You’ve seen it before: an illustration of the brain as a series of mechanized gears turning, or perhaps some kind of elaborate Rube Goldberg-esque contraption. In recent history, the “age of the machine” prompted us to view the workings of the human brain as a sort of advanced mechanical device. As long as all the parts are fitted together and working properly, the mind is sharp and active. But if some parts wear out or were never built right in the first place, mental illness is a forgone conclusion. Yet this past view of cranial construction has been heavily challenged for decades, and only now are we beginning to grasp the true grandeur and sophistication of what is in fact the most complex object and the most finely-tuned information processing platform in the known universe.
The science of the brain and the nervous system, called neuroscience, has exponentially yielded fascinating insights over the past few years as advances in monitoring techniques and computer technology has given researchers unparalleled access to the inner workings of the brain at the level of the neuron. This research is beginning to inform us to a much greater degree than ever before what is going on in the brain as we think, feel, imagine, remember, and create.
In the book Mindsight, by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., the latest “hard science” of how the brain is functioning biologically gets seamlessly fused with the “soft sciences” of clinical psychiatry and mindfulness practices, resulting in a book that is both a joy to read and a veritable wealth of useful information. The term Mindsight, coined by Dr. Siegel, refers to the amazing ability we have as humans to perceive our own minds–self awareness–and how cultivating that ability in a concentrated way allows us to gain a greater sense of emotional and cognitive well-being, and even trigger our brain’s ability to heal from past trauma and build new neural pathways for success. As the author puts it:
Mindsight is a kind of focused attention that allows us to see the internal workings of our own minds. It helps us to be aware of our mental processes without being swept away by them, enables us to get ourselves off the autopilot of ingrained behaviors and habitual responses, and moves us beyond the reactive emotional loops we all have a tendency to get trapped in. It lets us “name and tame” the emotions we are experiencing, rather than being overwhelmed by them. Consider the difference between saying “I am sad” and “I feel sad.” Similar as those two statements may seem, there is actually a profound difference between them. “I am sad” is a kind of self-definition, and a very limiting one. “I feel sad” suggests the ability to recognize and acknowledge a feeling, without being consumed by it. The focusing skills that are part of mindsight make it possible to see what is inside, to accept it, and in the excepting to let it go, and, finally, to transform it.
Throughout the course of the book, Dr. Siegel takes the reader on a whirlwind journey through the physical components of the brain, utilizing familiar terms such as prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, yet presenting the subject matter in a fresh and engaging away. He shows how all the different parts of the brain complement each other and work together throughout the duration of a typical thought-process, making what might otherwise be an extremely abstract scientific read clear and understandable to the non-medically-astute reader. We get to dive down deep into the neural circuitry of the brain and learn just a little bit more about how this unfathomably complex neural network operates at the cellular level. (At this point, we begin to reach the limits of the current science, as the typical human brain consists of roughly one hundred billion interconnected neurons.)
But what makes Mindsight such a interesting book to read isn’t the tour of how the brain physically is wired, but detailed descriptions of how the actual work the brain engages in as a person thinks and feels can have a profound effect on the manner in which the brain does that work over time. The ability of the brain to re-wire, and thus effectively to re-program itself, is called neuroplasticity. And what’s so incredibly exciting about neuroplasticity is that it’s always available to us throughout the entire course of our lives.
Yes, apparently you can teach an old dog new tricks, as Dr. Siegel proves in one particularly fascinating chapter in which he helps a 92-year-old man–via targeted mindfulness therapies which stimulate the process of neural rewiring–get in touch with his long-dormant emotions, process his repressed fears over recent health scares related to his wife, and generally come out of the treatments a more compassionate and physically “present” person. It’s not that the man’s personality completely changed, but that the parts of his personality that had essentially been shut down since childhood were allowed to reemerge—even to the point of allowing his wife to give his shoulders a massage which he never had let her done in their sixty-two years of marriage prior.
Integration is the Key to Mental Health and Personal Happiness
Mindsight makes a series of dramatic claims: that creating well-being in one’s mental life is a learnable skill, that as one develops the skills of “mindsight” as presented in the book it produces actual changes in the structure of the brain, and that well-being emerges when the brain achieves and maintains integration. Dr. Siegel uses this term a great deal throughout the book, and unpacks what this integration really means in a variety of ways. Just a few examples: integration between the creative-yet-chaotic left brain and the logical-yet-rigid right brain, integration between the prefrontal cortex and the limbic regions, integration between the brain as a whole and the body, and so forth. Many difficulties people have in life, whether that’s emotional volatility and extreme mood swings, or whether it’s generally a sense of numbness and loss of vitality—these kinds of chronic mental patterns are often able to be traced back to a disconnect in the circuitry of the brain, whether due to physical trauma such as an injury or mental trauma often endured during childhood.
