A Mother's Day Reflection

Dr. Daniel J. Siegel
May 19, 2010

"Where do we come from?" my four-year old daughter asked me years ago. This common question emerges as children's brains mature and they wonder about their place in the world. Naturally we do all "come from" mothers. Sperm and egg unite (yes, men have an important role too), but our months in the womb and the nurturance we usually begin with in this airborne journey are all about Mom. And why not share our feelings -- of appreciation and gratitude, for our lasting connection and commitment -- with our actual mother, or the memory of a mother who brought us into this world? As a father, I'm up for the opportunity to share these deep sentiments with my own Mom, with my kids' Mom, and with the foreign exchange student from Japan living with us this year whose Mom is on the other side of the planet. Next month we can reflect on fathers. 

As a scientist trained in the research field called "attachment," I also know that "where we come from" is more than just the donation of set of genes and the provision of a nine-month journey in the womb.  We are also shaped by the experiences our mothers (and fathers and other attachment figures in our life) provide for us. These experiences shape the very structure of our brain as its vital regulatory circuits develop in the earliest years of life. Early experiences do matter. As a clinical psychiatrist, I also know that these early experiences can have lasting and deeply powerful organizing (or disorganizing) impacts on how we come to live our lives. I've tried my best as a parent to draw on these scientific and clinical insights to work closely with my wife as we've been raising our children "well." Well means to help our children feel comfortable in their own skin, to feel good about themselves and have compassionate connections with others, to have the courage to explore their passions and proclivities, and to have resilience to face life's limitations and stresses with balance and strength. Hopefully they'll find a way to not only enjoy and finding meaning in this journey of life, but also to find a way to harness their interests to make this world a better place to live. In this complex and ever-changing global society, offering children this secure base from which to start the journey is vitally important.

The science of attachment reveals that how we as parents are "tuned-in" to the internal state of the child is an essential interactive element in this early relationship that helps kids thrive in these vital ways. Yet research reveals that about a third of the general population is not offered such security with their primary caregivers. Even though most of us do "the best we can" and most parents have their children's best interest in mind, this third of all parents suggests that their own history of non-optimal attachment-of having non-attuned caregiving as their early set of experiences-is being passed on to their own children. This is how insecure attachment gets passed down the generations.

Not having seen much of this important attunement between my professors and their patients (or with us as students) when I was in medical school, I could see first hand how relationships that lacked such sensitive and compassionate care were filled with tension and lack of connection.  Yet while in college the suicide prevention phone service I was trained to work on taught us how empathic communication can, literally, save a life.  Later research would clearly reveal that without such empathy, patients did not do so well. And without such empathy, kids adapt as best they can but research shows they tend to not thrive. Tuning in to one another is essential for healthy relationships. To protect my own young mind from such callous role modeling in professional training, I needed to name this ability-or lack of it-and came up with the term "mindsight" to identify this capacity to see the inner world and respond sensitively to it. Mindsight is the human ability to be open to what we can sense in our own inner lives and in the inner worlds of others. Mindsight also helps us move our lives toward health.  Without mindsight, my professors could not sense the meaning of an illness for their patients-or to sense the struggles we as students were experiencing trying to learn the art of healing, especially in that mindsight-less setting. Without mindsight, human behavior is perceived without the inner feelings and meanings of our mental lives.  Later when I became trained in the science of parent-child attachment relationships, it became clear that mindsight might be at the heart of a parent's abilities that create what is called "secure" attachment. It is this security of relationship that research has now demonstrated promotes the development of resilience in children.

The sensitivity of the caregiver to the child's signals is crucial for promoting secure attachment. Parents with mindsight are able to tune in to the facial expressions, vocalizations, gestures, posture, and timing and intensity of their child's responses. These non-verbal signals reveal the child's inner state of alertness, readiness to engage, moments of needing to disconnect, and states of distress. Security emerges when parents focus in on these internal states-not just on the child's external behavior. The core feature of parenting is for the caregiver to soothe distress and to amplify the positive experience of joy. These shared states lead to a deep sense of both comfort and connection. This is also how we learn to go from being just a "me" to feeling connected as a "we." Parents with mindsight can accurately perceive the child's important signals and make sense of the inner world that these signals reveal. Two minds become linked with such empathic communication. 

