The Voices Within

On the voices in our heads

Rethinking Sensitivity

Mary Ainsworth's original definition of parental sensitivity emphasized the appropriateness of a mother's responses to her baby, but some of those original nuances have been lost in more recent research. Mind-mindedness refers to parents' ability to tune in sensitively to what their babies are thinking and feeling, and it appears to be an important factor in development. Read More

terminology question

Isn't "mind-mindedness" the same thing as "cognitive empathy" and "affective empathy"?

I've read that the definition of "cognitive empathy" is the ability to accurately perceive and name the emotions that someone else is feeling, by observing their facial expression, tone of voice, body language, and possibly other more subtle signs. Its the ability to "read" someone else, even to the point of discerning their subconscious desires or goals.

Then there is "affective empathy", which is the ability to care about other's emotions because you can feel them as though they are your own. You fill with joy and you cheer with your friend who is happy, and you fill with compassion and comfort your friend who is grieving. Some can even feel something like a resonant echo of pain in their own flesh if they observe a wound in another's body.

If I understand what I've read correctly, those with Asperger's have difficulty with cognitive empathy, but once they are told and understand that a friend is feeling happy or sad or afraid, etc., the individual with Asperger's is able to experience and express affective empathy.

On the other hand, those with borderline pd, narcissistic pd, antisocial pd and psychopathy are highly skilled at cognitive empathy, but lack affective empathy. Psychopaths in particular are uncannily good at "reading" other people, but they only utilize this skill in the service of more effectively manipulating and exploiting others for their own benefit.

I guess I'm just quibbling with the terminology; if an existing term works well, then why change it? (And, "mind-mindedness" sounds like a stutter, to me.)

I do agree however that this attunement or empathy is absolutely crucial for a baby to experience from his or her mother, in order for a normal, healthy mother-child bond to develop. The lack of healthy, mutual mother-child attachment and bonding can have devastating long-term negative impact on the child.

Deeper than terminology?

It's a very good question and one that goes deeper than terminology, I think. Especially when we are talking about babies and small children, it's important to distinguish between having a capacity and using it. Let's say there was some social-cognitive capacity underlying mind-mindedness (I think it might be related to the different kinds of empathy you mention, but there are important differences too). You might expect that capacity to differ in strength between adult individuals. You'd have to find evidence for that, though, rather than just assuming it. The discussion of individual differences in social cognition in adulthood can become rather muddled, because very often people simply carry over social-cognitive concepts (such as theory of mind) from developmental psychology research without really asking whether they can be meaningfully applied in adulthood. For example, most kids 'get' false belief around age 4; whatever you are measuring in theory of mind tasks in adulthood must therefore be quite different.

Anyway, let's suppose for the sake of argument that you could isolate such a social-cognitive variable. It's one thing having the capacity; it's another thing using it. That is, you might be perfectly capable of attributing mental states to other people, but you might just feel that such an attribution is not appropriate in the case of a six-month-old baby! That is, some people seem willing to make that attribution—they think that a baby is the kind of individual who can have thoughts and feelings—and others are less willing.

In our research, mind-mindedness seems to behave as a relationship-specific variable rather than simply mapping onto a general social-cognitive trait in the parent. We need much more research on this, but that's where the evidence points at the moment. And that's why I think mind-mindedness is so strongly predictive of attachment, which is about a relationship rather than a cognitive capacity.

I go into this issue in further depth in this post:

We discussed the difference between having the cognitive capacity and using it in this article:

Meins, E., Fernyhough, C., Johnson, F., and Lidstone, J. (2006). Mind-mindedness in children: Individual differences in internal-state talk in middle childhood. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 24, 181-196.

Please also check out this article by Ian Apperly, which is very incisive about this problem:

Finally, mind-mindedness is not a new term; we've been writing on this topic for more than 15 years now. It is different to the other terms out there, and the key difference is between having the capacity and being willing to use it.

Thanks again for your very useful comment!

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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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