Using Daily Mindfulness to Enhance Your Brain: An Interview with Dan Siegel
Dan Siegel, MD, is an internationally acclaimed author, educator, and child psychiatrist who has published extensively for both professional and lay audiences. The executive director of Mindsight Institute, Dr. Siegel is known for his unique ability to make complicated scientific concepts accessible. His latest New York Times best seller is Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence.
1440: How do you define Mindsight?
Dan Siegel: “Mindsight,” a term I came up with years ago, is a combination of insight into your own internal life (the subjective experience of your feelings and thoughts) and how you see the mental life of someone else (empathy). It also includes a third process called integration, which means linking different aspects of a system, whether within yourself or between yourself and others.
1440: How is it that integration promotes well-being?
Dan Siegel: In the brain, there are 100 billion neurons in different clustered areas or regions, and you can study the specific circuitry that connects those separate (differentiated) areas. Research done by the Human Connectome Project shows that mindfulness increases the interconnectivity of the connectome—the network of widely distributed neural connections in the brain. Another set of studies shows that the level of connection in your connectome—the level of integration—is the best predictor of well-being.
All regulation—like regulating your emotions, mood, attention, thoughts, behavior, relationships, or even morality—appears to be dependent on integration in the brain. So the more connected your neural mechanisms are, the more integrated you will be, and the more self-regulating you’ll be in all these areas of your life.
1440: Are there specific tools that we can use to develop Mindsight and increase our level of integration?
Dan Siegel: I developed a practice called the Wheel of Awareness that integrates consciousness by differentiating the experience of the knowing of awareness from the knowns of awareness. The knowing of awareness is in the metaphoric hub of the wheel while the knowns, like thoughts, feelings, or what you experience with your senses, are on the rim of the wheel. The practice takes you through each of these knowns by moving the spoke of your attention around on this visual image. As you do this, you’re literally differentiating (recognizing the differences) between these elements of consciousness and linking them to each other.
1440: Are there other practices that do the same kind of thing?
Dan Siegel: Yes, there are probably hundreds of what we call MAPs (Mindful Awareness Practices) that work, but most of my research has been done with the Wheel of Awareness. In preliminary studies at the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA, we’ve found that with mindfulness meditation we get more improvements in attention, sustaining attention, and avoiding distractions, than we do with medication.
There are other ongoing studies on yoga, tai chi, and qigong, and I don’t know what the final results will be, but the preliminary results are very promising.
What we do know is that where attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connection grows. You have the capacity to focus your attention in new ways to get neural firing to flow to areas that are not differentiated or not linked.
In this way, you can literally change the structural connections in your brain with what you do with your mind.
1440: What are the characteristics of a practice that help someone develop Mindsight?
Dan Siegel: Different people need different things—some people will need to move and others will need to be still—but for any practice to work, I think it needs to create energy and information flow patterns that are integrative. For example, mindfulness of the breath works because it differentiates the sensation of the breath from the observation of the sensation. That may sound subtle, but it’s huge. To be able to distinguish “being aware” from “the thing you’re aware of” is the key to beginning the integration process.
1440: How does integration in the mind relate to our relationships?
Dan Siegel: The self may come from the mind, but the mind doesn’t just come from the brain. I like to say the mind is bigger than the brain and the self is broader than the body. Twenty-five hundred years ago, Hippocrates said the mind comes from the brain, and we’ve been operating under that fallacy ever since. When we think this way, we conclude that the self is a solo operator. But I think the body is like a node in a system. We’ve mistaken that node for the self, when in fact the self is actually the whole system and is connected to everyone and everything. This really broadens the self beyond just the body.
When you start thinking about it this way, you realize the self is not just a “me,” we’re also a “we.” If that is the case, then an integrated self is a “mwe.” There is still me and you (differentiation), but together we are a mwe (integration).
Think of the ocean as an example. Can you imagine if the hydrogen atoms started fighting with the oxygen atoms over whose identity was more important? I think that’s what modern society has done. We fight over whether we’re hydrogens or oxygens and miss the point that we are a whole ecosystem.
1440: Thinking of relationships from that perspective, how would you respond when you’re in a difficult situation with a partner, a child, a boss, or even angry with someone you don’t know, like a politician?
Dan Siegel: When you give people the opportunity to develop their mind, they learn how to drop down into the hub of the Wheel of Awareness—which I also call presence or the plane of possibility. You can see what’s going on in the news and feel the thoughts and emotions associated with that, and you know how to drop down beneath reactivity into the plane of possibility. From there you can see alternative pathways you can take. If you’re in an argument with someone face-to-face, dropping into the hub will give you a little space between impulse and action and maybe you can react differently.
You want to make sure you’re working on your mind, not just in the heat of the moment but at other times. Find a practice and make it part of your daily routine, just like brushing your teeth. You don’t wait until you have a rotten tooth that needs extraction before you start brushing.
There is dental hygiene and I think we need mental hygiene—regular inner practice to create outer wisdom.
You need a way to keep things differentiated but linked, and when you practice that, it will carry over into moments of stress.
1440: If there is one mystery that you could solve right now, what question would you want answered?
Dan Siegel: I would love to know how we help humanity broaden our sense of self to include other people, other organisms, and the entire living ecosphere.
We are in a moment right now—given everything that’s happening in the world and the number of people that are here on earth—where the future of humanity depends on the expansion of consciousness.
It literally depends on our sense of who we are. The biggest mystery to me is how can we take human consciousness and enable it to go past the brain’s obvious vulnerability of thinking the self is just a body. I’d like to find an effective, practical tool—in pretty rapid order—so that we can start turning things around. We have to work on this together as a “mwe.”