Parents of securely attached kids also know when an inevitable rupture has occurred in such attunements and make a repair to reestablish their connection. We all need to remember this: There is no such thing as perfect parenting. We do the best we can and try to remain open when we've messed up. In my own books when I've written about these ruptures as examples of the parental brain not working well and have asked my kids' permission to make these public in book-form, they've said that it is fine with them but these stories make me look like "a jerk." Well said. And, I hope, well-repaired.

Mindsight helps us rupture repairs after they've occurred and even to reduce their happening and their negative effects. The great news is that this vital skill of mindsight is something that can be learned throughout the lifespan. And did you know that the best research measure that predicts a child's security of attachment is the parents' ability to perceive their own inner world and to make sense of their own childhood experiences and how they've impacted their development? The instrument that reveals this "making-sense" process is called the Adult Attachment Interview. When I was first trained to use this fascinating narrative tool, I was also working as a psychotherapist back in 1990, the very beginning of the Decade of the Brain. I was driven to try to understand why parents who made sense of memories of even horrible child attachment experiences in their early life were proven in research studies to have relationships with their own children that were secure and their children did well. Yet if parents with similar painful recollections and had not reflected inwardly and made sense of these events, unfortunately their children would suffer and have insecure attachments and compromises to their development.  What might have been going on in the brain of the parent who effectively stopped the cross-generational passage of unhealthy attachment by having the courage to make sense of his or her own life history?

In the field in which I work -- an interdisciplinary way of knowing called Interpersonal Neurobiology -- we have come to examine this question by seeing how the brain can move from such unresolved traumatic states toward resolution by creating new linkages among various neural circuits that before were disconnected. In other words, when we make sense of our lives we actually are changing the structure of our brain! This process of connecting separate areas on one another in is called integration. A range of sciences suggests that integration leads to harmonious functioning, a flexibility and resilience that we propose is at the heart of health-in our minds, in our bodies, and in our relationships. Without integration, we are prone to being stuck in rigid, inflexible states or tend toward states of chaotic intrusions of memory, feeling, or thought. Rigidity and chaos are the two extremes away from the harmony of integration. Because the brain remains open to change across the lifespan, an individual can use the focus of his or her attention to promote new states of integration at any age. When we cultivate the ability to have mindsight, we can use the focus of our awareness on the inner world of feelings, memories, and thoughts to actually integrate circuits in the brain. That's what we do when we make sense of our lives, from the inside out.  I've worked with individuals even in their nineties who, with the proper focus of their attention, could learn to integrate their brains and have more fulfilling relationships-with others, and with themselves. What emerges from this new integration is a sense of connection and of joy.  It is never too late to make sense of your life!

For the third of us with insecure attachment histories that may persist throughout the lifespan, we may find it challenging to live fully in the present. Yet we now know that we can free ourselves to live a fulfilling and resilient life! If we've had or continue to have an insecure relationship with our mothers or fathers, this would be a great moment to begin the process of inner reflection to move toward security within ourselves now.  And whether your mother is living or not, it is never too late to integrate your life by both making sense inwardly, and cultivating rewarding connections with others now. If we first take the opportunity to look inwardly and integrate our own life histories, we can offer gestures of gratitude -- and perhaps forgiveness if this seems appropriate at this moment -- to the woman in whose womb we came into this world. We can take the reigns of making a reconnection if a disruption exists in a relationship with our parents. Science now affirms what courageous people have implicitly known: we are neurologically capable of freeing our selves from the prisons of the past and creating the fulfilling life we were born to live.

This is an extended version of an article from "This Emotional Life" in the Huffington Post, May 2010.


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