Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!


vpizzini's picture

Very different strategies can be adopted in the study of the mind, but, on the whole, they can be clustered in two separate groups. One is more quantitative, based on statistics, experiments, isolated events and is able to identify variables and establish laws that allow the prediction of a future behavior. The other one is more qualitative and is based on the particular characteristics of a single person and very seldom utilizes generalized theories.

However, all the strategies were affected by the theoretical crisis that was introduced, in every branch of science (including psychology), by the concepts of relativity, system, interaction and information.
Nowadays, science is seen differently than it was in the 19th century, exactly when modern psychology was born. We do not believe that an object can be known as it is: everything that is observed is filtrated by a referential theory that suddenly appears to be insufficient, but the object must be exclusively observed with that particular theory or with another one (Popper 1928, 1982). This means that the object that is being studied is also influenced by the modalities with which we are observing. Pure objectivity cannot exist and what we are observing does not belong to object, but it is a product of the interaction of the object itself with the system adopted for the observation.

To elaborate a theory means enhancing our knowledge, by correcting, adjusting and improving our previous understanding. Furthermore, the theory that we are using to describe our observations has only a probabilistic character, even though it is considered useful in real practice. A new theory creates progress not because is just closer to the truth, but because it is able to connect problems that previously were unconnected and overcome a greater number of experimental controls, and, at the same time, provides clues for a next less wrong theory.

This approach can also be applied to the study of the mind and all its abilities. Different theories try to explain and examine what the mind is and how it works. These theories are based on anatomical and functional analysis of the central nervous system (Damasio 1995) or on the individuation of specialized cerebral circuits (Dennet 1993). Other theories, instead, are based on the idea of the mind as the capacity of building representational models of the world (Laird 1988) or the mind as a product of a evolutionary selected strategy (Maturana 1987).

We could also consider the theory that proposes that the hominid is not an individualistic animal, only interested in its own conservation, but is able to become social just for an assumed/hypothetical superior intellect. Contrarily, natural selection predisposed him to be able to interact with his fellows and to create a sense of himself while he is creating a sense of others. Similarly, from the first day of life, newborns seem to be able to selectively respond to particular social stimuli, such as the face and the voice of the mother, and to imitate facial expressions of other persons. In fact, the communication of a newborn with an adult or with another child is based on different modalities, like crying, looking, smiling, particular gestures and, of course, verbal language (Iacoboni 2008).

The relation with the social environment plays a crucial role in the genesis of the mind. This view is also sustained by intelligence studies, since intelligence is considered as a complex of abilities that allow humans to learn, to remember, to choose, to explain particular phenomena, to elaborate abstract models of the reality, to adapt to new situations, to modify or avoid these new situations when they present obstacles for the survival.

The thinking being, was intended by Descartes as the res cogitans, a superior function to the res extensa, and before him by Plato as an auriga able to guide a chariot pulled by two horses (emotionalism and instinct); nowadays it is no more applicable in the cognitive intelligence, requested by the IQ tests, but it is also conceived as an emotional intelligence that exists because the body exists. It is able to activate different solutions that only the relation with other human beings is able to develop. Therefore, it seems correct to talk about the genesis of the mind only when an organism is genetically predisposed to interact with his similar.

If we refer to this theoretical model of the mind, then a mental illness depends on the body and the brain that is registering the stimuli, but it is always influenced by the other minds that constitute the environment for that particular one. If this is true, then the study of a mental illness forces a comparison with the research that investigates the modalities of the relations that accompany the birth of a mind.

Not casually, researchers are committed to determine which factors, such as childhood's experiences, could be considered crucial in order to comprehend psychological problems. For example, Bowlby studied the importance of attachment, separation and loss for the socio-emotional development of an individual. The relationship between the child and the mother comes from a system of behavioral schemas that develops over the first months of life and maintains the child in proximity to the figure of the mother, the person who is taking care of him, and to the world in which she is responding. If the child receives sensitive and comfortable answers to his requests of help, then as an adult he tends to establish a better relationship with his children without expecting that the children will take care of him. If he feels rejected, then he will be a timorous child and, later, a timorous adult, with the fear of endearment caused by the anxiety of another rejection. He will not be able to express and feel a faithful relation, comfort and love.

The attachment is particularly evident in the first part of infancy, but it can be observed over the entire life. It has the biological function to assure protection; but, at the same time, the angst of the separation is derived from the perception of an augmentation of risks that causes a major personal insecurity.

