that one is in fact minded, that is to say, able to create, store, and access ideas and thoughts and concepts. Second order intentionality would be when one knows that others are also minded. (Second order intentionality also goes by the name theory of mind or ToM for short.) Basic forms of empathy require at least second order intentionality or a theory of mind. Children who are able to engage in what cognitive scientists call “false belief” (a phenomenon that cognitive scientist Jean Piaget studied) are able to engage in second order intentionality. Lets listen in as Dunbar et al. talk about intentionality:

The fact that I have a belief about something (I know my own mind) is equated with first order intentionality, and my having a belief about your belief (your state of mind) is then second order intentionality. This is the state that five-year-olds arrive at when they have mastered theory of mind [and can entertain false beliefs]. But adults can do considerably better than this. In fact, our studies suggest that fifth order intentionality is the natural upper limit for the majority of people. This is something equivalent to being able to say: I wonder whether you suppose that I intended that you think that I believe X to be true. The five words in italics [and underlined] are the mental state terms that are collectively referred to by philosophers as intentionality.

Dunbar et al. make the observation that many people on the autism spectrum only have first order intentionality and find theory of mind operations to be challenging if not downright frustrating. Autism spectrum disorders are associated with varying degrees of “failure to cope well with the adult social world,” to quote Dunbar et al. They continue, “This is so even in cases where the indviduals concerned have normal (or even above normal) IQ.” How ever you view the current attention deficit disorder crisis, it certainly is a crisis at the levels of mentalization and intentionality. [2] And as a general observation, a focus on self esteem is a focus on first order intentionality. This may be why Bowlby was critical of attempts to frame attachment issues using self esteem. Simply, the vast majority of attachment issues exist at the level of second order intentionality or higher.

So, what drives mentalization and the acquisition of higher levels of intentionality? Dunbar et al. suggest that as social groups continued to grow back in deep history so too the need for social processes that allowed for synchronized release of the “feel good” neurotransmitter dopamine. Here are some of the processes that Dunbar et al. point to that allow for the synchronized release of dopamine: in deep history the touch of grooming, making music together, dancing together, laughing together, gossiping together, and, later in history sharing myths together, engaging in religious experiences together, and, sadly, engaging in war and conflict. And, yes, all of this starts with the synchronization and release of the feel good neurotransmitter oxytocin within the infant-mother dyad.

Here’s what’s interesting: According to Dunbar et al., simply listening to music or watching dancing does not lead to the social experience of synchronized release of dopamine. I cannot help but wonder if taking an antidepressant medication (or a medication designed to treat attention deficits) within an environment of social isolation really does much good. Maybe this is why we are encouraged to take a second medication whose name clearly plays on the theme of “amplification.” Maybe taking these medications in isolation is like watching others dance or listening to music with headphones on. How many mental health practitioners do you know of who prescribe going to a rave or joining a band. And look at what we’re eliminating in schools: music and physical education. Just saying. Maybe one big reason it appears that intentionality levels are dropping is because we lack experiences of synchronized release of dopamine. The early attachment relationship is our first experience of synchronized release of dopamine (or probably more accurately oxytocin). So, is moving the early attachment relationship in directions of increasing levels of mechanization and institutionalization tantamount to making infants and young children “watch” and not “synchronize?” Worth considering don’t you think?

So, let me wrap up with the observations Dunbar et al. make with respect to the Internet and social media. Dunbar et al. make the observation that one reason “why the Internet won’t allow us to have more, or complex, social networks” stems from the fact that “we don’t find building relationships via text-based media very satisfying.” Again, using text-based media is too much like watching. Dunbar et al. do tell us that a high bandwidth medium like Skype might work. Let’s listen in as Dunbar et al. talk about Skype:

Skype seems to win out because it creates a sense of being in the same room together, a sense of co-presence. And that means the pace of the exchange is much faster than it can be in [low bandwidth] text-based media: I see the smile already breaking on your face as I tell a joke. This is such a powerful effect that jokes we would find hilarious in the pub fall flat in an email.

“There is something else that is lacking in the digital world,” write Dunbar et al., “and that is touch.” They continue, “Touch is a genuinely important part of our social world, even with strangers. All that fingertip grooming from our primate heritage is still very much with us.” Dunbar et al. give us this “bottom line”: “How we touch someone can say more than any words that we might utter.”

A lot has been made of the role Twitter played in the Arab Spring uprisings. To close out, let’s listen in as Dunbar et al. comment on this supposed connection:

Twitter doesn’t create relationships—it is more like a lighthouse flashing away in the dark, irrespective of weather there is a ship out there to see it. Those who have studied this phenomenon are clear that what lay at the root of the Arab Spring was not Twitter as such, but actual face-to-face networks between a small number of charismatic leaders who set the whole thing in motion. Twitter will allow us to coordinate a gathering at a particular place and time, but not a social or political movement. Like cultural icons, these arise from personal relationships between leaders and followers, and this has been a pattern throughout our history.

I guess you could say that digital technologies like Twitter and Instagram have amplified our ability to watch. Such digital technologies have amplified our ability to engage in voyeurism. Sadly, we are taking watching for doing.

Bonus Section:

In case I’m not able to write a more in depth review, here are two topics mentioned by Dunbar et al. that I think are important to think about: 1) cognitive load, and, 2) misuse or abuse of mentalization and levels of intentionality.

