The parent-infant dyad and the construction of the subjective self

Peter Fonagy, George Gergely, Mary Target

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article

277 Citations (Scopus)


Developmental psychology and psychopathology has in the past been more concerned with the quality of self-representation than with the development of the subjective agency which underpins our experience of feeling, thought and action, a key function of mentalisation. This review begins by contrasting a Cartesian view of pre-wired introspective subjectivity with a constructionist model based on the assumption of an innate contingency detector which orients the infant towards aspects of the social world that react congruently and in a specifically cued informative manner that expresses and facilitates the assimilation of cultural knowledge. Research on the neural mechanisms associated with mentalisation and social influences on its development are reviewed. It is suggested that the infant focuses on the attachment figure as a source of reliable information about the world. The construction of the sense of a subjective self is then an aspect of acquiring knowledge about the world through the caregiver's pedagogical communicative displays which in this context focuses on the child's thoughts and feelings. We argue that a number of possible mechanisms, including complementary activation of attachment and mentalisation, the disruptive effect of maltreatment on parent-child communication, the biobehavioural overlap of cues for learning and cues for attachment, may have a role in ensuring that the quality of relationship with the caregiver influences the development of the child's experience of thoughts and feelings.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)288-328
Number of pages41
JournalJournal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines
Issue number3-4
Publication statusPublished - Mar 1 2007


  • Attachment
  • Mentalisation
  • Pedagogical stance
  • Self
  • Social cognition
  • Social development
  • Theory of mind

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health

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