On the Gifts of Mentalizing

On the Gifts of Mentalizing

Spinoza first developed a framework of understanding the role of images and imagining in the cognitive and affective frameworks of people via their altering of a person’s affects (cf. proposition 27 of the 3rd part of the Ethics). A central concern framing his exposition of imagining was the Hobbesian idea of a fundamental egoism within human subjectivity --the idea that no matter what a person does, his or her interests are always ultimately focused on self. Spinoza did not disagree with the general basis of his idea. His goal in discussing the idea of imagining was rather to be able to explain why it is that we appear to behave on occasion with empathy.

The mind has a prodigious capacity for conceiving that which is not present to the body. Powers of inference, deduction, projection, simulation, estimation, fantasizing. These are different types of mental capacity that play a role in the development of our universes of reference and our demarcating (territorialization) of the worlds we inhabit. Mentalizing is a more restrictive concept related to simulation. It's a type of simulation directed at the mental events and concepts of other actants (such as other humans) in our world. Given the social nature of the brain, a trait of it to be receptive to affects of entities of sufficient "similarity" to ones "self", allows for both social learning and for effective social decision-making. That is to say, it is of definite evolutionary benefit.

The emotions and the representations evoked in a subject are here considered two (separate) constitutive elements of human cognitive activity preceding or precipitating behavioral response. This type of corporealist framework of mental phenomena, which has hence been reworked and fleshed out in vastly different ways by the likes of Nietzsche, Whitehead, and Deleuze, happens to fit rather cohesively in contemporary discussion of mentalizing --a type of image based mental postulating-- but in the contemporary sense, centered on the specifically complex set of encounters as is had with other living, thinking and strategizing entities. Here I wish to outline a series of contemporary discussions for the purposes of giving an operational and functional nuance made possible by neuroscientific research.

The first article is the "The Selfless mind: How prefrontal involvement in mentalizing with similar and dissimilar others shapes empathy and prosocial behavior" by Jasminka Majdandžic, Sandra Amashaufer, Claus Lamm, and Christian Windischberger, which recounts findings of a study on the cognitive processes involved in prosocial behavior following mentalizing activity. The importance of this study was to give clarity to what actually happens or is capable of happening at the neurological level when we mentalize with others. Ultimately however we are concerned with the connection to prosociality, its facilitation and obstacles thereto. Without delving into the distribution of dispositional propensities, we can however identify what propensity priming (within a given subject) means for likely behavior, and what interventions might look like given the mechanisms of operation we will outline below.


Mentalizing could be called the spontaneous sense we have of other living entities as entities whose actions are guided by mental states of informational utility to other us and other living entities. When we mentalize we seek to fill in the gaps about another's desires, needs, feelings, reasons, beliefs etc. Normally, upon interacting with others, we automatically peer beneath the surface, making inferences either out of impulse or effort, positing the mental states of our interlocutors and cohabitants, basing our actions and responses on a sense of what underlies the other person's being and behavior. This positing of an active mind and a universe of mental experience, with particular characteristics and features, would previously be considered under the rubric of 'theory of mind', but which today, with greater appreciation for the nuances of what we mend to refer to when discussing "mind" we may call affective and cognitive perspective taking (Singer 2006).

It is a common phrasing in situations in which a person declines to declare their intentions to state "I cannot read minds", but this is never for wont of trying. The effort of "mind reading" underpins much of human cooperative or co-habitative activity. This process of mentalizing, barring particular cognitive and or physiological blocs, comes so naturally to us that we easily overlook its significance and how much time in our days is spent to its practice. To understand what is possible with human cooperation, however, we must pay careful attention to mentalizing and the conditions under which this basic human capacity becomes impaired or further developed.

Mentalizing Explicitly & Implicitly

Sometimes we mentalize consciously. When we are puzzled about another person's actions, we may wonder, "Why was he so abrupt with me? Is he irritated because I didn't return his call right away?" And we mentalize consciously when we are puzzled by our own actions—"How could I have binged on that ice cream when I was so resolved to stick with my diet?".

The majority of our social conversations revolve around gossip, in the benign sense that we mostly talk about ourselves and others—what we are doing and why, and what they are doing and why. Mainly, we seemed to be interested in making sense of our social world and our place in it. We are busy in the conduct of mentalizing.

