Psychotherapy and Neuroscience

Theory of mind and autobiographical memory

Primary appraisals of self in interaction in total along with associated perceptions of another in interaction with the self form an internal working model (Bowlby, 1969, 1973). This internal working model derives from social interaction patterns between self and another and how both or either seeks to complement one another during interaction. It has predictive value and attributes meaning to social interactions, based on one’s responses to another in the past. This can be summarized accordingly.

“If the caregiver has fairly consistently acknowledged the infant’s needs for comfort and protection, and respected the infant’s need for independent exploration of the environment, the child is likely to develop an internal working model of self as valued and self-reliant. Conversely, if the parent has frequently rejected the infant’s bids for comfort or for exploration, the child is likely to construct an internal working model of self as unworthy or incompetent.”
(Bretherton, 1993, p. 239)

Inge Bretherton (1988) conceptualized these postulates or schemas hierarchically, the lowest level reflecting assessments of self and other and to the event in which they are linked. The higher levels of the hierarchy reflect more global assessments, which define the self in interaction but are far removed from the events that shaped their development. The following is a diagram that reflects the relationship between these assessments during optimal positive parent-child interactions.

Hierarchical Depiction of Positive Schematic Representations of the Internal Working Modal and Theory of Mind

view a larger depiction of this diagram

With time and comparable experiences the exact primary appraisals of self in interaction become forgotten with a specific incident (primary conditioned responses-CR1), but elements of the incident with key appraisals of self in interaction remain with the person and are represented in the later theory of mind (conditioned response-CR2), “I have a sense of well-being. I am trusting, am empowered and am good enough.” “The world is a good and safe place.” The following is a diagram that depicts the relationship between a negative event and the formation of negative primary appraisals of self in interaction.

Hierarchical Depiction of Positive Schematic Representations of the Internal Working Modal and Theory of Mind

view a larger depiction of this diagram

This image illustrates that as time elapses the original primary appraisals of self in interaction (CR1s) become forgotten along with a specific incident, but elements of the hurtful incident with key appraisals of self in interaction remain with the person. They are later (CR2s) represented in the theory of mind “I feel insecure and depressed.” “I am unlovable, unimportant and can’t trust. “”Nobody cares!” “Nobody understands!” Therapies, like psychoanalysis, psychodynamic therapies, cognitive therapy for PTSD, EMDR, therapies, I have provided, etc. seek to treat, encourage the recall, of level one event representations and their sensory components (CS1) and associated primary appraisals of self in interaction, viceral and emotional responses (CR1s). Treating level one (CS1s-CR1s) directly makes treating levels two, three, and four (CS2-CR2) unnecessary over time. Symptom focused therapies typically focus on modulating schemas (CR2s) characterizing either or all levels two to four.

According to Howe & Courage between the ages of 18-24 months an organizer, for autobiographical event memory, the cognitive self, emerges. It later supports (beyond the infantile amnesia period) the storage and retrieval of early childhood personally meaningful autobiographical event memory (Howe & Courage, 2003; Howe, Courage, & Edison, 2003). It is this author’s opinion based on prior discussion that this organizer is encapsulated in the different primary appraisals of self in interaction and their link with basic social motivations. Helping a client to link a traumatic experience with the many different primary appraisals of self in interaction during a therapy session, helps the client to fully digest the experience as well as get in touch with traumatic emotion and visceral response.

The Internal Working Model

Internal Model As a Theory of Mind

The internal working model that is created by cumulative experiences is also a theory of mind, self, or reality composed of many different postulates with levels (Epstein, 1980). According to Gopnick & Meltzoff (1997) a theory is characterized by its 1.) abstractness and removal from a specific event but its ability for retaining qualities of the event, 2.) coherence in its ability to unite event representations, 3.) causality in its ability to link to processes underlying the expression of dispositions far removed from their source of etiology, and 4.) ontological commitment to the fundamental bases and course of development of processes involved.

