Attachment theory and mentalization

Authored by: Peter Fonagy , Chloe Campbell

The Routledge Handbook of Psychoanalysis in the Social Sciences and Humanities

Print publication date:  April  2016
Online publication date:  April  2016

Print ISBN: 9780415626927
eBook ISBN: 9781315650821
Adobe ISBN: 9781317308201


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Attachment theory was pioneered by the British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby. Its fundamental tenet is that in order for an infant’s healthy emotional development to take place, they need to have a secure relationship with at least one primary attachment figure – a consistently present and emotionally available caregiver. Bowlby was medically and psychoanalytically trained, but he was significantly informed and inspired by evolutionary thinking and ethology. It was this integration of an evolutionary and biological approach with a psychoanalytic one that has made Bowlby’s work both so powerful, and at times controversial. He described attachment as a universal, evolved process, that infants are innately programmed to form attachments. The attachment created between the infant and carer early in life not only provides the basis for physical protection and care; it also meets the infant’s essential emotional needs, allowing him or her to acquire the capacity for mentalizing (the imaginative interpretation of others’ and one’s own mental state), and for the infant’s sense of self-agency. As attachment work has developed, many of its findings have proved congruent with our growing neurobiological understanding of the brain, as well as new thinking on how young children learn, both about the world at large and about their own inner, emotional world. As such, attachment is increasingly understood as providing both the neurological and the psychological framework for the development of personality.

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