But thinking and talking about what is going on in our own mind and the minds of others is only part of our mentalizing activity, perhaps just the tip of the iceberg. When we interact with others, we mentalize intuitively, just as we ride a bicycle by habit. Thus, we don't just mentalize at an intellectual level; we mentalize at a gut level (figuratively speaking). When interactions go smoothly, we need not think explicitly about states of mind—our own or the other person's. We can respond automatically, mentalizing implicitly. For example, we often respond to others' emotions without thinking about it, nodding sympathetically with a concerned look on our face as we listen to a friend talking about her child's frightening accident. Another example: we naturally take turns in conversation, being sensitive to pauses and unthinkingly keeping our conversational partner's point of view in mind before we respond or interject.

A person's behavior is based on mental states that are always in dynamic flux, which makes understanding other persons (and ourselves) the most complex problem solving of which we are capable. Evolutionary biologists now argue that the reason we developed such fancy brains is the sheer complexity of making sense of each other for the sake of our cooperative—and competitive—living. But when we hit our foot on an inanimate object as a young person, is there not an impulse that leads the person in pain to ascribe a malevolence to the "guilty" object? Even without a mental state there is an activity of mind, an affective place-holding for that which gives us pain here, pleasure there, and potentially indifference in some encounter to come.

Candidate Mechanisms

Scientifically we’ve understood that there is a link between the act of mentalizing and varieties of prosocial disposition and behavior. However, the research conducted by Majdandžic, Amashaufer, Lamm, and Windischberger sought to clarify what cognitive process drives these effects.

The first candidate mechanism involves the hypothesis that mentalizing engages simulation mechanisms that allow the positing of a self be used as a “template” or “anchor” for the making of inferences. The idea here is that we infer the thoughts and feelings of another by mentally projecting oneself into their position, however precisely or imprecisely we know and understand that position. Support for such a theory comes from a number of studies showing that: 1) people tend to assume that others hold the same opinions and have the same knowledge as they do; 2) other studies showing that differences in mental state determine how well we understand the thought and feeling of others; 3) the demonstration that the activities of self-referential processing and mentalizing with other rely on overlapping activation patterns in the brain, signaling common processes functionally as well.

Insofar as we know that empathy relies


Mentalizing with dissimilar persons evoked robust responses in bilateral mid-ventrolateral PFC --an area known to be recruited under conditions of response ambiguity in which a response has to be selected from several alternatives. Having to mentalize creates more response uncertainty as one cannot simply rely on default responses with similar persons (thus invoking suppression).

Correlation analyses between prefrontal cortex involvement in mentalizing and later behavioral and brain measures of empathy and prosocial behavior indicate that differential recruitment of prefrontal areas within and outside of the neural network typically involved in mentalizing is associated with later empathy and intensity of self-related stress responses. The lateral dmPFC and left VP PFC activation during mentalizing which had in previous studies been linked to altruism also predicted prosocial behavior in this study. All areas showed sensitivity to similarity of target persons as subjectively experienced, with stronger neural responses for dissimilar than similar.

In the VLPFC the extent of differential response during mentalizing seems to be associated with a diminishment in the favoring of the similar persons in empathy tasks. Similar results were shown for the dmPFC.

In the lateral dmPFC, differential response during mentalizing was further associated with higher self-report empathy for pain during empathy tasks and trait empathy concern --a disposition towards engaging in other-oriented emotions. There was a corresponding negative association between mentalizing and related PF responses with self-centered orientation.

Effortful enhancement of other perspectives rather than self-projection

The engaging in other-enhancing processes seems to help people overcome self/other distinctions that would otherwise impede prosocial response. However, the propensity to engage in this type of process is greater in people with high dispositional empathic concern.

Knowing now that other-enhancement tasks invoking mentalizing are the direct link to the creation of prosocial disposition gives us useful tools for changing social dynamics. But it remains to be seen whether situational variance changes the general takeaways in any meaningful way and to what extent other types of activity might produce the same results.

Beyond the immediate theme of the production of prosocial dispositions, there is a larger universe of questions about the nature of auto-affection through mentalization that shape everything from a persons' self-concept, what cognitive scientists have called "self-related processing", or to one's images of the agencies one takes part in. These are however, themes to take up on a different occasion.


Majdandzic, Jasminka, Sandra Amashaufer, Allan Hummer Christian Windischberger,
Claus Lamm, „The selfless mind: How prefrontal involvement in mentalizing with similar and dissimilar others shapes empathy and prosocial behavior”, Cognition 157 (2016) 24–38.
Singer, T., 2006. “The neuronal basis and ontogeny of empathy and mind reading: review of literature and implications for future research”. Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev. 30, 855–863
Spinoza, Benedictus , Stuart Hampshire, and E M. Curley. Ethics. London: Penguin Books, 1996. Print