The compilation of primary appraisals of self in interaction and the events that they represent composes an individual’s theory of mind. They, in their selection and totality, qualify as a theory (of mind) due to their abstractness. They are removed from a specific event but each in its reexperience retains the cognitive and emotional qualities and flavor of an event, even in an event’s absence in the present. They are implicit in nature, as they are inferred in one’s sense of self-esteem and the nature of one’s self-concept. They can also qualify as a theory (of mind) due to their coherence. Primary appraisals of self are likely linked with brain circuitry for social motivation waiting for expression after birth. Their holistic nature (probably mediated by the right hemisphere) and neural interconnectivity with brain regions associated with sensory aspects of event representations, emotions linked with their expression, and visceral responses (including autonomic arousal experienced during an event) support their cohesive role in supporting the retrieval of autobiographical event memory. Their causal role is linked with secondary appraisals and secondary emotions that underlie behavioral responses during social interactions and stressful interactions. They are characterized as embodying an ontological commitment, as they emerge and are allowed expression during early attachment and social interactions with mother. Violation of meeting early social motivational need frustrates social motivational need fulfillment, stimulates stress arousal, and may impact the primary appraisal’s functional integrity for memory coherence and impair the ability for later memory retrieval (as is evidenced in trauma memory lacking coherence and peripheral details). Facilitating the explicit expression of these implicit appraisals of self in interaction along with associated emotion, sensory episodic memory, and physiological components may be a way to standardize talking psychotherapies and ensure their efficacy.

Representing the Theory Mathematically

The nature of an event’s primary and secondary appraisals of self in interaction and associated physiological arousal and emotion can be mathematically represented. The following (Berger & Berger, 2006, unpublished findings) was developed to summarize the above-noted processes. The analysis represents that primary appraisals are associated and can be measured by physiological and rated vulnerable emotions. Primary appraisals and associated arousal and emotion allow expression of secondary appraisals that facilitate coping cognition, arousal, behaviors, and adaptation to frustrative and breached expectation for satiation of social motivational need for social reward for affiliation, power-control, achievement, validation, and/or sense of well-being. The final summary portion of the equation reflects the expression of the final theory of mind over time (frozen in any point in time). The formula accounts for sense of self and self-concept; it does not however account for the internalized perceptions of others in interaction, which complements the social motive of validation of another.

Mathematical Model Depicting Social Reward Mismatch


ƒ, ƒ ( 0 ) = ( 0 , 0 ) Reflective of social motivational need for social reward match-No perceived stress
ƒ ( 1 ) = ( a , b ) Reflective of mismatch-Perceived stress
Where: a is physiological arousal with social reward mismatch
Where: b is emotion with social reward mismatch
ƒ: {0,1} → { ( 0 , 0 ) , ( ƒa , ƒb ) } Where: 0,0 reflects response match
Where: ƒa, ƒb reflects response mismatch
ƒa : Rn+1R
ƒb : Rn+1R
Where: n reflects the number of inputs in environment and +1 reflects time
Where: R reflects response output
ƒa : ( x , t ) = a ; a ∈ R Where: x is n dimensional vector; t denotes time, & a is a member of the response variable, R


m: R → { 0 , 1 } m (t) Where: mathematical model represents both mismatch response and the variable of time

ƒa : Rn+1R ƒa ( ‹ χ1, χ2, …, χn › , t ) = a

ƒb : Rn+1R ƒb ( ‹ γ1, γ2, …, γn › , t ) = b

gd : Rn+3R gd ( ‹ χ1, χ2, …, γn › , ‹ a , b ›, t ) = d

ge : Rn+3R ge ( ‹ γ1, γ2, …, γn › , ‹ a , b ›, t ) = e

Where: a is dependent on χ ‘s values, e.g. primary appraisal-induced responses of acute physiological arousal components of increased heart rate, skin conductance, blood pressure, etc.

Where: b is dependent on γ‘s values, e.g. primary appraisal-induced (rated) responses of vulnerable emotion of sadness, shame, self-blame, guilt, etc.

Where: d is dependent on χ‘s values, e.g. secondary appraisal-induced physiological arousal components of increases in heart rate, skin conductance, blood pressure, neurohormone secretion, e.g. ACTH, relating to anger and sadness induced increases in blood pressure, cortisol, etc., responses that are dependent on χ,γ of ‹ a , b › when it reaches a certain threshold (n+1). Rn+3 includes a,b into its function. This is because the primary appraisal is necessary and sufficient for the secondary appraisal to occur.

Where: e is dependent on y ‘s values, e.g. secondary appraisal-induced anger, enrage, and other-blame defensive emotions relating to goal persistence and sadness relating to goal abandonment; responses that are dependent on χ,γ of ( a, b ) when it reaches a certain threshold (n+1).

