Philosophy, Psychology and Neuroscience

Mentalising homeostasis: The social origins of interoception and the virtual self

The question of whether our mental life is initially and primarily shaped by embodied dimensions of the individual or by interpersonal relations is debated in many fields, including psychology, philosophy, psychoanalysis, and more recently, cognitive neuroscience. In this interdisciplinary talk, I will defend the claim that even some of the most minimal aspects of selfhood, namely the feeling qualities associated with being an embodied subject, are fundamentally shaped by embodied, 2nd-person, interactions with other people in early infancy and beyond. Such embodied interactions allow the developing organism to ‘mentalize’ its homeostatic regulation. In other words, embodied interactions contribute directly to the building of mental models (inferences) of the infant’s physiological states, given the need to maintain such states within a given dynamic range despite internal or external perturbations. I have linked this process to contemporary, computational models of brain function and named it ‘embodied mentalization’. To support these theoretical claims I will present: (1) Behavioural and neuroimaging studies with healthy individuals, individuals with body awareness disturbances following right-hemisphere stroke and individuals with Anorexia Nervosa on the role of affective, embodied interactions, and particularly social affective touch, in the progressive sophistication of mental distinctions between ‘self-other’. Finally, on a series of studies on physical and social pain, I will argue that given the dependency of humans in early infancy, ‘closing the loop’ in interoceptive inference necessarily relies on other people’s actions. Hence, even some of the most ‘subjective’ aspects of our experience, e.g. the feeling of pain, are fundamentally shaped by embodied, interactions with other people in early infancy and beyond.