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Mindsight is literally the ability of the human mind to see itself. It is a powerful lens through which we can understand our inner lives with more clarity, transform the brain, and enhance our relationships with others.
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The Science of Transformation
Ed. Note: In the following dialogue, excerpted and adapted from the Institute of Noetic Sciences’ teleseminar series, “The Essentials of Noetic Science,” IONS Director of Research Cassandra Vieten talks with psychiatrist-educator-writer Dan Siegel, author of the internationally acclaimed The Developing Mind: Toward a Neurobiology of Interpersonal Experience , Parenting from the Inside Out, and, most recently, Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation.
Vieten: Let’s jump right in. Would you explain what mindsight is?
Siegel: Mindsight saved my life when I was in medical school. It’s a word I first used to describe the professors I had who could see the mind of their patients and treat them with dignity. When it was absent, I would say to myself, “Oh, that person doesn't have mindsight, so be careful, because he’s not a good role model.” I actually dropped out of medical school but ultimately came back, trying to understand how so much of what was happening for me and my colleagues in school was a kind of socialization not to see the mind as something real in our patients or even in ourselves. When I became a psychiatric trainee a few years later, I used the word again to mean how we see the mind of others as well as our own mind.
So, mindsight is literally the ability of the human mind to see itself. It is a powerful lens through which we can understand our inner lives with more clarity, transform the brain, and enhance our relationships with others. The word emerged as I realized that people have this perceptual ability, although some don't have it very well developed.
Vieten: It seems some people have it naturally, others an inkling, and still others remain sort of “mindblind” their whole lives. Can you talk a bit about the possibility of training this capacity for mindsight?
Siegel: There was a study done with deaf children that illuminates what in the research terminology is called “theory of mind.” The deaf children whose parents were sophisticated at using sign language could imagine that other people have a mind, but the deaf children whose parents were just beginning to learn to sign showed impairment in theory of mind – similar to children with autism, in fact, who also are impaired in this way. This research taught us that the use of language to imbed terms for feelings, thoughts, perceptions, hopes, memories, all those kinds of words that we share with each other, especially with children while they're growing up, are the kinds of communication symbols that help people develop mindsight — the capacity to know that I have a mind and you have a mind. Relating with children stimulates this set of brain circuits to grow. Even adults who weren’t fortunate as children to have this ability taught to them can, in many cases, later be taught. In cases where the deficit is not caused by experiential lack, such as autism, mindsight may not be as easy to teach. In fact, sometimes it’s not possible because the circuitry isn’t there. But for many people who haven’t had the opportunity to learn mindsight, it’s a teachable skill. The great news is that once it’s learned, people begin both to develop well-being inside themselves and to improve their relationships with others.
Vieten: You’ve had an interest in meditation and contemplative practices as pathways toward training mindsight. Would you say more about this?
Siegel: During my journey in medical school back in the late 1970s, I was discouraged by professors of medicine because they didn’t teach or address this factor of mindsight. When I went on to study psychiatry, my desire to use this knowledge of “seeing the mind” as an important element in clinical care led me to explore it in the field of attachment research. I studied how parents and children interact and how the mind develops its ability to reflect – what Peter Fonagy and other researchers call the mind’s “reflective function,” which allows us to “mentalize.” My training in attachment research and my work as a therapist underscored the importance of relating for the development of a healthy mind. I then wrote The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are [the paperback version of the 1999 hardcover with a different subtitle] to look at the science underneath mindsight, this ability to reflect on the internal nature of the mind.
When I translated The Developing Mind into a book for parents, Parenting from the Inside Out, which Mary Hartzell wrote with me, we used the term “mindfulness” to mean being mindful in your parenting, but then I learned that there was this whole field of mindfulness meditation which I was unfamiliar with. That’s when I got to know Jon Kabat-Zinn and Jack Kornfield and others in this mindfulness world. I was literally unaware not only of this deep contemplative practice over thousands of years but also of the science that was emerging from studying mindfulness.
In the last five years, much of what I’ve been doing in my writings is looking at the overlap of a number of different ways of knowing, whether it’s in contemplative practice or attachment or psychotherapy or the arts or whatever. What I see with mindfulness meditation is that it encourages people to look inward at their inner experience. You go beyond words and thoughts to get to the sensations and experiential aspects of life, and in doing so, you become clearer about what’s actually going on with yourself in the moment. You let go of expectations and judgments, and in that way, the practice of mindfulness is a direct way of developing one aspect of mindsight, which is to see the subjective inner world.
