The Voices Within

On the voices in our heads

Where mind-mindedness comes from

Why are some parents more mind-minded than others?
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I have written previously on this blog about the concept of mind-mindedness, which refers to parents' ability or willingness to represent their children's likely thoughts and feelings. In our research, we have found that maternal mind-mindedness relates to some important developmental outcomes, such as security of attachment and theory of mind. In our first studies on this topic, we assessed mind-mindedness in terms of the extent to which parents focused on their preschoolers' thoughts, interests, feelings, and intellect when given an open-ended invitation to describe their child. More recently, we became interested in whether parents show mind-mindedness when their children are much younger, and investigated mind-mindedness in play interactions between parents and their six-month-olds. Even at this early age, we found that most parents infer that their babies' behavior (at least for some of the time) is governed by things going on inside their heads: desires, emotions, likes, dislikes, thoughts, beliefs.

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The majority of parents will find this unsurprising. What was most interesting to us, however, was that mums and dads varied in how accurate their baby ‘mind-reading' appeared to be. When it came to defining mind-mindedness in the first year, we focused on whether parents commented appropriately on what their baby might be thinking or feeling, a measure we call appropriate mind-related comments. A comment would be classed as appropriate if it matches the child's behavior: Oh, you want the teddy (as the baby gestures towards it), or Are you making a decision about something? (as the baby sits quietly with a pensive expression on his or her face).

In contrast, some comments involve the parent attributing an inappropriate internal state to the baby. For example, a mother might say, You're not interested in that one any more (while the baby is still actively engaged with a toy), or Are you scared? (in the absence of any startling event or fearful response from the baby). We call these non-attuned mind-related comments. A parent who makes a lot of these comments will be considered relatively low in mind-mindedness, while a parent who makes mostly appropriate mind-related comments will be considered more highly mind-minded. 

In a study that has just appeared in the journal Infancy, we addressed the question of why certain parents are more mind-minded than others, by looking at how these two measures of mind-mindedness (obtained by coding videotapes of mothers and babies at play at eight months) related to certain key variables relating to mother and child1. We investigated characteristics specific to the baby (temperament) and to the mother (socio-economic status, educational level, depression, social support), as well as measures relating to the earliest indicators of the mother-child relationship (attitude towards the pregnancy, and recollections of first contact with the baby). We also looked at whether the pregnancy was planned.

In focusing on these pregnancy-related variables, we figured that they would enable us to trace the very earliest origins of maternal mind-mindedness. It is one thing attributing thoughts and feelings to a preschooler; it is another to impute mental states to a newborn whose behavior might not, on the face of it, appear to have much thinking behind it. Heading back even further along the developmental timeline, a mother who is prepared to impute mental states to a fetus would seem already to have a clear representation of that child as a person in its own right. We already know that pregnant women who are able richly to describe what their babies will be like in the future are likely to be more mind-minded with those babies when they are born2. The crucial thing about mind-mindedness is that it taps into parents' representations of their children, rather than the child's behavior in itself. These parental representations have a long history, arguably beginning to be determined as soon as the decision is made to conceive. 

We therefore wondered whether mind-mindedness can be explained in part by factors that predate the birth. Our results showed that the two indices of mind-mindedness (appropriate and non-attuned mind-related comments) were both unrelated to mothers' social background and mental health. In contrast, the variables relating to pregnancy—planned conception, reflection on the pregnancy, recollection of first contact—predicted mind-mindedness. Mothers were more likely to comment appropriately on their babies' thoughts and feelings if they had intended to conceive and then reflected positively on their pregnancy. Mothers were less likely to comment in a non-attuned manner (indicative of greater mind-mindedness) if they recollected exclusively positive feelings in relation to their first contact with their baby. The good news is that, of the 206 mothers who took part in the study, 58% recollected their first contact with the baby in a purely positive light, with 17 giving effusively positive recollections: I started to cry with joy. It was the best feeling of love I have experienced. We also excluded the possibility that these relationships might be confounded by actual difficulties with the pregnancy, by factoring out medical complications to do with the pregnancy, labor and birth. In a second study reported in the same article, we focused on infant temperament, and found no relations between measures of temperament and mind-mindedness. 

These findings allow us to start to evaluate some different possible explanations of individual differences in mind-mindedness. They lead us to reject the idea that some mothers are more mind-minded because their infants are somehow 'easier' (if that were the case, we would have found an association with infant temperament). They also suggest that mother-centered factors, such as educational and mental health status, are less important in determining a mother's mind-mindedness than factors that relate to the specific relationship in question.

More research is needed to determine how accurate a woman's retrospective reports of her pregnancy and birth might be, and also how stable these representations are in light of subsequent experiences. Until we can fit these further pieces into the jigsaw, it seems reasonable to conclude that a mother's attitudes to her specific infant begin to take shape before the baby is born. They are then molded further by the particular experience that that woman has with her pregnancy, such that the highest levels of mind-mindedness in our sample were seen in women who had planned to conceive and then perceived their pregnancy as 'easy'. It is not so much whether the pregnancy is actually easy, in a medical sense, as whether the mother represents it to herself as such. In the earliest days of mind-mindedness, perceptions are everything.

1 Meins, E., Fernyhough, C., Arnott, B., Leekam, S., & Turner, M. (2011). Mother- versus infant-centered correlates of maternal mind-mindedness in the first year of life. Infancy, 16, 137-165.

2 Arnott, B., & Meins, E. (2008). Continuity in mind-mindedness from pregnancy to the first year of life. Infant Behavior and Development, 31, 647-654.

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Charles Fernyhough is a Professor of Psychology at Durham University and author of Pieces of Light: How the New Science of Memory Illuminates the Stories We Tell About Our Pasts.

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