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Awakening the Mind: Neurobiology and You

Awakening the Mind

A Conversation with Daniel J. Siegel, MD

In the early 1990s, Daniel J. Siegel directed the training program in child and adolescent psychiatry at UCLA. Drawing on his natural tendency to synthesize and integrate, he pulled together an interdisciplinary study group on the mind and the brain in an effort to see the larger whole of human experience. The team included 40 people, representing more than a dozen branches of science, including anthropology, zoology, developmental psychology, linguistics, genetics, neuroscience, and systems theory.

The result that emerged from that inspirational experience was a whole new field of science: interpersonal neurobiology, which presents an integrated view of how human development occurs within a social world (to be precise, that the neural patterns in our brains are literally affected by our relationships with other human beings). Interpersonal neurobiology embraces a wide array of knowing that includes the sciences, contemplative practices, expressive arts, and philosophy to explore the nature of being human. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this field is that it has created a bridge between the laboratory work of brain researchers and the mind work that happens on a therapist’s couch. Dan Siegel’s highly regarded book, The Developing Mind: Toward a Neurobiology of Interpersonal Experience, continues to be widely read by both specialists and lay people.

In this conversation, Kripalu’s senior editor, Grace Welker, and Dr. Siegel discussed what’s happening out on the cutting edge of science, how it can affect our lives, the nature of mental health, and the diminishing gap between science and spirituality.

Grace Welker You are the spokesman for a new approach to mental health; you teach throughout the world; you write; you still see patients—you are clearly a man with a mission. What fuels your quest?

Dan Siegel Imagine having one foot on the shore of infinite possibility and another foot on the ground of scientific insight. As a physician and scientist I have had the opportunity to become immersed in the world of cutting-edge research on the brain, relationships, and human development; as a psychotherapist, I have been immersed in the clinical domain, the world of our subjective experience and the journeys—often wondrous—that form the stories of our lives. I wanted to take a rigorous, disciplined, scientific look at aspects of human relationships, personality, emotion, memory, and identity—those things that are really the core of most psychotherapeutic work. I wanted to find the connections, always with an eye toward what works, what’s real, what’s practical.

Psychotherapists work to heal the psyche, which is classically defined as "the soul, the spirit, the intellect, and the mind." So it seemed to me that in order to work effectively, we needed to understand the mind more deeply, through a process of "mindsight," which integrates insight and empathy. The mind is not just the activity of a brain, encased in its isolated skull, as many scientists may claim. The mind is both a subjective entity, based ultimately upon physical properties, but also an entity having unique processes of its own. It governs the whole organism and its interaction with the environment; it is the fundamental source of our inner experience and our interpersonal lives. If we begin with the subjective and physical aspects, we might start to clarify a route to understanding the mind as a unique entity, in health and un-health, or imbalance.

Essentially, two questions have served as a driving force for my work: "What is the mind?" and "What is mental health?"

GW In addressing the first question, can you provide a little summary of the relationship between the subjective and physical aspects of the mind and how they interrelate and affect each other?

DS Although we still do not know exactly how, we do know that the subjective dimensions of the mind—thoughts, feelings, perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, intentions, and memories—emerge from the neuronal activity of the brain. Scientific research, particularly in the field of neurobiology, has recently illuminated the physical dimensions of our minds, revealing the beautiful and intricate networks of neurons that are nestled both in our brains and throughout our bodies. In laboratories, we can actually see the brain activating, as the mind rides the waves of patterns of neural firing. And as it does, our sense of self is created—by this experiential process that is both embodied and relational. To know and awaken the mind, we must embrace its bodily and social sources.

GW The underground hit movie What the Bleep Do We Know!?, which a lot of people have seen or heard about, portrayed this very clearly.

DS That film ultimately reflects a deep need for us to understand our place in the universe and in our individual and collective lives. What is critical to understanding these recent scientific breakthroughs is that it’s a two-way street: our lived experiences also shape how our brains, and therefore our minds, develop across the life span. Scientists now use the word "neuroplasticity" to describe the brain’s response to experience, or how connections in the brain are capable of changing or being changed. Experience changes the function and structure of the brain itself. The connections among the 100 billion neurons in the brain are continually carving out new pathways, which can support ongoing learning and can enrich our mental health well into our nineties. It’s clearly important to actively shape the nature of our experiences in ways that keep the mind thriving.

GW And what about the second question, "What is mental health?"

