Painful memories motivate mentalisation

Harry Clark listens to 'The Life Scientific' with Peter Fonagy.

In this episode of The Life Scientific we get a fascinating insight into the life and work of Peter Fonagy, the highly influential psychoanalyst, and what inspired him along the way. From his arrival in the UK as a 15-year-old Hungarian immigrant, with no English or family accompanying him, to a Professor at University College London, CEO of the Anna Freud National Centre and pioneer of Mentalisation Based Treatment, it’s clear that he did not have a straightforward career path.

He begins by talking candidly about the isolation and loneliness he felt as a teenager living in London. After being subjected to bullying by his peers and with no friends or family around, Fonagy’s mental health deteriorated. It wasn’t until a life-changing intervention of psychoanalysis at the Anna Freud centre that things began to change. 

Despite poor grades and a lack of interest in school, he managed to secure a place studying Psychology at UCL, due to a plea from one of his teachers. He was given a conditional offer of one E grade (something to turn many current Psychology applicants green with envy) and started on his studies of the mind.

Fonagy takes us through his varied academic and clinical career, from comparing hemispheres of the brain as a PhD student, to segueing into clinical psychology, before shifting again into psychoanalysis. It’s here that he made a name for himself as an important voice in attachment theory, and he describes the thinking behind this and other landmark studies. 

This episode also covers the development of his innovative theory of Mentalisation and Mentalisation Based Treatment. This is based on the idea that all humans ‘mentalise’ emotions by understanding where they are coming from and what they relate to. Fonagy lays out the thinking behind his idea that mental illnesses are, in part, an inability to ‘mentalise’ these emotions; and he discusses the ways in which he enables patients to learn this skill. 

The episode is an interesting listen, with a particularly compelling moment in which Fonagy discusses how important his teenage years were for informing his later clinical work. These painful memories allow him to better relate to the problems of his patients, and sparked the interest that shaped his whole life. 

Harry Clark is a Mental Health Researcher in the NHS.

Listen now. In the programme, Fonagy discusses an influential study: “A Controlled Study of the Psychoanalytic Treatment of Brittle Diabetes

Find more on Peter Fonagy in our archive.

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