An Interview with Dr. Dan Siegel on his book
Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation
Stronger Families’ CEO, Noel Meador, talks with Dr. Dan Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine. He is the founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute. Dr. Siegel is a distinguished fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and author of Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation.
1. What is the mind?
Each of us has an inner experience called “subjectivity”—feelings, thoughts, and meanings; these make up the mind. Your brain and mind are two very different things: the brain refers to brain activity, whereas the mind refers to subjective experience. The mind also includes consciousness—or how you are aware of something—and information processing. For example, if you experience a traumatic event, it affects the way the brain processes certain aspects of memory. However, if you understand the ways in which trauma can affect memory, it improves your ability to cope and even heal from the trauma.
Another aspect of the mind is what Dr. Siegel calls “mindsight.” While attending medical school, he noticed that many of his professors focused on a patient’s physical body and not on his feelings, memories, etc. He discovered that when doctors offered empathic comments and had insight into their own minds, their patients overall did better. Mindsight is defined by insight into yourself, empathy for the mental experience of someone else, and integration, or how separate aspects of something are linked together. An example of integration is a choir: each singer is differentiated but when they are integrated together, they create harmony.
2. What are the two layers of memory?
The two layers of memory are implicit memory and explicit memory. Implicit memory includes what you feel inside your body, your thoughts and emotions, and your five senses—sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Implicit memories are the first layer of memory, so your brain can store them and bring them back to the forefront when you are reminded of an experience.
Explicit memories are stored and processed in the hippocampus, which attempts to assemble the pieces of your implicit memories like a jigsaw puzzle. Some of your explicit memories are processed as factual memories, and others are processed as autobiographical memories, which are dominated by your feelings. Explicit memories help you tell the story of what happened during a traumatic event.
3. How can a non-medical professional help someone suffering from PTSD?
Begin with integration as your goal. When a person suffering from PTSD becomes flooded with an emotion, he needs to develop the strength, or tool, to be able to become less chaotic and rigid and more harmonious. Encourage the person suffering from PTSD to journal about their experiences; this practice teaches them to OWN—observe, witness, and narrate—their experiences and begin to create factual and biographical memories. Also, those suffering with PTSD need to learn self-compassion, or how to forgive themselves for the “crimes” they believe they have committed.
4. What are the five regions of information flow?
The five regions of information flow are the following:
a. The social world—how you deal with your relationships
b. The body—signals from your heart, lungs, etc.
c. The brain stem—the origin of fight, flight, freeze, and faint responses
d. The limbic area—where implicit and explicit memories are processed
e. The cortex—thinking and planning
For those suffering from PTSD, something as small as missing a meal or not getting a good night’s sleep can throw off the balance of these five regions and, subsequently, cause the person to lose control.
5. Can the brain be rewired after a traumatic event?
Mindfulness meditation grows integrative fibers in your brain and promotes interconnectedness across all areas of the brain. Also, it grows prefrontal fibers that help regulate emotion and connects the right and left parts of the brain. Good sleep, exercise, a balanced diet, and healthy relationships all promote neuroplasticity, or the ability of your brain to stretch.
Audience question: “My husband returned from Afghanistan two months ago. He is so angry and irritable toward me at all times, but whenever I mention that he or we should go talk to a professional, he gets really mad and shuts me down. I know I can’t force him to get help, but what can I do to encourage him or help him?”
Your husband may be feeling that he is not strong enough or courageous enough to do something on his own. What he needs to understand is that acknowledging his vulnerabilities is an act of courage. It takes courage to go from thinking, “I’ve been in Afghanistan and witnessed or committed horrible acts, so I’m irritable and angry now,” to thinking, “I’m a human being, I acknowledge my humanity, and I know that I need to get support.” Encourage your husband to acknowledge his feelings and to see support and healing as signs of strength and humanity rather than weakness.
Audience question: “My wife has been really moody and reclusive lately. She has received treatment, both medicine and counseling, for depression, but it doesn’t seem to be working this time. Are there any at-home exercises that she can do to help get her back to her normal self?”
Dr. Siegel recommends a workbook called The Mindful Way through Depression Workbook by Segal, Williams, and Teasdale. Make sure your wife is not self-injurious or suicidal and find a solid therapist who is open to changing strategies. That’s the kind of therapist you want.
Audience question: “It’s difficult for me to ascertain whether or not my nine-year-old is struggling with depression, or if it’s just normal anxiety. He changed schools, and was expressively excited about it for the first couple of months, but he has had daily stomach pain and seemed glum for the past month. Should I get him professional help? His pediatrician cannot find a health source of his stomach pain, and his grandmother says it will take just time for him to adjust. I want to help him however I can.”
First, have your son tested to rule out any possible medical explanation for the stomach pain, such as a gluten intolerance or sensitivity to antibiotics. Next, rule out any sensory issues, like needing glasses to read. After that, rule out the possibility of him being harassed or bullied at school. All of those are possible sources of his stomach aches and change in mood.
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