Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation

siegel - mindsight

Dr. Relly Nadler: This week we are really excited to have Dr. Dan Siegel whose book is, Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. We’ll talk to him about the brain, mind and relationships.

Dr. Dan Siegel is a physician and a board certified child adolescent and adult psychiatrist whose pioneering work on bringing brain science into the practice of psychotherapy has made him a well-known speaker throughout the world. Dr. Siegel is the founding editor of a series of over a dozen books on mental health practitioners in the emerging field of interpersonal neurobiology. He has numerous books, I’ll just mention a few of them here. He is the author of The Developing Mind, The Mindful Brain, and is a clinical professor at East LA School of Medicine. He has been asked to present his work on Mindsight, and we’ll find out what Mindsight is which is a term he has coined, to audiences that have included His Holiness the Dali Lama, Pope John Paul II, as well as judges, policy makers, therapists, the nation’s public school superintendents, and the National Institute of Mental Health.

Mindsight, which came out in 2010, The New Science of Personal Transformation, helps harness the power of our minds to re-sculpt the neuro pathways of our brains in ways that can be life transforming.

Dr. Siegel’s psychotherapy practice includes children, adolescents, adults, couples and families. He’s currently a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine where he is on the faculty of the Center for Culture and Brain Development and the co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center. He’s an award-winning educator. He’s a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and recipient of several other honorary fellowships. He is also the Executive Director of Mindsight Institute. This is an educational organization that focuses on how the development of Mindsight in individuals, families and communities can be enhanced by examining the interface of human relations and basic biological processes.

I mentioned some of his other books; The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in Cultivation of Wellbeing, that was Norton Book 2007, and his latest book Mindsight: The Science of Personal Transformation which offers the general reader an in depth exploration of the power of the mind to integrate the brain and promote well-being.

His next professional text, The Mindful Therapist, explores the application of these ideas for the clinicians own development of Mindsight and Neuro integration. One of the aspects that Dr. Siegel can do quite well is make these complicated concepts exciting as well as easy to understand which has led him to be invited to address local, national, international organizations where he speaks to groups of educators, parents, public administrators, health care providers, policy makers, clergy and neuroscientists.

Dan, I’m really excited. I’ve got your book and have started to thumb through it. What we like to do to start off is to check with you on some of your key influences; people, thinkers in your life that have shaped some of your thinking about your work.

Dr. Dan Siegel: Absolutely Relly. First of all, thank you for that introduction. You know we are always building on the shoulders of giants and certainly in my own development, people who have explored the various sciences that I work in have really influenced me a lot.

One of the major pairs of thinkers are two people who are unfortunately no longer living. That is Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby and these were two pioneers that explored a field called attachment research which looks at how the way a relationship between a child and a parent shapes the way the mind of that child develops, really from the beginning and still has influences throughout the lifespan. I would say those two individuals really influenced me a lot.

One of their students is Mary Main; she also was a big influence on me and continues to be. She still works at the University of California, Berkeley. What Mary was able to show in an instrument called The Attachment Interview, was that when we have made sense of our lives, when we have actually developed the ability to look back at where we have come from in our childhood and make sense of those experiences and how they have impacted how we grew up and then how we are now as an adult, that is the best predictor, with 85% predictability, of how our child will be relating to us and what their attachment will be like. That instrument really is something that I wanted to learn back in 1989, over 20 years ago.

I studied with Mary Main and had a chance to meet, actually, Mary Ainsworth in Virginia and that instrument then became the beginning of a field that I help create called Interpersonal Neurobiology. It’s really based on attachment science and brain science and over a dozen different branches of science to really look at a common universal way in which we can understand what it means to be human, what our relationships are like, how the mind and brain interact with each other, how people function in groups and organizations, for a lot of different things we do from parenting to our everyday life in companies and how we see actually even the global situation now.

I would say those are my major influences on where I’ve come.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Dan, as you are talking about some of these very influential people, I know that our listeners are going to be getting more and more attached to some of the concepts that you are going to be speaking about. Can you share one or two very critical snapshots of what you really feel you got from any of those folks you just talked about?

Dr. Dan Siegel: Sure. One of the things that I think is very profound about what the attachment research and these researches have taught us is that in the old days we used to think if you had a set of experiences those somehow got fixed in your brain and you were destined to keep on repeating them; that’s how people usually interpret attachment and you say well, what happened to me early on is what I do now.

These researchers actually showed that it was very different from that. If you take the time to know your own mind and to learn deeply what the narrative is, your life story and how that has been structured for you up to this point, and you can look inward, you can actually change the way you behave. Now, when you combine that amazing finding with what has been discovered in brain science in a field called neuroplasticity with a number of different researchers over the years, you have found in fact that we now know that if you focus your mind in a certain way, if you focus attention and learn, for example, about your history or you learn about your emotions, you can actually use your mind to change the brain.

Dr. Relly Nadler: You coined this term, Mindsight, which a great, great term. Maybe for our audience listeners you can define what mindsight is and then we’ll get into talking about the ways to bring it about.