It turns out that mindfulness meditation is also useful for developing empathic relationships, which is another aspect of mindsight – the empathy that is fundamental to healthy relationships. A third aspect of mindsight is focusing attention to integrate the brain, to link differentiated parts, and mindfulness meditation is an extremely integrative process. The regions of the brain that link widely separated areas to one another are the regions that are stimulated during meditation. There’s also preliminary evidence that suggests these regions seem to grow with continued meditation practice.
The bottom line is that in the field of mindsight, we’re excited to learn about this ancient meditation practice because we see it as profoundly integrative, where you develop fine attunement internally and interpersonally.
Vieten: It is interesting that a personal, introspective practice helps us to connect with other people. Being able to observe your own inner experience somehow allows you to be more aware of other people's experience or to take their perspective.
Siegel: One time I was with forty neurologists on a meditation retreat. We practiced a form of meditation known as shamatha. On the fifth day of the seven-day retreat, two of the neuroscientists shared similar observations that their partners – in one case a fiancée and in the other a spouse – had made about them. Both said something along the lines of “What’s going on with you? You’ve become so empathetic. You’re so open to me now. You’ve never been like this.” All we had been doing for five days was a breath awareness practice, yet when you look at the circuitry of the brain that is activated during such a practice – which is simple in theory but not easy to sustain – the neural firing of areas of the brain that allow you to tune into your own internal state are the same circuits that studies on empathy show we use to tune into another person's inner world. A system of neurons called mirror neurons is engaged. When you look at the neural circuitry these mental activities use, you discover how an internal practice of attunement would naturally lend itself to more interpersonal attunement.
Vieten: How do you define mind? When you say mind, I know you mean more than thoughts. What is mind?
Siegel: I've now interviewed 94,500 mental health practitioners from around the world – including Australia, Europe, and Asia – and whatever their profession, whether it’s in psychiatry, psychology, social work, nursing, or occupational therapy, the number has been the same: only 2 to 5 percent report ever having a lecture that defined mind. We have defined all these mental health disorders, but we don’t have a framework for health, for the healthy mind.
My operational definition is for a part of the mind, not the whole of the mind. Of course, the mind is a mystery. It’s full of consciousness and incredible majesty – the sensation of red, the feeling of love, the impact of music – all that makes up our subjective inner life. While those are all parts of the mind, a definition I developed for one core aspect of the mind (which helped scientists communicate with one another in a think tank I ran some years ago) explains the mind as an emergent property, something that arises in the interaction of our neural system and our relational system. These two systems allow energy and information to flow in reciprocity – like right now, between you and me. We have energy and information passing between us but also passing through the nervous system. So, the mind can be seen as an emergent property. Where is it arising? It’s arising in an embodied way, not just in the brain in the skull but throughout the whole nervous system, the whole body. It’s also relational. This emergent property that regulates the flow of energy and information is an embodied relational process.
This definition also facilitates our understanding of how relationships deeply affect the way neurons get connected to one another, as well as our understanding that the way your neurons are connected by way of experience and genetics affects how your relationships emerge. Both our relationships and our neural structure influence our mental experience.
The other thing that’s great about this definition – and so useful for application in clinical work or educational work or parenting – is that you can show people how to regulate with more clarity and specificity by teaching them to do the two things involved in regulation. One is monitoring, like when you drive a car, you have to watch where you’re going. The other is modulating ormodifying, like turning the steering wheel, putting on the brakes, or accelerating. You can teach people to monitor with more clarity and depth so that they can see more detail. When that’s stabilized, you can teach them to modulate. Once they see the details, they can then modify in a way that moves the system toward integration.
In the work we do with this mindsight approach, we embrace a definition of mind that defines part of what the mind is, and then we are able to define what a healthy mind is. A healthy mind moves us toward integration, a harmonious flow, bounded on either side by chaos or rigidity.
The details in all this are wonderful because we find we can begin to predict what future research might show, and it’s exciting to find predictions coming true as technology advances.
Vieten: So what is new and hot and interesting for you? What are your next steps?
Siegel: One thing that we’ve been doing at the Mindsight Institute is providing an online presence so that people in science, education and parenting, psychotherapy, the arts, and the contemplative arts can apply these principles in various settings. My hope is for people to find practical uses for our definition of the mind and our definition of health as integration.
On the scientific side, we now have two dozen books, most of which are already out in a series about this interdisciplinary field of interpersonal neurobiology – which is different from social neuroscience and not just a branch of neurobiology. We’re trying to weave together a consilient approach in a field that looks at all the different ways of knowing and puts them into one scientifically grounded perspective.
