Q&A with Dr. Dan Siegel

Q&A with Dr. Dan Siegel

Brainstorm author Dr. Dan Siegel on the power of harmony, cultivating “mindsight,” and why you should learn to think more like a teen.

Brain by Angela Willetts

The author of best-selling books including Mindsight, The Whole-Brain Child, and most recently, Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, Dr. Dan Siegel is a pioneer in the field of interpersonal neurobiology, drawing on multiple scientific disciplines to study the inner workings of the mind and to understand our capacity for resilience and connection.

Siegel is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and the founding codirector of the university’s Mindful Awareness Research Center. He spoke with S&H about his work.

What was your spiritual life like growing up?

I was raised in a very logical, science-based, education-oriented family without any background in religion or spirituality. We were very focused on improving the lives of others and were active in the civil rights movement. In that sense, if you define spirituality as living a life of purpose and meaning—and of being connected to a larger whole than yourself—then, yes, that was a spiritual life, but we never used the term. And now I have a regular reflective practice to cultivate those ways of living each day, but I usually use the term integrative instead of spiritual.

What is mindsight?

Initially, mindsight meant empathy for other people, and it also means insight into yourself. But it isn’t just seeing the mind—because a sociopath can see your mind and manipulate you for it. It needs a third component: integration, which is basically the mechanism of kindness and compassion. So mindsight is insight, empathy, and integration.

Can you say more about integration?

When I speak to groups, I’ll bring together a choir to demonstrate integration. First they all sing the same note, so there’s no differentiation. It’s boring, completely predictable, and rigid. That’s one extreme. Then I’ll ask them to plug their ears so that they don’t hear each other, and belt out a song that they think of in their mind. It’s a cacophony; it’s chaos. There’s differentiation, but not linkage.

Integration is a balance of linkage and differentiation. When I ask the choir to choose a song to sing together, 75 percent of the time, they pick “Amazing Grace.” They sing it in harmony. It’s a great example of integration because there’s differentiation through the harmonic intervals, and there’s linkage.

So integration is harmony—internally and externally?

Yes. Using the choir as a model, we can look at our relationships—relationships in a family, relationships in a romance—and we can see that when a relationship isn’t going well, it’s because it is moving either too rigidly or too chaotically. Things are not integrated.

Outside of the individual brain, we can look at cultures that are integrated as cultures that are adaptive and flexible. You’re honoring differences and promoting linkages within the culture—honoring different religious backgrounds, different ages, different sexual orientations, different proclivities to like this or like that. You honor a person wherever they’re at.

How does this idea of integration fit in with your most recent work exploring the teenage brain?

Integration is the basis for living a healthy life, and it’s especially important during adolescence, because the brain is changing in exciting ways. Fortunately, when you know what’s happening in the brain, there’s something you can do about it, because you can use the mind to change the brain. Brain firing can lead to brain rewiring.

What’s the difference between the mind and brain?

For a neuroscientist, the mind is what the brain does.
For me, in a different field called interpersonal neurobiology, we actually don’t see the mind as related only to brain activity. We see brain activity as a part of mental life, but mind is as much relational. It is fully embodied, not just “enskulled.”

What’s important here, especially for an adolescent, is to realize that the brain doesn’t have to run the show. Your mind, which is both within you and between you and others, is shaped by your relationships as much as it’s shaped by your whole nervous system. It’s throughout your whole body, not just what’s up in the head.

How do our emotional lives fit in?

Emotion for me is the essence of integration. Positive emotions increase integration, whereas uncomfortable emotions—what are sometimes called “negative” emotions, such as anger, sadness, fear, and shame—are downshifts in integration. No emotion is bad; emotion is just an experience we have when integration is shifting.

Being open to whatever arises in our bodies and in our world is the essence of presence, and presence is what is the portal to integration and health. Since presence also opens us up to the reality of our interconnected nature, then we can see how presence is the heart of a spiritual life.

What’s the difference between mindsight and mindfulness?

As I mentioned, mindsight means insight, empathy, and integration—it’s a term I made up in 1980. The main difference between mindsight and mindfulness is that mindfulness, a contemplative practice that has been around for 2,600 years, focuses on the present moment, not being swept up by judgments, and being very attentive to the moment-to-moment unfolding of things. So mindfulness would be included under the term insight, because an insight is the ability to link to the present moment.

In Brainstorm you’ve come up with an acronym to describe the experience of adolescence. What is it?

When I read all the research on adolescent brain changes, there were four things that stood out. Because I’m a little bit of an acronym addict, I gave each of them a title so that it spelled out the word ESSENCE.

