What Is the Mind, and How Do We Cultivate a Healthy One?

What is the mind? Have you ever tried to define it? For 30 years, Dr. Dan Siegel, who is a trained psychiatrist, has contemplated this question.

Sure, everyone has a mind, and there are millions of people in the world whose careers (mine included) are based around helping people to create a healthy mind. How can we do this, if we have no idea what the mind is?

Dr. Siegel surveyed thousands of mental health professionals including therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors on this question. More than 95 percent of the mental health professionals surveyed responded that they never received a lecture, had a discussion, or received any education on the concept of "the mind".

He dove into mathematics, anthropology, neuroscience to movement therapy, psychotherapy, physics, medicine and psychiatry to find an answer. He analyzed the unifying principles across these disciplines. What he found was this:

1. Every human being has a mind.
2. The mind includes anything you can be subjectively aware of such as thoughts, emotions, memories, and consciousness.
3. The mind also is responsible for information processing, AKA reason and problem solving.

So altogether the mind is made up of consciousness, subjective experience, and information processing.

From his study and application of the sciences and humanities to the mind, Dr. Siegel created the field of interpersonal neurobiology (which is not as complex as it sounds). Let’s break it down:

  • Inter-– the between us of things

  • Personal- the subjective experience

  • Neurobiology- anchored in science, but not the same as neuroscience or social neuroscience.

Our mind is a complex system, and a complex system has three characteristics:

  1. It is open to influences from outside of itself.

  2. It is capable of being chaotic.

  3. It is nonlinear, making it impossible to predict how small changes will impact it.

The brain processes and transmits information through small electrical impulses. Our brains transmit information received from our bodies by way of these electoral impulses. Energy flows within us, yet it also flows between us as we react to one another.

Complex systems have emergent properties, or properties that occur from the interaction of the parts of the system. The mind is the self-organizing emergent property of a complex system that arises from our whole body, not just our brain. The video below is an amazing example of emergent properties in a flock of starlings. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The mind regulates energy within us and between us, so how do we opt for more organization?

Probability theory states that when a complex system is not optimizing self-organization it tends to move to chaos, rigidity, or both.

By definition, all mental health symptoms or syndromes in the DSM can be interpreted as either chaos or rigidity. Therefore, mental health is defined by how integrated a person’s brain is.

Siegel postulates that people who have organic brain disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or obsessive-compulsive disorder lack integration in their brains.

He suggests that trauma, such as childhood abuse or neglect often impairs integration in a child’s brain.

If integration defines mental health, how do we integrate our brains for optimal health?

A healthy mind is a mind that regulates energy information flow in a way that both differentiates and links parts of us within ourselves and with other people.

A brain that is integrated and well organized has the following features:

  1. Flexibility

  2. Adaptive

  3. Coherent or Resilient

  4. Energizing

  5. Stable

What are areas in your life that feel chaotic or overly rigid? We all have parts that are one or both of these things. In my life, I can be overly rigid in my personal routines, such as exercising. When I notice myself becoming agitated or anxious because I am unable to exercise, I know that my I am being overly rigid.

We can focus attention and energy on these areas to promote integration, thus promoting mental health.

Where attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connection grows. Here’s how we can foster healthy neural connection within our own lives:

  1. Detect chaos or rigidity and where integration is blocked.

  2. Determine how chaos or rigidity prevent integration.

  3. Where does differentiation need to occur and where does linkage need to be cultivated?

  4. Focus attention on those areas. This is how you change the structure of the brain.

  5. Use relationship to drive energy between the therapist and the client.

Our minds are like giant Rube Goldberg machines, operating from millions of complex chain reactions to do the simplest of tasks. Don't know what a Rube Goldberg machine is? Take a look below- you'll be amazed.

We can be taught how to monitor and modify our energy flow.

Monitoring allows us to see with more depth and focus. We must first detect where differentiation has not occurred either within us or between us and another person. We modify our energy by promoting linkage.

When we differentiate the components of the system we make them special or unique, we honor the differences between the parts of ourselves, and between one another.

The Human Connectome Project is a huge meta-analysis of positive traits in peoples lives and and how utilization of different brain areas are linked to those positive traits.

The number one characteristic that predicted positive traits in a person's life was their brain's level of integration.

Integration is the honoring of differences and promotion of linkages. This principle not only is clear in relationships between people, but it is also true within our own bodies. Our nervous system, for example, is composed of various parts that all serve a purpose. The cerebellum has a different role than the limbic system, yet they work together to allow us to stay balanced and emotionally regulated.

Mindful practices such as yoga, meditation, tai chi, quigong, and centering prayer are some of the best ways to create integration within our own bodies and to expand our empathy for others, thus increasing external integration.

Practicing mindfulness allows us to become more aware of our thought patterns. We can start to separate ourselves from our thoughts, and realize that thoughts are mental processes (energy flow) and not concrete truths. By pausing to examine our subjective experience, we are able to think through our response, rather than simply reacting.

If you are interested in learning more about Dr. Siegel's work or interpersonal neurobiology check out the Mindsight Institute.

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