The good news is, by using clinically proven methods to stimulate the natural abilities of the brain to reprogram itself via neuroplasticity, it’s often possible to reverse some or even all of these damaging conditions and make a profound difference in the person’s life or the life of their loved ones, as Dr. Siegel shows throughout the book with a variety of examples of patients and conditions he’s been able to help over the years.
Dr. Siegel also explains why meditation techniques are generally beneficial to mental health, as they increase integration throughout the brain and promote the development of new neural pathways, and he presents some simple yet very useful techniques (think of them as brain exercises) which you can easily incorporate into your own mindfulness practice.
The Spiritual Dimension
As someone for whom spirituality is very important, and as a follower of Jesus, I found Mindsight to be very respectful of my faith tradition. In fact, the book really doesn’t promote any particular religious or spiritual viewpoint and stays pretty squarely in the physical domain. However, much of the material in the book will have a direct impact on how you may view the topic of mental health and the larger metaphysical question of where the dividing line may lie between body and soul. More specifically, I must admit that I myself in past times have questioned the extent to which many mental illnesses are “real” and instead would tend to attribute abnormal behavior or feelings to demonic oppression, unresolved sin, or lack of a meaningful spiritual connection to God.
I’ve since been assuaged of that notion to a fair degree, in part as I’ve struggled with my own mental health issues which I concluded were not due to “spiritual” issues per se. Like I would to say to my wife, I felt like my “brain was broken.” Once I began to incorporate the practice of mindfulness in my daily routine, it did in fact make a big impact on me, and Mindsight has been contributing even more to my understanding of what can go wrong in the brain and ways to cope.
I greatly appreciate Dr. Siegel’s wisdom on the subject of emotions in particular. I have come to observe that some Christian traditions err on one side or another when it comes to evaluating emotions…in some circles, emotions are seen as a bastion of evil and never to be trusted—the flesh, not the spirit. Entire books have been written about how you need to “stand firm on the Word of God” and not give in your emotions. I have a major problem with this viewpoint, as I believe it actually encourages mental illness and removes from people the ability to understand their own mind and navigate the choppy waters of emotion in a healthy and useful way—a significant indicator of overall intelligence and creativity.
On the other hand, some Christian traditions overemphasize emotionalism and crudely capitalize on it to produce a sort of mind-control effect whereby people hungry for “a move of God” tend to believe anything a preacher will tell them. I’ve seen entire crowds whipped into a religious frenzy, whereby they become willing to do almost anything that sounds hyperspiritual (which unfortunately often results in the collection of large donations to the particular ministry that’s promoting this “movement”). In times like these, I long for a more rational and logical approach to spirituality.
In Mindsight, Dr. Siegel states his view that it’s actually wrong to look at emotions as one-time events that sort of “happen” at various points. Rather, our brains are constantly interpreting a wide variety of sensory input, bodily processes, and inner-imaginative states and incorporating all of that into a sort of always-present “waveform” of emotion. This waveform may be fairly steady when you are in a “calm” frame of mind, and spike widely up or down when you are feeling “emotional”. In other words, you are never not feeling emotions, but rather, your emotions will simply increase and decrease in intensity a number of times throughout a typical day, and the range of different emotional sensations will always be in flux.
Thus the hallmark of a healthy mind isn’t a blind embrace of emotion on the one hand or a suppression of valid emotional feeling on the other, but instead is the ability to observe emotion with a certain productive distance and prevent it from overwhelming the higher-level decision-making circuitry of the prefrontal cortex. In other words, instead of just acting on or reacting to your feelings in any given moment, you are able to utilize your emotional states as just one of several sources of input that your brain can use to make sound behavioral choices. Mindfulness meditations can strengthen your brain’s ability to avoid over-spiking on the emotional “waveform” and increase integration between the various regions of the brain (the regions that process emotions as well as the regions that process logic and reasoning) for overall health and well-being.
In order to write a comprehensive book review, I feel I’m obligated to spell out any weaknesses in the book and be honest about them as well as the strengths. But I must confess: I can find very little to complain about with Mindsight. This is simply one of the best books I’ve read in years, and the contribution it makes to the body of knowledge we’re amassing about the brain and how it works is substantial. If you are at all interested in mindfulness, mental health, or even the connection between the spiritual realm and our ability as humans to think, feel, and create, and communicate with each other and with our Creator, this is a must-read book.
Learn more about Mindsight here on Dr. Siegel’s website.