I also worked with fifteen interns to help me revise The Developing Mind, which was published in 1999. I gave them the task of proving the book’s hypothesis wrong and three months to go over all the scientific literature they could find. I’m happy to report that we found seventeen hundred new scientific papers over the last eleven years which support the book’s basic hypothesis that you can work with the concept of health as integration and thereby predict impaired integration in various unhealthy conditions, such as schizophrenia and autism. Psychotherapy is ultimately a process of harnessing the brain’s neuroplasticity, using the focus of attention as an experience that doesn’t just change the structural connections in the brain but that actually integrates them. That’s been exciting.
And finally, in light of the scientific exploration of integration and how it leads to health, we are now trying to make projections of what future technology will show us about various forms of psychiatric disorders. Whether they are experientially induced or genetically induced vulnerabilities, they are examples of impaired integration. Scientific studies of new forms of psychotherapy will examine how such therapies try to integrate the brain through the power of empathic relationships. I talk about specific techniques that can do this in Mindsight and also in my book The Mindful Therapist. Where you snag the brain, you stimulate neuronal activation and growth. The way a surgeon uses a scalpel, a therapist uses attention.
In short, we hope to lay a broad framework of health, to offer a working definition of the mind, and to look for new ways to use the mind to make the brain stronger and relationships more empathic. Basically, we want to bring more health and kindness into the world.
Vieten: It seems that in many fields we’re learning that it’s not so much about what symptom you have or which part of the brain is lighting up but what’s happening with an individual, a family, a community, or a culture – a systems approach. We’re looking at greater integration, greater cohesiveness, and, really, greater relationality in the ways we approach these issues, which are important to everyone.
You mentioned practical steps people could take. We talked about mindfulness. Are there a few others you could identify for us?
Siegel: Well, if you apply the definition of mind we’ve discussed to your personal life and say, “Okay, I’m defining the mind as an embodied and relational process,” then you see that, “I need to honor my body and be tuned into my body.” So, any kind of mindfulness practice that allows you to do that is very important, any kind of body scan, yoga, whatever keeps you in touch with your body.
Then there is the relational part. It is a scientifically established reality that our mental lives are profoundly interconnected with one another. When you see that, you see that you have to pull yourself out of thinking in small ways. “If I’m relational, then what do I do with that?” you ask yourself. Well, you can begin to monitor the energy and information flow inside your body in a new way. Start tonight by focusing on your breath. That’s the mindfulness piece. But even more than that, see if you can start to open to thoughts, feelings, images, sensations, memories – all of the elements of your mental life – as energy patterns. Just try that as a monitoring thing.
Then, move beyond doing it within yourself alone and begin to extend this practice to others – someone you're close to, a neighbor, someone you work with. Notice how you’re taking in their internal world. Are you really allowing yourself to resonate with another person? This is a first step in opening up your monitoring ability. In the mindsight way of thinking, your body and your relationships are part of the same system of energy and information flow.
There are many trainings a person can do. On my website, you can stream a formalized practice called the Wheel of Awareness. It facilitates your ability to integrate consciousness by guiding you to feel the centrality of a hub of awareness and anything else you can be aware of on the rim. The Wheel of Awareness allows you to deepen your monitoring capacity. When I was in Australia recently, I taught this practice and a couple of people with severe chronic pain came up to me at the break and said, “I don’t know what happened, but I’ve never been pain free and now I don’t have the pain. What did you do?” Well, it’s not what I did. They integrated their awareness through the practice and put the pain in its proper place, on the rim. They strengthened the hub and found a way to actually differentiate these elements of the rim – in this case, body pain – from the fullness of awareness. They liberated themselves from the prison of pain by doing that.
As for the modulating or modifying part, when people begin to differentiate this rim element from the hub of awareness, they enter a process whereby they can start to modify exactly what’s going on with themselves. I’ve had people with severe anxiety, for example, bring their anxiety to this Wheel of Awareness practice, and the anxiety melts away. You can go through other domains as well, for example, learning what the left and right hemispheres are like and finding a way to link the two areas. Just today I saw a new person who was struggling with being aware of his body and of autobiographical memories, and he had trouble reducing his anxiety. Autobiographical memory, the ability to map the whole body, and stress modulation are all right hemisphere specialties. Both hemispheres share them, but they’re dominant in the right. For various reasons, he had a hard time developing those skills in his childhood. But with these mindsight skills, like integrating left and right, he’s going to develop more of his right hemisphere capacity and then link the two hemispheres. Once you get the general notion of how to master this idea of integration as health, the mind can move the system of energy and information toward integration. The wonderful thing is how it empowers the individual, even independent of therapy.
So, there are lots of things to do. The Wheel of Awareness practice is one of them. A good way to heighten mindsight is to start with something that facilitates the integration of consciousness.