Dr. Dan Siegel: Well, mindsight is a term that came to me when I was in medical school and it was clear that some of my professors, who are excellent physicians in the sense that they knew their topic, didn’t look at the mind; they only dealt with things that were physical. To make sense of that in myself I thought well, there’s like 2 lenses we have. One lens you see physical things the other lens you see the inner world of the mind of yourself or of others. So the word mindsight has come to mean the ability for us to see the inner world within insights and empathy and then actually to be able to shape that world toward health. So that is what mindsight means; the ability to see inwardly in yourself or others and shape the mind toward health.

With mindsight what is really exciting is you can actually now use the science of neuroplasticity to actually see how the focus of your own mind can change the physical structure of your brain. We used to take guesses at that a long time ago. But now we have the science to prove that that statement is absolutely true. How you drive information and energy flow, which is one way of thinking about the mind, through your neural circuits activates them in specific ways and here’s what we now know. Neurons which fire together can wire together. So you can rewire your brain by just the focus of your mind when you use mindsight skills to selectively activate your brain and that is what the book is all about.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Dan, can you give us an example of what that looks like?

Dr. Dan Siegel: Absolutely. Let’s say that you find as you do some reflective work that your own emotions, let’s say in a company, are getting out of control. That you are getting irritated with your coworkers or if you are in a leadership position, you find yourself flying off the handle.

There are techniques that you can do to actually focus your mind in a new way, and I think of it as a kind of wheel where you develop the hub of the wheel and you separate this awareness where the hub is from an outer rim which let’s say is where your feeling of anger might be. There are specific practices that I offer in the book that allow you to focus your mind in a new way so that even if the anger is still there, rather than being swept up by it, the experience now is that you just can sense the anger in an objective way and you have the opportunity to pause before you are reactive and chose a different path.

This capacity, there are some studies that show doing this kind of practice, changes the part of the brain just behind your forehead called the prefrontal cortex that can regulate or shape emotional responses. This is why Dan Goleman, the person who wrote the book, Emotional Intelligence and then his following book Social Intelligence, wrote the forward to my book, Mindsight, because Mindsight is really the mechanism beneath both emotional and social intelligence. It develops this prefrontal area of the brain to have more insight and to actually be able to drive your energy flow through your own brain circuits and develop this ability to be more flexible and actually to be more emotionally intelligent. That’s what happens when you develop mindsight.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Now you are talking to a lot of people, including Relly and myself, who understand brain neurochemistry. But just for the purpose of getting our audience engaged because you are using a lot of ideas that might not necessarily be as easy for them to understand; the average executive is going to say, well what’s the difference between doing that, taking a deep breath, counting to ten, and then responding like an executive should.

Dr. Dan Siegel: Right, well there’s certainly overlapping, not everyone can count to ten. But when you do a practice that develops this mindsight skill which embraces all the power of mindfulness and mindfulness research, but also combines that with the power of understanding brain function and also in fact, looking at the nature of relationship. So mindsight always looks at these three things; our brain, our relationships, and our mind.

So, for the listener, they may wonder well, what is the different between the mind and the brain? For an executive in a company, it’s really important to know that there is a difference because if you just say well, I’m going to breathe and that’s it, well you can do that in that moment and it may help you in a really useful way in that moment, but if you actually realize that if you practice a technique of focusing let’s say on this wheel of awareness practice five minutes a day where you sense your breath and you imagine yourself in this hub and then review all the points on the rim. Those would be your sense from the outside world like hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch, the feelings in your body like the sense of your heart beating or your intestines or the tension in your muscles; the next sense would be the sense of your mental activities like thoughts or feelings. Even an eighth sense where you can feel your relationship to others.

When you do a practice like this here’s what we know about the brain. When you do a practice on a regular basis to create a certain state of mind, in this case a mindful awareness of this wheel image, over time that state is going to lead to changes in your brains architecture so that you have a new trait in your life which would be the trait of having increased social and emotional intelligence because you have increased your mindsight skills.

This skill is like developing the ability to play basketball or the piano. You probably are laying down new circuits, it’s called myelinating them, that is developing the skills and the reinforced circuits in the brain. So you have done this intelligently and intentionally in a way that actually improves your life and your ability to be a leader in the workplace.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Just being able to get some documentation behind these kind of practices. Just to highlight what you were saying; five minutes of doing a mindful practice, you talk about almost separating the hub from the rim. So that’s really kind of watching your thoughts and getting that separation?

Dr. Dan Siegel: That’s right. And if you do this every day here’s the key thing; you want to have a regular practice. It’s not like brushing your teeth because the brain isn’t dirty, but it is like doing kind of a brain fitness workout where you are exercising the muscle of the mind; that is you are focusing your attention and what we now know is that when you exercise the mind in that way, and the mind distinct from the brain can be seen as how you regulate energy and information flow like how you focus your attention basically, is what the mind is. When you intentionally shape your mind, you are very actively working out your brain and you can change the way circuits are firing in your brain and now we know definitively that when you do this on a regular basis, you are actually changing the structural connections in the brain. You are making your brain healthier and stronger.

You can listen to the entire interview with Dr. Siegel, above.


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