Brain Insights and Well-Being
by Dr. Daniel Siegel
This is the first of a series on Interpersonal Neurobiology: Relationships, Health, and the Brain.
How does knowing about the brain’s parts make mental health and happiness more likely to occur?
On the one hand, we know that part of our mental life is shaped by how the brain functions. Neuroscience tells us that if we damage this or that part of the brain, our thoughts or feelings, memories or actions will be directly impacted. We also know that what happens in our relationships shapes our thoughts and feelings, memories and actions. And for these reasons, in Interpersonal Neurobiology we focus on seeing the mind as both embodied and relational. Embodied means that the mind is more than simply what happens in your head—it extends to at least the whole of the body in which “you” live.
But “you” also live within your relationships with other people and with the larger environment, the planet. So on the other hand, your connections with people and the planet shape your mental processes, from thoughts and feelings to decisions actions. This is why we say the mind is relational as well as being embodied.
The essence of mental life from this viewpoint is the flow of energy and information flow. Flow is the change of something across time. Information is a pattern of energy with symbolic value—it stands for something other than itself. And energy, in physicists’ terms, is the capacity to do something. This capacity creates a potential that extends from certainty to uncertainty as possibility is turned into actuality and then melts back into potential. Even if you just think of energy as a property of the universe that enables things to unfold that comes in various forms like light, sound, and heat, you’ll have a good starting place for how to just sense what the term ‘energy’ entails.
How energy “streams” or “flows” through our lives shapes our mental experience. If you smile at me and I don’t smile back, your feelings will be different than if I resonate with your smile, feeling the feelings inside of me and then revealing that resonance with a returned smile on my face, in my gestures, and in my tone of voice. Our separate bodies become “connected” as energy flows from you in the form of a smile that then connects with me. Your eyes and your ears pick up how that energy was received and two separate “entities” become connected as one in the exchange. This is how people come to feel “close” to each other even with physical distance that separates their physical bodies. Closeness is about resonance where two “systems” become linked as one.
Knowing about the brain is important in well-being because when we understand that the brain is a part of the body, and the body and relationships shape the mind, then mental health can be more likely to be catalyzed with knowledge of the brain as one part of the whole system of mind. Knowing about the brain’s different parts enables us to optimize how those parts work collaboratively as a part of an integrated whole. In Interpersonal Neurobiology we say that integration is the basis of health. Integration is defined quite simply as “the linkage of differentiated parts.” With integration emerges coherence and harmony; when integration is impaired, chaos or rigidity ensues.
This background will prepare your mind to optimize chance experiences of life so that you’ll be able to sense chaos and rigidity and detect how differentiated areas of the brain—or differentiated aspects of your relationships with others—may not be functioning as a linked whole. Louis Pasteur once said that “chance favors the prepared mind” – and knowledge of the brain’s parts can prepare your mind to integrate your life by linking differentiated areas of the brain to each other, thus creating neural integration.
In the related blogs that follow this introductory overview, we’ll see the various players that, when known, can be intentionally shaped in how they function. For the brain, “function” means how energy and information are streaming through those particular circuits. Attention is the process that directs energy and information flow—within our brains, and within our relationships. And so we’ll discover that how we learn to focus attention can activate specific circuits. Where attention goes, neural firing occurs. And where neural firing happens, neural structure can be strengthened. When that firing is integrative, then we can see how using our attention in integrative ways can actually reinforce coherent integrative functioning in the moment and grow integrative fibers for future functioning to be more balanced, coherent, and harmonious.
So for now, this is enough for us to share. How you’ll learn to focus your attention with intention and knowledge in integrative ways will build the skills you need to create neural integration in your brain. Get ready for some fun!
This was previously published on Psychology Today.
Daniel J. Siegel received his medical degree from Harvard University and completed his postgraduate medical education at UCLA with training in pediatrics and child, adolescent and adult psychiatry. He served as a National Institute of Mental Health Research Fellow at UCLA, studying family interactions with an emphasis on how attachment experiences influence emotions, behavior, autobiographical memory and narrative.
Dr. Siegel is currently clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine where he is on the faculty of the Center for Culture, Brain, and Development and the founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center. An award-winning educator, he is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and recipient of several honorary fellowships. Dr. Siegel is also the Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute, an educational organization, which offersonline learning and in-person lectures that focus on how the development of mindsight in individuals, families and communities can be enhanced by examining the interface of human relationships and basic biological processes. His psychotherapy practice includes children, adolescents, adults, couples, and families. He serves as the Medical Director of the LifeSpan Learning Institute and on the Advisory Board of the Blue School in New York City, which has built its curriculum around Dr. Siegel’s Mindsight approach.