ƒt = Equation 1

Where: The above sequences are repetitive and cumulative and whose effects need to be understood within context of time and number of occurrences.

h (x,y) = Equation 2 ( m ( i ) ( ƒa (x, i ) • ƒb (y, i ) + gd (x, ƒa (x, i ), ƒb (y, i ), i ) • ge (y, ƒa (x, i ), ƒb (y, i ) , i )))

Where: The sum of responses for mismatched ( m ) events (t) allows expression of the previous sequences. Initial output responses reflected in ƒa and ƒb , and goal adaptive defense responses, gd and ge , cumulatively allow expression of genetically predetermined arousal and emotional components relating to the chronic stress response. This process’s threshold is dependent on inborn genetic vulnerability and duration and intensity of response of the above sequences. This process also allows for genetically determined symptom expression. Finally cumulatively experienced input variables relating to Rn+1 and Rn+3 comprise, in total, the theory of mind. Each event reexperience of primary and secondary reappraisals strengthens the theory’s viability through consolidation processes.

In such a model exposure to a stimulus, which evokes primary appraisals (with experiential reminders and monitoring) and associated responses as well as secondary appraisals with their associated responses can help researchers to better understand their role in self-concept formation and decision making during social interactions. Both primary and secondary appraisal emotion may be monitored by ratings. Associated physiological arousal may be monitored by usual medical means as noted in an earlier section, i.e. autonomic arousal methods monitoring heart rate, blood pressure, and skin conductance or the nature of circulating neurohormones. i.e. adrenocorticotropin hormone or cortisol levels.

One does not need to be a young child to react to primary and secondary appraisals and their associated responses. For instance an adult experiencing a good deal of anxiety with public speaking, stuttering, and forgetting his/her lines, will experience an implicit thought of “I am helpless.” If unsuccessful during the public speaking task, the adult will likely experience implicit thoughts upon conclusion of the task and upon reflection that “I’m never good enough.” “I’m a failure.” “I am in pain (as I reflect on the public speaking experience).” The secondary appraisal to adapt to the troubling experience could either strive for goal attainment, “I’ll show them; no one is going to get the best of me.” This adult will practice and seek out future public speaking engagements to facilitate a positive outcome. On the other hand the adult may conclude, “I get too nervous speaking before others. I’m never going to do it again.” Avoiding the anxiety-provoking situation, or goal avoidance, will help to end the thoughts of and reexperiencing this unpleasant experience and facilitate a sense of well-being with its avoidance.

In summary there are implicit appraisals of self in interaction that describe one’s social motivational responses to social interactions. They also shape one’s sense of self esteem and self-concept, underlie the development of coping secondary appraisals, and are manifested in later behavioral responses. It is this author’s opinion that the primary appraisals of self during social interactions need to be worked with during the course of therapy. Shortcuts or overlooking their expression will degrade the effectiveness of therapy provided. If the reader is interested in how primary appraisals of self in interaction can be used in the course of therapy please refer to the first section of this web site, SSRT-systemic sensitization and reprocessing therapy.


Berger, M., & Berger, G. (2006). Unpublished findings.

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss-Vol. 1. Attachment. New York: Basic Books.

Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and loss-Vol. 2. Separation. New York: Basic Books.

Bretherton, I. (1988). Open communication and internal working models: their role in the development of attachment relationships. In: R.A.Thompson (Ed.), Socioemotional development-volume 36-Nebraska Symposia on Motivation, (pp. 57-113), Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.

Bretherton, I. (1993). From dialogue to internal working models: the co-construction of self in relationships. In: C.A. Nelson (Ed.) Memory and affect in development, volume 26-The Minnesota Symposia on Child Psychology, (pp. 237-263), Hillsdale, New Jersey: Erlbaum.

Courage, M.L., & Howe, J.L. (2004). Advances in early memory development research: insights about the dark side of the moon. Developmental Review, 24(1), 6-32.

Epstein, S. (1980). The self concept: a review & the proposal of an integrated theory of personality. In: E. Staub (Ed.), Personality: basic aspects and current research, (pp. 81-132), New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Gopnik, A., & Meltzoff, A.N. (1997). Words, thoughts, & theories. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Howe, M.L., Courage, M.L., & Edison, S.C. (2003). When autobiographical memory begins. Developmental Review, 23, 471-494.