Our selves are created by our social experiences

By Peter Prontzos

Your “self” is composed of three fundamental elements: your brain, your body, and your relations with other people. This insight was one of the central themes in the keynote talk given by Dr. Daniel Siegel at the conclusion of University of British Columbia’s fourth Brain Development and Learning conference.
Siegel was not being poetic or metaphorical. As he explained, your mind (“your consciousness, which includes your ‘heart’)…is shaped by both the connections we have with others and by the connections we have within the synaptic structures of our embodied nervous system.”

As he put it: “The mind is within you and between you.”

Not surprisingly, the most important influences are those experiences that we have in our earliest years – including in the womb.

His talk, entitled, “Interpersonal Neurobiology of the Developing Mind”, explored how a “healthy” mind functions and can be nurtured.

The definition of a healthy mind is one in which “energy and information flow” freely in its three aspects: in your brain, through your body, and also between people.

When childhood or other trauma interferes with this flow, “chaos and/or rigidity result”, both of which “are reflections of impaired relational or neural integration.”

Throughout his talk, Siegel, who teaches at UCLA, emphasized how our increasing understanding of interpersonal neurobiology can greatly improve our treatment of children – in the home, in school, and in society in general.

Children need to be seen, to feel safe, and to be soothed when they are distressed, in order for healthy attachment to develop.

Siegel also stressed the monumental importance of how experience can affect the functioning of our genes, turning them on and off. Moreover, these “epigenetic” changes can be passed on to our children and grandchildren – and perhaps even further.

One question that came up in several of the talks this weekend was: can therapeutic intervention heal the epigenetic damage caused by trauma? Like some other presenters, Siegel believes that this approach is very promising.

Siegel explained the concepts of “implicit” (unconscious) and “explicit” (conscious) memory, and how our ideas and feelings can be shaped by past memories of which we are not only unaware, but which nevertheless feel like they are in the present.

The second part of Siegel’s talk focused how complex systems, like the mind, are both embodied and relational. It can self-organize and self-regulate. He defined a healthy mind as one in which “optimal self-organization depends on the linkage of differentiated parts to create integration and harmony.” (Siegel even got the some of the audience singing on-stage as an example of these principles!)

The take-away point was that, both within the individual and in groups: “Integration creates kindness and compassion.”

Siegel went on to explain that we need “to apply science to make the world a better place.” For instance, we know that when people feel threatened, they readily divide others into “in-group and out-group”. This is a natural legacy of our evolutionary history. Siegel stressed how “we have to rise above the tendencies of the human mind” that are dangerous and which have led to so much unnecessary suffering.

Echoing the insight of Socrates, that, “the unexamined life is not worth living”, Siegel said that becoming more mindfully aware is necessary for both mental and social health.

Finally, we need to go beyond the excessive individualism of our culture to emphasize our shared lives.

The cultivation of our natural empathy is another critical step toward a more humane world.
Siegel’s two hour talk – without notes or powerpoint – was relaxed, humorous, and extremely informative.



By Peter G. Prontzos

Is hope a good thing? Many people think it is, but all depends….

It may help to remember the story of Pandora, the first woman and the one to whom the gods of Olympus gave a jar full of evils: old age, toil, insanity, greed, and so on. Pandora was warned not to open the jar, but her curiosity got the best of her, and when she lifted the lid, she unleashed those plagues on humankind. When she quickly closed the lid, only one evil remained: delusive hope.

Many who have interpreted the story of Pandora did not realize that even hope can be problematic – it all depends on the circumstances.

In The Optimism Bias, neuroscientist Tali Sharot explains that one of the unconscious biases that our brains produce is hope. She writes that the tendency to see the world through rose-tinted glasses evolved primarily because, “optimism may be so essential to our survival that it is hardwired into
our most complex organism, the brain.”

Her basic argument is straightforward: that while this distortion of
reality can be dangerous in some situations, it generally pays off in the long
run. As Sharot explains, this “illusion” has a tendency to lower stress and
anxiety while increasing one’s motivation to act, thereby improving the chances
of a positive outcome.

(She does not, however, accept the silly “secret” that one’s thoughts have the ultimate power to determine reality).

On the dark side, however, hope can be personally and socially a trap that leads to disaster.

The main problem is when hope is unrealistic, and that usually happens when it is an automatic – and usually unconscious – defense against painful feelings. As Arthur Janov and others have shown, we often cope with our traumas and fears, not by facing them, but by repressing them. This defense is very common in unhealthy relationships, when people don’t leave because they “hope” that – somehow – things will work out.

In the science fiction series “Dune”, the Bene Gesserit sisterhood use their, “Litany Against Fear” – a very Primal approach – to help focus their minds and calm themselves:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

Unrealistic hope can also prevent people from combating the many political and ecological threats that we face today, such as militarism, patriarchy, racism and the climate crisis. Derrick Jensen explained that:

Hope is what keeps us chained to the system, the conglomerate of people and ideas and ideals that is causing the destruction of the Earth.
To start, there is the false hope that suddenly somehow the system may inexplicably change. Or technology will save us. Or the Great Mother. Or beings from Alpha Centauri. Or Jesus Christ. Or Santa Claus. All of these false hopes lead to inaction, or at least to ineffectiveness.”

On the other hand, liberating oneself from false hopes is necessary to actually have any real hope of success. Jensen concludes that,

When you give up on hope, you turn away from fear. And when you quit relying on hope, and instead begin to protect the people, things, and places you love, you become very dangerous indeed to those in power. [https://orionmagazine.org/article/beyond-hope/]

In one very important sense, hope may also be irrelevant. Even if optimism is not “realistic” – given the terrible state of the world – people still need to organize for progressive change. Indeed, the more desperate a situation appears to be, the more urgency there is in creating a healthy resistance.

To cite just one powerful example: secret White House tape recordings of Richard Nixon show that he was ready to drop nuclear bombs on the Vietnamese, until it was explained to him that the reaction of the peace movement – and of other people in the U.S. and around the world – would make such a war crime politically disastrous for him.

So, while we can never be sure that any situation is truly hopeless, we can be sure that our inaction will lead to disaster.

Note: Here is a link to an up-to-date discussion of hope and the climate crisis.

The Guardian 21 September 2017

Climate optimism has been a disaster. We need a new language – desperately