ES is emotional spark, and it means that the brain is more emotional when you hit adolescence. You can feel moody, you can feel irritable, and you have these emotions that you don’t know what to do with. You can feel lost, confused, and get mad at yourself. But the upside is that it’s a source of passion, vitality, and energy.

Next up is SE, for social engagement. The limbic area of the brain changes during adolescence, which is nature’s way of trying to get you to survive when you leave the safety of the home. With other mammals, if you don’t hang around with other adolescent mammals that are in your group, you’re as good as dead. The downside of social engagement is that membership can feel like a matter of life and death. You might forgo morality for membership. We call that peer pressure: you do things you never would’ve done, just so you can belong. You don’t know why you do it; you just do it automatically.

The N is novelty. When puberty hits, the dopamine in the brain essentially drops its baseline level and raises its release level. When the baseline is lower and the release level is higher, it makes you restless when things are familiar. One of the main releasers of dopamine is novelty. Why does nature do this? To get you out of your familiar home and to push you out into the world. The downside is it can get depressing when dopamine levels are low. And the release levels can be so high that it leads to risky, thrill-seeking behaviors. But the upside is you’re willing to embrace new things.

The final aspect of adolescence, CE, is creative exploration. I believe the purpose of these adolescent brain changes, especially regarding creative exploration, is to allow some subset of our species to say, “I don’t accept the status quo. I’m going to think about things in new ways.” Not like a child who’s a sponge for adult knowledge, and not like an adult who’s just doing their work. As you probably know, adolescents are a major source of innovation in music and art, in science and technology.

The downside to this is you can feel so disappointed. You used to think of your parents as heroes and heroines. Now what do you think? They’re just people. You thought the world was a fine place to live, and now you’re seeing clearly that there are a lot of problems with it. These downsides can be disconcerting and painful. But the upside is that the adolescent brain is programmed to think outside the box and try on new things.

The problem is that in society, schools, and even families, very little is done to support the “essence” of adolescence.

How can we harness that adolescent creativity and energy to solve some of the world’s problems?

I think we could restructure middle school and high school so that at the beginning you say, “Look, we have a lot of problems on this planet. Here’s the top 10. See where your passion is. Where do you feel most drawn right now to work on one of these problems?” Famine, violence, climate change—there are a lot of world problems. That would allow us to tap into the emotional spark of adolescence.

We can also tap into the social engagement aspect of adolescence. We could say, “You’re going to work together because you’re built to collaborate. We’re not going to have you pit yourselves against each other—who gets the better grade point average, the better SAT score, into the best college. Now, if you feel competitive, compete with the world’s problems so that when you win the competition, everybody benefits.”

In Brainstorm you write, “When adults lose the creative power of the adolescent mind, their lives can lose vitality and become meaningless.” What do you mean by this?

The essence of adolescence is actually the essence of living a vital life as an adult. Fortunately, it’s never too late to get your essence back. It’s not like I’m saying, “Hey, if you lost your vitality, too bad. You’re in trouble and there’s nothing anyone can do.” In fact, our adolescents can be our teachers and our inspiration.

It sounds like the key to improving parent-teen relations is parents being willing to become more like their teenagers, rather than the other way around. Is that right?

Well, I would just put a qualifier there and say parents should tap into the optimal part of adolescence. Because, listen, there are downsides of adolescence. It’s tough to not know how to deal with your emotions. It’s tough to feel rejected by your peers and collapse under peer pressure. It’s tough to be disillusioned.

How can an adult tap into the optimal aspects of adolescence?

You must develop the capacity you have to integrate with other people and also to integrate your nervous system. To do this people come up with their own creative ways—dancing, qigong, doing stuff that gets you in touch with your body. Getting more spontaneous—an improv class, for example—can help adults stop being so serious. I think adults are way too serious.

It can be difficult to avoid being too serious given the scale of world problems.

Yes, but there’s no reason you have to choose between doing the things you enjoy and helping others. You can savor and serve. You can have an identity as a “me” and have an identity as a “we.” You don’t have to give up one or the other.

When you name and hold these opposites—when you ask questions like, “How do I have fun while I’m also feeling the despair of the world?”—that’s exactly what integration is about. You actually have a responsibility to be joyful because of the suffering. It really is a great permission that we can give people.

This story originally published as "Get Out Of Your Head" in the July/August 2014 issue of Spirituality & Health magazine. Sam Mowe interviewed the spiritual ecologists Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grimm for the May/June issue of Spirituality & Health.

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