OK. Now, define the mind. Not as easy, eh?! You may be surprised to find that there is no single, agreed upon definition of the mind. The psychiatric, mental health and medical professions each have their own functional definitions. Equally surprising to me is that, by default, a healthy mind is generally thought of as one with the absence of any symptoms of mental illness. Really? I would hope it can get better than that.
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 depict optimal mental health. He developed this into the field of study which has become known as interpersonal neurobiology. Interpersonal neurobiology weaves together research from many disparate fields to form a framework of mental health based on the commonalities.
He coined the term “mindsight” to describe the human capacity to perceive the mind of the self and others. On his website, Siegel writes:
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 is a common belief that the mind is the activity of the brain. He proposes that this is only one part of it. On the Triangle of Well-Being, each point of the triangle is an essential component to mental health. 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 which, then, gives them meaning and responds by releasing neurochemicals and dispatching electrical signals which, in turn, regulate the body, control movement and influence emotions.
A second point on the Triangle of Well-Being is relationships which are the means by which information and energy are shared. An integral part of the mind is comprised of the relational process of energy and information flowing between and among people. This happens through the spoken or written word. In person, this also happens through eye contact, facial expression, body language, posture and gesture. In his book, Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, he 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, he writes:
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 while modifying it by giving it characteristics and patterns.
Because of neuroplasticity, which is the capacity of the brain to create new neural connections and grow new neurons in response to thoughts and experience, each point on the triangle influences the others, and the flow of energy and information along this 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.
We all can develop mindsight through mindfulness practices. Developing mindsight, on a personal level, 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 take advantage of this information to promote more compassionate, kind, resilient, emotionally intelligent, and mentally healthy individuals.
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