Obviously, the organization of the system of attachment varies over the growth of an individual, because the "threshold" is raised and systems of control become more sophisticated. New models of the environment, of important persons as well as the individual himself help to approach unusual situations, causing a radical transformation to the system of attachment. The parents have an important role because of the modalities with which they recognize and react to the attachment of their child. This determines how an individual perceives and organize the external world and the expectation related to the behavior of the persons to which he could manifest attachment. As a result, attachment appears to be fundamental in understanding and comprehending the functioning of a person.

For Bowlby, it is also possible to identify three different schemas of attachment. The first, the secure attachment is promoted by a sensible parent and opened to various forms of communication. The individual become secure, he does not avoid others, even if he does not depend on them and he also is curious and responsive to environmental clues. The second, the avoidant attachment, is promoted by parents that are available only in certain situations but it also is favored by the fear of abandon. The individual feels that who is taking care of him is not ready to respond to his possible requests of help, therefore, he pays more attention to the environment than to people. He lives with anxiety about exploring everything that is around and he is distant and hostile with other human beings. The third, the anxious/ambivalent attachment, is promoted when a mother constantly and firmly rejects her child when he is looking for protection and comfort. The individual alternates between wanting to be near the caregiver and resisting contacts. He often expects to be rejected, therefore he tries to be self-sufficient. He lives with fear and anxiety and problems with directing his attention to the environment.

These schemas remain, and they have the characteristic to become more and more property of the child. Updating is possible, but is dependent on the image that the parents have of their child and is inhibited when the attachment is anguished, because contradictory experiences are defensively excluded.
What Bowlby's model suggests and supports with several empirical studies can be connected with other studies. Another example, proposed by Stern, is now considered.

Stern is interested in representing how the attachment is intended by the parents. The first model, proposed by Stern, aims to evaluate how subjective reality has been distorted by an objective imagine of reality (like hanidicap child, divorce) and how far apart these two are. Obviously this raises the problem of how we can capture objective reality and then use it as a reference point.

The second model, indeed, aims to determine the quality and the diffusion of themes like sibling rivalry or separation and how much space is left in order to observe the child in the other modalities that he is able to offer.

The third model collocates the child in a narration and it appears to have a greater influence on the psychological life of an individual than the historical truth that, anyhow, can only be known through its narration.

The last one, the ontogenetic model, is referred to a particular phase in life, in which the mother is not able to imagine a future (because of a child born prematurely or with an illness). This, of course, also causes an inhibition of the present.

It appears that modern research seeks the reasons of every personality and every possible pathological evolution in the construction of our being in relation to the others. Therefore, it is important to conceive the individuals as inserted in a network of interpersonal relations in order to define psychological phenomena.
Personal experiences, even in the early infancy, are frequently considered when particular pathological conditions are manifested, in order to justify to modalities of action of an individual. A mental illness is manifested when a particular environment responds to an individual unambiguously instead of polyvalently. Thus, we should move forward from a simple description of the symptoms and the idea of a single isolated subject. Only in this sense, a theory that gives and interprets a suitable cure for mood disorders, behavioral disorders, psychosomatic pathologies can be found and applied with success. The individual is not inert matter, a simple spectator that is shaped by the environment in which he is developing; he is more an actor that consciously participates and builds the relation with his environment. The relational perspective of the mind hypothesizes a mutual and reciprocal influence between individuals, according to an inter-subjective logic.






Bowlby J., A safe base, Milan 1989
Stern D. N., The maternal constellation, Torino 1995
Popper, K. & Eccles, J. C. (1982). The ego and the brain. Roma, Armando
Popper, K. (1928) Sulla questione del metodo della psicologia del pensiero. In G. Reale & D. Antiseri (1983). Il pensiero occidentale dalle origini ad oggi. Brescia, Editrice La Scuola.
Damasio, A. R. (1995). The error if Descartes. Emozione, ragione e cervello umano. Milan, Adelphi
Dennett, D. (1993). Content and conscience. Milan, Rizzoli
Johnson-Laird, P. N (1988). Mental models. Bologna, Il Mulino
Maturana, H. & Varela, F. (1987). Tree of knowledge. Milan, Garzanti
Iacoboni, M. (2008). The mirror neurons. How to understand what others do..., Bollati Boringhieri


Paul Grobstein's picture

Relativity and mental health

Interesting bridge between a broad contemporary philosophical perspective, the situatedness and bidirectional relativity of experience, and mental health. But maybe two distinguishable connections? Is "an actor that consciously participates and builds the relation with his environment" the same thing as "inserted in a network of interpersonal relations"? Might be interesting to look at developments in psychoanalytic thought related to "transference" and "object relations." In what ways might these lead in new research directions? therapeutic ones?