DS A close examination of a wide array of sciences and cross-cultural ancient and contemporary arts enables us to propose that a thriving mind emerges as a fundamental process of "integration" occurs. Integration is the linking together of distinct elements into a functional whole. Chaos theory, a mathematical science that examines the function of complex systems, such as clouds, relationships, or brains, suggests that integration enables the flow of a system to achieve optimal functioning. The linkage of distinct parts is a vital aspect of this—it actually creates the possibility for more complex and adaptive states of processing to emerge.

I’m an acronym addict—I love putting elements together in words to support our ways of seeing—so I’ve proposed understanding integration from the word FACES: an integrative state is Flexible, Adaptive, Coherent, Energizing, and Stable. I think this is a beautiful definition of well-being as it is drawn directly from science and reveals a deep truth about our subjective lives.

GW It’s interesting you should be saying this. As you are probably aware, the usual translation of the word "yoga" from Sanskrit is "union," but recently one of the leading Indian yoga masters used the translation "integration." What many people don’t realize is that yoga developed not as a side activity to life but as a thorough pursuit of what it means to fully thrive as a human being.

DS This is very exciting and reveals a form of "consilience," in which different ways of knowing converge on a common set of principles that illuminate truths about our lives. In our research center at UCLA, we are exploring the ways that mindful awareness practices, such as yoga, tai chi, and meditation, may help promote well-being by fostering the growth of integrative regions of the brain. We believe, for example, that mindfulness promotes the integrative function of the prefrontal cortex, which facilitates the creation of a wide array of functions, from bodily balance and attuned communication to mental flexibility and morality.

GW What if we don’t address integration in our lives? What happens then? Is disintegrated the opposite of an integrated state?

DS To a certain extent, yes. When the mind is out of sync with the river of well-being, it can flow toward one of two banks: chaos or rigidity. When we look at the nature of "mental un-health," we see that symptoms fall into these two categories—along a spectrum, of course. This understanding also points to what we need to do to bring our minds back into a state of well-being, into the flow of a harmonious life.

For example, if I were to ask you to focus on some aspect of your past and bring it into your awareness, you could sense a spectrum of elements of memory, from bodily states to images of the earlier experience. If you found that some aspect of the recollection gave you the sense of becoming rigidly restricted or frazzled and chaotic, we would be revealing a part of your memory that has remained out of integration.

GW Can you address the practical implications of all this in daily life.

DS Within the framework of interpersonal neurobiology, the mind is seen as a process that regulates the flow of energy and information. In our daily lives, this means that how we invest enthusiasm and interest—as energy—fuels the way in which we actually symbolize and process our sense of the world. How we cultivate our awareness, how we direct our attention directly alters neural connections. With this awareness, we can "SNAG" the brain: Stimulate Neuronal Activation and Growth.

We can do this in any number of domains of integration, such as linking forms of memory, bridging the divide of the verbal left and nonverbal right sides of the brain, or creating connections between various narrative functions.

A good example of this would be accessing deep autobiographical images of the right hemisphere and linking them to the words of the left, which tries to make sense out of experience. This new linkage is the way in which we can create new neural connections that, literally, foster integrative states. In this example, this would enable a more coherent life story to emerge. Research has repeatedly shown that creating such coherent narratives of our lives promotes personal and interpersonal well-being.

What’s most important to remember in terms of applying interpersonal neurobiology to our daily lives is that neural integration, empathic relationships, and a coherent mind form three sides of a triangle of well-being.

GW Do you consider there to be spiritual implications of this new science?

DS Elucidating the links between the physical brain and the processes of the mind has shed light on the deepest nature of the self. When we examine the deep layers of our neural selves, we come to glimpse not only the roots of our mental and social lives, but the essential reality of our selves as part of an integrated whole across the span of time. It may be that our work as human beings is not only to seek meaning and satisfaction in our lives and to dedicate ourselves to alleviating suffering in others but to be a part of a larger effort to bring integration and healing into the many layers of our interconnections with each other.

As we explore and incorporate the many domains of integration, what seems to evolve naturally is the sense of being connected to a larger whole, something more than just our bodily defined sense of self in this time we call our "life." This "transpirational integration" enables us to become more fully aware of our interconnected belonging as we, in Albert Einstein’s words, "widen our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."

Daniel J. Siegel, MD, received his medical degree from Harvard University and is currently codirector of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA and director of the Mindsight Institute in Los Angeles. He is the author of The Developing Mind and the forthcoming books The Mindful Brain in Human Development and Mindsight: Our Seventh Sense.

Grace Welker is a language lover and lifelong learner living in New York’s Hudson Valley.

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the Fall 2006 issue of the Kripalu catalog. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail