The Primal Mind

Exploring the primal roots of mental health

Our selves are created by our social experiences

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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.

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The Our selves are created by our social experiences by The Primal Mind, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada License.

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