The Importance of Mindsight: How We Begin to Deepen Our Own Self-Understanding and Cultivate Mindsight in Our Lives

Dr. Daniel J. Siegel
February 12, 2010

In our first column on whole brain parenting, we focused on the ideas of how we see and shape our internal world-a process we can strengthen called "mindsight." We also discussed the importance of creating integration in our lives.  Integration is the way we help encourage the unique aspects of our inner world of ourselves or of one another and then cultivate linkage of these differentiated elements through direct communication, either internally or interpersonally. In this second entry, we'll explore how you as a parent can take the initial steps to develop and strengthen mindsight in your own life. Research suggests that the best predictor of a child's security of attachment is the parent's own self-understanding. A study completed by one of my own seminar graduate students reveals, too, that this parental "security of attachment" is also correlated with what are called mindfulness traits -- the ability, for example, to stay present in the face of distress, to describe your own internal experience, to return readily to equilibrium after getting emotionally upset, and the tendency not to be swept up by judgments of others... or of yourself. 

Can anything be done to help us cultivate security of attachment and develop these helpful ways of being mindful in our lives? The answer is a resounding YES! The field of brain science reveals that with the proper focus of attention, you can actually use your mind to change the structure of your brain. What this means is that if your own childhood experiences were not optimal, even if they were extremely painful and terrifying, whatever your brain's now restrictive adaptations to those early experiences in your life were can actually be changed. The key is to learn to develop mindsight in your life.

You may be wondering, "How can the mind change the physical structure of the brain? Aren't I done growing after childhood?" Understanding the answers to these questions is more than just an interesting scientific exercise-it directly can impact how you continue to develop further in your own adult life and then, in turn, how you can parent your children well so that they can grow with security and mindsight in their own lives. 

Here is the bottom line: Our brain is composed of neurons that connect with one another at a junction called a synapse. How they "fire off" in response to experience is an important way in which these synapses are formed. Naturally our genetic inheritance plays an important role as do chance and exposure to various chemicals during pregnancy in sculpting our neural architecture. These are the important ways early factors shape our temperament. But experience is an important way we can take control of our lives and shape the unfolding of positive brain changes throughout the lifespan. That's right! Though past notions suggested that after adolescence the brain was "fully baked," it turns out that we are continually reshaping the synaptic connections in our brains. The essential take-home points are these:  Experience involves the firing of neurons.  And the firing of neurons makes them rewire and change their synaptic linkages to one another.  When you "experience" a film, you remember the cinematic story by way of changes in the synapses in your brain. When you experience your childhood, your synaptic connections are molded.  And here is the key: when you learn to focus your attention in new ways, your brain changes its synaptic connections!

The neural circuits that allow you to have mindsight-to see and shape the flow of energy and information by your mind-can be formed and strengthened throughout the lifespan. I once worked with a gentleman, a 92 year-old I describe in the book Mindsight, who did not develop mindsight skills as a child in his emotionally barren family home environment.  Facing the illness of his wife of 65 years, he now withdrew even more than his usual emotionally distant stance in his family.  He did not have, yet, the tools to stay present in the face of this terrifying life event.  With our work together, he could learn a new way to focus his mind to the point that when we were done, his wife called me up and asked if I had given her husband "a brain transplant." While it is not rocket science, it is, in fact, brain science. When you learn to focus your attention to activate neural pathways that before were not cultivated, you can actually get them to grow. He is proof that you can continue to develop mindsight even into your nineties.

What are these mindsight circuits that enable us to develop secure attachment, mindfulness, and even wisdom and emotional balance in our lives?  How do we cultivate mindsight to promote these health-generating changes in our lives, and in the lives of those we love?  As a first step to respond to these core questions, let's begin with a basic statement and an exercise to reveal how it can be supported in your own life. The circuits of mindsight are integrative in that they connect the body itself into the brain-created sense of awareness; they link what is going on inside of you with what is happening inside of someone else, and they help the two sides of your brain collaborate with each other.  Up and down, side-to-side, brain-to-brain, mindsight circuits are truly integrative. When we develop these circuits we tend to live with equilibrium, moving through life as if travelling along a river with a sense of ease and balance that is flanked on either side by the banks of rigidity or of chaos. With my 92-year-old patient, he had withdrawn into rigidity in his non-integrated way of living; with others, chaotic intrusions of emotion and memory may often impair their living a life of inner peace and of interpersonal closeness when integration is not a part of their lives. 

We'll be exploring mindsight exercises that promote the growth of integrative fibers in your brain as we explore our whole-brain approach to parenting in this column, but here let me introduce you to a basic first step. One of the many domains of integration we'll be discussing is along the vertical plane, up and down your body. A wide array of research reveals that the more you can become aware of your body's sensations and stay present with them-not running from them-the more compassion you'll be able to develop for yourself, and for others. And so here we'll just begin with the simplest of techniques, one that is widespread across our human family, which enables us to develop a foundation in body awareness.  I invite you this month to try and just take a few moments, say five minutes in the morning or evening, to just sense your breath. This can be achieved by letting the sensation of the movement of your abdomen in and out, the rising and falling of your chest, the gentle sensation of air at your nostrils, or just the sense of the whole body breathing fill your awareness. This simple act of breath-awareness brings the bodily sensations of breathing into the higher brain centers that mediate awareness, so it is a really useful, accessible, and powerful form of "vertical integration." Now here is the basic instruction for this brief daily practice:  When your attention gets distracted from the breath (as it does for virtually everyone, which is just what our minds do as they wander around exploring other things to focus upon than the breath), lovingly and gently just return your focus to the sensations of breathing. In-breath, pause, out-breath, pause. Over and over, just focus on the sensations of the breath. Let these sensations fill your awareness, returning your attention again and again to this focus after distractions arise. 

While this simple mindfulness practice is just a starting place, one that was found in ancient and now in modern times, East and West, it is a powerful mental exercise for strengthening the focus of attention. Think of this like working out a muscle. You contract the muscle (like focusing on the breath), and then you relax the muscle (inevitably getting distracted). Refocusing the breath is like contracting the muscle again -- it builds the "muscle of the mind's focus" which is an important starting place to strengthen your capacity for mindsight. With a more stabilized lens, the mental camera that enables you to see the internal world is able to perceive with more stability and therefore give you an image that has more detail, richness, and depth. Breath-awareness is a practice that stabilizes mindsight's lens, enabling you to begin the important journey of activating and reinforcing the neural circuits that will allow you to develop mindsight skills to see the inner world more fully.  Amazingly, research reveals how this capacity for knowing your internal world goes along with you also having security of attachment, deeper self-understanding, and even neural integration. Not bad as a starting goal! A simple exercise, yes, but powerful and, as you may come to see, quite challenging! My suggestion is just try to be open to whatever the experience is...and try to be kind to yourself, or, at a minimum, notice when you are judging yourself critically for not focusing well enough!  Next month we'll elaborate on a further exercise, and explore which specific areas of the brain are involved in helping you to strengthen mindsight in your life. 

Dan is the author of Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation and The Developing Mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are, and co-author of Parenting from the Inside Out: How a deeper self-understanding can help you raise children who thrive. 



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