Psychotherapy and Neuroscience

Internal State Awareness

According to Bretherton and colleagues (1981) “the recognition that self and others are objectively and subjectively similar but distinct is implicit in intentional communication when it first emerges. It becomes explicit in three aspects of language development during the subsequent two years (Bretherton, McNew, & Beeghly-Smith, 1981, p. 34). Accordingly twenty month olds have been found to have abilities for applying sensations of cold, heat, wetness, perceived pain, hunger, thirst, and sleepiness and emotions of affection and disgust to oneself. Emotions associated with affection, crying (pain and frustration in response to need and sadness), acceptance, and badness to others can be attributed to others. As noted earlier early parental elaborations of inner state sensations and emotions support eighteen month olds later development and verbal expression of inner state experiences and emotions at 24 months (Dunn, Bretherton, & Munn, 1987). By twenty eight month olds toddlers can differentiate and verbally attribute sensory experiences to oneself during activities, such as seeing, looking, watching, tasting, hearing, and listening. They are also better able to attribute negative emotions such as sadness, anger, emotions underlying crying behaviors (i.e. pain, frustration, and sadness), and emotions underlying hugging and kissing behaviors (i.e. feelings of affection, love, reassurance, etc.) to oneself. Use of labels such as bad, naughty, supposed to, have to, and can, led Bretherton & Beeghly (1982) to conclude that the youngest of children tend to be able to attribute emotion to others before their application to self. Hence children’s use of words is reflective of conscious awareness of their world and expectations of self, others, and occurrences in their world. According to Bretherton and colleagues by 28 months children can verbalize their perceptions, visceral sensations, the existence, intensity, and reasons for physiological states, as well as the nature of their intentions and abilities.


Bretherton, I., McNew, S., Beeghly-Smith, M. (1981). Early person knowledge as expressed in gestural and verbal communication: when do infants acquire a “theory of mind?” In: M.E. Lamb & L.R. Sherrod (Eds.), Infant social cognition: empirical and theoretical considerations (333-373). Hillsdale, New Jersey: Erlbaum.

Bretherton, I., & Beeghly, M. (1982). Talking about internal states: the acquisition of an explicit theory of mind. Developmental Psychology, 18(6), 906-921.

Dunn, J., Bretherton, I., & Munn, P. (1987). Conversations about feeling states between mothers and their young children. Developmental Psychology, 23, 132-9.