I have been a big fan of Dr. Daniel Siegel and I am so happy to be bringing him to you today. Dan received his medical degree from Harvard University and completed his postgraduate medical education at UCLA with training in pediatrics and child, adolescent and adult psychiatry. He is the co-editor of a handbook of psychiatry and the author of numerous articles, chapters, and the internationally acclaimed text, The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. He has also published a wonderful book on parenting with Mary Hartzell, M.Ed., Parenting From the Inside Out. His breakout book in the field of mindfulness is The Mindful Brain, which explores the application of this newly emerging view of the mind, the brain, and human relationships. His newest book which I am thrilled about is Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation.
Dan has been invited to work with some esteemed people as a result of their interest in his work including: the U.S. Department of Justice, The Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family, Microsoft and Google, early intervention programs and a range of clinical and research departments worldwide. He has been invited to lecture for the King of Thailand, Pope John Paul II, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
He has done all this and yet, if you know him, you know he remains so personable and accessible. Today, Dan talks to us about what mindsight is and how we can use it to achieve a sense of resilience, compassion and well-being.
Elisha: I’m very excited about your newest book Mindsight. In your book you say that mindsight is our “seventh sense” and “is the basic skill that underlies everything we mean when we speak of having social and emotional intelligence.” Tell us a bit more, what is Mindsight?
Dan: Mindsight is the ability to see and shape the internal world of the mind. When we can see with more clarity and depth the flow of energy and information that form our thoughts, feelings, and memories, we are then in a position to learn to shape that flow with more specificity and strength. Mindsight is the skill that enables us to monitor and then modify the inner world toward health in our selves and in our relationships-and is therefore the underlying mechanism of both emotional and social intelligence.
Elisha: You often speak of our ability to help our brains achieve a state of “integration” that lends itself to social and emotional well-being. Can you tell us a bit about how this works?
Dan: Through examining a wide array of scientific disciplines, a universal but unarticulated view emerges that beneath various approaches to understanding health is a process we can call “integration.” Integration is the linkage of differentiated elements, the connection of separate parts of a system to one another. It turns out when systems that are open and capable of chaotic behavior-such as our minds and our relationships and our brains-move through time, they have a “self-organizing” property that moves them innately toward harmony.
This flexible and adaptive flow is created by the natural drive toward linking differentiated parts, toward integration, and is a profoundly useful view that illuminates how we achieve well-being. Without integration, when either differentiation or linkage-or both-are impaired, we move toward chaos, rigidity, or both. Chaos and rigidity can be seen as the fundamental ways we experience “un-health”, in our bodies, our mental life, and our relationships. By realizing that these states of dysfunction emerge from impaired integration, it becomes possible with mindsight to peer deeply into the workings of mind, brain, and relationships to determine where integration is impaired and then very specifically cultivate differentiation and linkage in that domain of life.
In doing this, we use the power of mental focus to strategically drive energy and information flow through the circuits of the brain or through our communication with others to promote integration. The result in the short-run is improved functioning in that intentionally created state; in the long-run, repeated activation of integrated states can lead to long-lasting changes in synaptic linkages in the brain that cultivate traits of resilience, compassion, and health-each of which our outcomes of integration.
Elisha: In your book you mention a fantastic personal story of “mindlessness” and how you used mindsight to better understand what had happened and create repair. Can you give us a brief glimpse into your “Crepes of Wrath” story and the meaning behind it?
Dan: So often in the life of parenting we may leave an attuned and connected presence with our children and instead enter an altered state of mind. For many parents, including myself, those states can seem confusing; for our children they can be terrifying and harmful. In the “Crepes of Wrath” chapter of Mindsight, I wanted to offer one of those episodes of “flipping my lid” to illustrate a number of points.
One is that is any of us-even people who write books on this subject-can be prone to losing the reflective and integrative functioning of a part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex. When offline, the prefrontal region can no longer offer its role to create a regulated body, balancing the brakes and accelerator of the nervous system. We also lose the ability to stay attuned with our children, or ourselves. We can no longer balance our emotions, becoming prone to chaos and rigidity in our feelings and actions. In addition, long resolved fears can return and we can lose our ability to pause before reacting, becoming inflexible and then on “automatic pilot.” Insight disappears, empathy rapidly vanishes, and we can even lose track of our moral compass. Instead of having healthy access to our intuition, we may have reflexive reactions that drive us to do things in this state that we’d never do when we were feeling more grounded, calm and clear. Going down this “low road” is unfortunately not uncommon in parenting.
The great news, and the reason that I wrote this chapter, is that it is possible to reduce the negative impact of such terrifying states on the relationship we have with our children, and on their development. We can learn to detect when such flipping of our lids is about to happen and avoid them. We can also learn skills to reduce their duration if they do occur. Further, we need to find helpful and direct ways of making a repair with our children-but first we need to compassionately connect with ourselves. Understanding the brain can help us move from self-blame to self-compassion, so instead of withdrawing into a state of confusion or shame, we can move toward our children with openness to describe what has happened and to re-establish our connection and their sense of trust in us.
In the Crepes chapter, I wanted to offer a view from the inside out of how our present experiences, the meaning of events from the past, and an understanding of how the brain works can each help with mindsight skills to bring us back to connection with ourselves and those we love.
Thank you so much for your wonderful words of wisdom here Dan.
To the readers: As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.