by Rachel Hott, PhD
Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation By Daniel J. Siegel, 2010, Bantam Books, New York
In December 2009 I attended the Evolutionary Psychotherapy conference in California where I saw Dr. Daniel J. Siegel present I found his presentation very interesting as he is described the brain’s role in mental health. He had a wonderful way of combining practical suggestions as he described the complex understanding of the brain. He has written several books on this topic, and his most recent book, Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, is a book I would like to discuss.
After completing this book I wrote down several take away points that I can use with my clients and students. The points that I want to explore are; learning to do insight meditation, doing body scanning, understanding the relationship between the middle prefrontal cortex and amygdala, paying attention to the differences between the left and right hemispheres, working with couples, and helping people who have obsessions.
One of the benefits to creating some form of meditative practice is to learn to become an observer. When you train the brain to witness your thoughts, you are actually helping the prefrontal cortext to manage the emotional aspect of your life. One of the first tools that Siegel teaches his clients to do is a meditation he calls insight meditation. He uses a script, but basically he is helping people relax, observe their thoughts, and discover that their mind can pay attention to anything that is going on in their lives without getting caught up in their thoughts. He explains that the prefrontal middle cortex is where we “create representations of concepts such as time, a sense of self, and moral judgment…it creates links among…the cortex, limbic areas, and brainstem with the skull, and the internally distributed nervous system of the body proper.” (Siegle, P. 21-22). He also explains that by acting as a linking system the integration of the middle prefrontal cortex with the entire whole cortex and brainstem body promotes well being. The middle prefrontal functions are; body regulation, attuned communication, emotional balance, fear modulation, response flexibility, insight, empathy, morality, and intuition. These descriptions of well being are observed when individuals practice meditation and mindfulness. Plus these results, (except for intuition), are outcomes of secure parent-child relationships. (Siegle, p. 269). Therefore it is very important to be able to develop stimulate the middle prefrontal cortex linkage.
A way to stimulate the middle prefrontal cortex when someone is feeling depressed is to teach them to do some form of meditation so that they can have more control over their feelings. Specifically they want to control the amygdala, which is the emotional center of the brain that is over activated. When the client trains their mind in this focused way it will help them to feel more centered and ready to cope with their issues. It is not only the focusing that helps, but also the diaphragmatic breathing that occurs when teaching clients to do this meditative practice that also calms them.
In my private practice I teach clients to do self-hypnosis, which is similar to meditation, as a way towards an initial relaxation response. When meditating, the individual watches his thoughts. When doing hypnosis, in addition to watching thoughts, the client is given suggestions or gives himself suggestions to explore and create solutions for specific situations. So by stimulating the prefrontal middle cortex and easing the overactive emotional part, the amygdala, the clients becomes more receptive to identifying and accessing their inner resources.
There are many clients who rather than being ruled by their emotions are unable to feel connected to them at all and have an inability to express them. In this case Siegel suggests that it would be useful for them to become connected to their body and their feelings. He explains this by discussing the left and right hemispheres of the body. The left hemisphere is connected to logic, numbers, words, and linear thinking. The right hemisphere is related to spatial relations, creativity, feelings and sensations. So therefore the goal when working with someone who is split off from their feelings is to help them develop more of their right hemisphere, the area that is connected to feelings. He recommends starting with body scanning.
Body scanning is a process where you focus on your body. You slowly pay attention to each part of your body, whether you start from the head or from the feet, and begin to pay attention to any sessions, tension, emotions etc. For those of you who are very sensitive this will seem too simple, but for those of you who are typically logical and thinking types it will be a new discovery for your emotional life.
This can also be helpful when working with couples. Siegle created a practical example for the reader to experience. Imagine that someone is saying, “No,” several times in a loud volume. Contrast that with imagining that someone is saying, “Yes,” in an average volume. Pay attention to how your body fells in each scenario. Typically clients say that they feel tight as if a wall has been put up when they hear the word “no,” and they feel more open when they hear the word “yes.” This experiment immediately begins to teach clients about feelings in their body. For couples this is useful because a “no” is a reactive response and the “yes” is a receptive response. Siegel claims that in order for the couple to resolve issues they need to learn how to be in a receptive mode. Therefore, when each person becomes sensitive to their walls going up, the moment they are feeling the no, the reactivity, is the time for them to stop and take a break. They can actually ask for a time out, say that they feel their walls coming up, or find an easy way to separate from the situation momentarily. Once they calm down (calm the amygdala), they can come back and maintain the responsive position. Siegel says that love encapsulates three qualities; openness, acceptance and curiosity. When you are in a responsive state it is much easier to tap into these curiosity.
In reverse let’s say you are overly sensitive, and find that emotions overwhelm you. Then you want to stimulate the left hemisphere. One of the ways to do that is with the meditation or self-hypnosis. Another suggestion is to learn to name the feeling. When you properly name the feeling you are using language to articulate what is going on in your inner experience. I had first learned about “proper naming” from Stephen Gilligan in a training supervision. Dr. Siegel uses the phrase, “name it and tame it.” I think this is useful especially for the client who becomes overwhelmed by feelings.
In the NLP training classes and with my clients we often practice “reframing symptoms”. Siegel does something similarly with his patients who have obsessive thoughts. When we reframe we rename the symptom or behavior by identifying the positive aspect (positive intention) of the symptom or behavior. For example when a child has a tantrum it is often understood that the behavior is undesirable, but the communication of the behavior is that they need attention. With obsessing thoughts Siegel explains the brain to his clients. He says, “ I explain that this circuitry involves the fight-flight freeze system of the brainstem, the fear-producing amygdala of the limbic area, and the worrying and planning prefrontal cortex. The activation of the survival reflexes and the emotion of fear push our cortical areas to find danger-sometimes when a threat is truly there, and sometimes when the sense of danger is only our brain’s creation. Because this brain system checks for danger, I like to call it the checker.” (Siegel, p. 242).
Once Siegel explains the brain’s function he encourages the client to understand that the repeating thoughts are the result of an over active checker and that ultimately it wants to protect the individual. Once the client reframes the meaning of their thoughts then they have more control, and now the prefrontal cortex can be more engaged, and a balance will develop. He teaches the client to identify when the thoughts come up, name it the checker, and evaluate whether there is actually any reason to be protected. (Sometimes there is danger and this has to be a trusted response if an true emergency exists). It is not necessarily changing the thought, but developing a communication with the thought that will help the client have more control. For example he offers this dialogue, “ Checker: “Don’t get too close to the edge of that pool. They might jump out and grab you.”
Client: (says inside their own head), “Thank you, for you love and concern. I know you want to keep me safe, and I want to be safe, to. But your enthusiasm is too much, and it ‘s not necessary to keep me safe.” (Siegel, p. 247).
When I work with clients who have obsessive thoughts and/or compulsive behaviors this is a similar way in which I work as well. We often reframe the thought or behavior, find an alternative behavior that would satisfy the positive intention, and develop a constructive communication relationship with the part of us that is generating that symptom or behavior. Most recently one of my clients described his experience as welcoming a visitor, yet realizing that he was much bigger than the visitor, and thus could welcome the symptom, but also have control over him. Once again, the prefrontal cortex finding a way to assuage the amygdala.
I hope this review has been helpful. There is more information in the book than I discussed. The pieces that I have written about were most relevant to me for myself, my teaching and private practice.