It’s the three pounds of “convoluted mass of gray and white matter” in your head that “controls and coordinates all mental and physical actions.”
Now, define the mind. Not so easy, eh?!
You might be surprised to know that there’s no official, agreed-upon definition of the mind. The psychiatric, mental health, and medical professions each have their own working definitions. Equally surprising to me is that, by default, a healthy mind is typically thought of as one without any symptoms of mental illness.
Really? Is that as good as it gets? No. Not at all.
Science is confirming that we can change our brains by studying “above normal” populations, such as Buddhist monks, whose mental baselines are at levels most people only achieve briefly, if ever. What’s being learned from them is key to everyone raising their mental set point and hints at what’s possible for all of us.
As our understanding of neuroscience and mental health progresses, our definitions of these concepts need to evolve too. A relatively new field of study, called interpersonal neurobiology, weaves together the latest research from many related fields to form a redefined framework of mental health.
Optimal Mental Health: the Triangle of Well-Being
Dr. Daniel Siegel, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine, co-director of the UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center, executive director of the Mindsight Institute, and author of several books, teaches the concept of the Triangle of Well-Being to illustrate the mind and optimal mental health.
He coined the term “mindsight” to describe the human capacity to perceive the mind of the self and others. On his website, Siegel defines mindsight as:
It is a powerful lens through which we can understand our inner lives with more clarity, integrate the brain, and enhance our relationships with others. Mindsight is a kind of focused attention that allows us to see the internal workings of our own minds. It helps us get ourselves off of the autopilot of ingrained behaviors and habitual responses. It lets us ‘name and tame’ the emotions we are experiencing, rather than being overwhelmed by them.”
It’s a common belief that the mind is the activity of the brain. Siegel proposes that’s only one part of it. On the Triangle of Well-Being, each point of the triangle is an essential component of mental health.
The Brain and Nervous System
One point is the physical brain and nervous system which are the mechanisms by which energy and information flow throughout our beings. Our senses take in information from the environment. These become electrical signals which travel through the nervous system to the brain. Our brains then give them meaning and respond by releasing neurochemicals and dispatching electrical signals regulating the body, controlling movement and influencing emotions.
A second point on the Triangle of Well-Being is relationships. In this model, relationships are the means by which information and energy are shared. The exchange between and among people shapes their minds. This could be parents, friends, schools, churches or any other influence. The transfer can happen through the spoken or written word. When in-person, the exchange also takes place through eye contact, facial expression, body language, posture, and gesture.
In his book, Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, Siegel writes:
Our minds are created within relationships – including the one that we have with ourselves… Each of us has a unique mind: unique thoughts, feelings, perceptions, memories, beliefs, and attitudes, and a unique set of regulatory patterns. These patterns shape the flow of energy and information inside us, and we share them with other minds.”
The third point on the triangle is the mind which is the process that regulates this flow of information and energy. In Mindsight, Siegel elaborates:
Consider the act of driving. To drive or ‘regulate’ a car, you must both be aware of its motion and its position in space and also be able to influence how it moves. If you have your hands on the wheel but your eyes are shut (or focused on your text message), you can make the car move, but you are not driving it – because driving it means regulating the car’s movement, its flow across time. If you have your eyes open but you’re sitting in the backseat, you can monitor the movement of the car (and make comments, like one particular relative I know), but you can’t actually modify its motion yourself. (No matter how hard you try. Sorry.)”
The mind observes and monitors the flow of energy and information across time. It also modifies it by adding characteristics and patterns.
The Role of Neuroplasticity in the Mind
Because of neuroplasticity, which is the capacity of the brain to create new neural connections and grow new neurons throughout life in response to thoughts and experiences, each point on the triangle influences the others. The flow of energy and information along the triangle goes in all directions.
- The mind can change the structure of the brain and relationships.
- The brain can change the structure of the mind and relationships.
- Relationships can change the mind and the brain.
Mindsight integrates the different parts of the system to cultivate well-being or mental health. On his website, Siegel explains that:
The ultimate outcome of integration is harmony. The absence of integration leads to chaos and rigidity—a finding that enables us to re-envision our understanding of mental disorders and how we can work together in the fields of mental health, education, and other disciplines, to create a healthier, more integrated world.”
Developing Mindsight through Mindfulness
We all can develop mindsight through practicing mindfulness. Very simply, mindfulness is a way of thinking. It’s training your brain to pay attention and focus. It’s learning to direct your attention to what is happening in your experience moment by moment. This includes your mind, body, and environment.
Mindfulness is both a state of mind and a personal quality that you develop through practice. Over time, mindfulness becomes a way of being and part of the foundation of who you are. As indicated above, repetitively and consistently thinking and behaving mindfully alters the flow of energy and each point on the Triangle of Well-Being.
Developing mindsight can lead to a better functioning brain, a healthier mind, and a happier, more vibrant, fulfilling life with enriched, more satisfying relationships. Mental health practitioners, educators, and parents can employ this newer model of mental health, the mind, and the brain to promote more compassionate, kind, resilient, emotionally intelligent, and mentally healthy individuals.