According to Dunbar et al., using the cortical regions of the upper brain increases cognitive load and, in turn, requires huge amounts of energy to support such a load. In essence, for evolution to select for higher brain power there has to be a huge payoff. Well, the huge payoff is greater levels of adaptability. However, you could say that evolution struck a Faustian deal with us: If you want higher levels of brain power, you’ll have to take on higher levels of cognitive load, and (to accommodate that cognitive load) you’ll have to start externalizing certain biological processes to get at higher levels of energy. As one example of this Faustian deal, Dunbar et al. point out that the process of cooking foods to get at higher levels of energy represents a process of externalizing the gut. Males gave up their fang-like canine teeth and externalized them in the forms of handaxes and spears.

So, as cognitive load went up, so too the process of externalizing certain biological processes to get at higher levels of energy. In general, sociability could be framed as the process of externalizing certain biological functions in an attempt to gain access to higher levels of energy. Along the lines of externalizing biology, Dunbar et al. point out that one way to accommodate cognitive load is to offload thinking onto the environment. In essence, many cultural artifacts, such as maps and alphabets, are externalized forms of brain if you will. (For more on this theme see the 1996 book by cognitive scientist Edwin Hutchins entitled Cognition in the Wild.) When cognitive load cannot be appropriately accommodated, Dunbar et al. suggest that cooling off periods could result. These cooling off periods would be the so-called Dark Ages. Maybe urban planner Jane Jacobs was right when she wrote her 2007 book entitled Dark Age Ahead. I would suggest that maybe we should view the arrival of the Digital Age as a cool down period or Dark Age.

Dunbar et al. briefly mention that mentalization and intentionality can be misused or even abused. Peter Fonagy et al. tell us in Affect Regulation, Mentalization, and the Development of the Self (mentioned above) that people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) are able to achieve high levels of MZ or intentionality. Sadly, persons with BPD principally use these abilities to manipulate the intentionality levels of others (which is why it is so hard for psychology types to work with patients with BPD). Dunbar et al. talk about “freeloading.” People who freeload manipulate intentionality so that they can gain resources for free. Liberals tend to accept freeloading as a cost of doing business (thus their focus on the welfare state); conservatives tend to abhor freeloading (thus their focus on the business state). Liberalism and conservatism are two different approaches to the issue of misusing intentionality. Thankfully both liberals and conservatives abhor sociopaths who display patterns of abuse with respect to the intentions and conventions of society. Liberals attack Medicaid fraud while conservatives attack Ponzi schemes.


[1] – Allow me to tell you a story from my days as a geologist. Many of you probably have heard about the Cambrian age. The Cambrian age started about 543 million years ago and continued until 490 million years ago (give or take). The Cambrian marks the appearance of “hard parts”: shells, scales, and spikes. Selection pressures at the beginning of the Cambrian were such that critters (as my sedimentology professor called them) living in the oceans had to figure out how to increase their defenses. Developing hard parts was evolution’s solution. Geologists (especially paleontologists) love hard parts because they tend to be well preserved in the rock record. The Cambrian represented an explosion if you will mainly because there was an explosion in the number of hard parts. But geologists recognize that an explosion of hard parts does not mean there was an explosion of critters. The Cambrian represents an explosion of critters with hard parts, not critters themselves. How do we know this? Through the study of what are known as trace fossils. The study of trace fossils is known as ichnology. Even though critters before the Cambrian did not have hard parts, they left traces. A trace could be a breathing tube that a worm-like critter made to hangout in the sand, or it could be the trace that a soft-bodied critter left as it slid or prodded along in the mud. Before the Cambrian there was an abundance of traces, ergo an abundance of soft-bodied critters. At the risk of being overly glib, at the beginning of the Cambrian, evolution passed a helmet law and soft-bodied critters were encouraged to put on shells, scales, and spikes.

[2] – In my last blog post on educator Jane Healy’s book Endangered Minds, I make the point that one way to access the upper brain is through complex grammar and syntax. Suffice it to say that in order to convey higher orders of intentionality complex grammar and syntax must be used. Just look at the complex structures that Dunbar et al. must use to convey fifth order intentionality:

“I wonder whether you suppose that I intended that you think that I believe X to be true.”

Educators (and social critics like Robert Bly) are worried that kids today are not being exposed to complex grammar and syntax. As a result, they are finding it increasingly difficult to access the upper brain and higher levels of intentionality. Like the person on the autism spectrum, kids experiencing CGDD (complex grammar deficit disorder) also experience a “failure to cope well with the adult social world,” to quote Dunbar et al. again from above. Retreat into virtual digital worlds may be one possible coping mechanism designed to reduce the cognitive load of higher levels of intentionality and cool things off. I guess you could say that insecure attachment strategies are chiefly about reducing cognitive load and cooling things off.

I have a good friend who constantly tells me, “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t read good fiction.” I think I understand why she feels this way: if you cannot read and enjoy good fiction, you’ll find higher levels of intentionality to be challenging, even frustrating. There’s a reason educators back in my school days forced us to read Animal Farm, Catcher in the Rye, Slaughterhouse Five, and A Clockwork Orange. Higher levels of intentionality do not come naturally. It’s a cognitive palette that has to be developed through lots and lots of practice. Rather than the classics, kids today are now feasting at the cognitive, all you can eat, fast food buffet of reality TV, Tweets, and Facebook posts. A taste for higher levels of intentionality may be a developed palette that has lost its allure.