Here is the full text of neuroscientist Daniel J. Siegel’s talk: Are we our mind? at TEDxPrague 2013 conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Are we our mind by Dan Siegel at TEDxPrague 2013
Thank you. Ahoy, Praho. How are you?
It’s wonderful to be here, and I want to thank all of the organizers and all of you for inviting me to come and to talk to you about well-being and making bridges across disciplines.
As you’ve heard, there’s a background of many different approaches. Today you’ve heard from artists, you’ve heard from people who are really trying to make the world a better place, trying to find meaning in life.
When we think about well-being in life, I want to introduce you to one idea, and we’ll explore if that idea has relevance for you. And that’s the idea called integration.
And integration is a word we use to describe how different elements can be brought together in a functional way, so that you can create harmony in your life.
Integration is an amazing concept that has implications for what we do as a society, and it even has implications for what we do inside of our own reflective inner life.
So let me share with you a story about how this notion of well-being and integration first came about. And then I’m going to ask you to reflect in your own life on some aspects of integration.
For me, when I was in college, I was very interested in how life created itself, and I was studying the fish ‘salmon’ that could move from fresh water, where it hatched, to salt water, where it could live most of its life.
And I was very interested in knowing how could a salmon survive that change from fresh water to salt water, which is an extremely big change in its life.
So we went searching for the enzyme, the molecule that could allow the salmon to do that. And during the daytime, when I was trying to find that enzyme, I was also being trained to work in the evening on a suicide prevention service.
And I know here in Prague, like in many cities, you have had a number of suicides going on on the local bridge, as we had had, too, in Southern California and other areas.
And what struck me about suicide was that someone had reached such a point of pain in their life, such a point of isolation, that they would make a decision and carry out an act to end their life. And what was going on when that was the opposite of well-being?
So, in the evening I was working on a phone service, and what we learned was that the way you communicated as a worker on the phone line about the emotions of another human being could actually make the difference between life and death.
So, in the evenings I was learning that emotions had something to do with life and death. And during the day I was learning that enzymes had something to do with life or death.
The thing that really, really bugged me was: could you find something in common between communication about emotions — the feelings we have, the inner subjective life, the thing that gives us hope, the thing that gives us vitality in life — and also the molecules that kept us alive?
In the intervening years of going from being a biochemistry undergraduate student to a medical student, to entering in pediatrics and psychiatry, and then doing research, what became amazing was in the patients I was seeing, we, at that time, in the field of mental health, were struggling with this tension that was the same thing that had come out in college:
Was the human mind just something that came from the way molecules were interacting in the brain?
Were our lives just about enzymes? Or was there something real about emotions?
What was amazing was that for many people the inner life of emotions was everything, but for many of my teachers, they didn’t even know that we had emotions as students, or that their patients had emotions. And you’d find people who somehow didn’t see that other people had emotions.
I don’t know if you’ve ever met anyone like that, but if you have, what does it feel like inside of you when someone doesn’t recognize that you have an inner core, an inner subjective center of your narrative self?
If they ignore that? What does that feel like for you? Does it feel good? Or does it feel bad?
It feels bad.
And there’s something very disconnecting when another human being doesn’t see that you have differentiated self, that you have your own internal sense of being.
So what struck me when I became a psychiatrist was there was something about that, that when we could honor the differences between you and me in a relationship, that something very special happened. And when we produced linkages, compassionate communication, something almost magical happened: vitality emerged, harmony emerged, a sense of well-being in a relationship seemed to come when we would honor differences and promote linkages in the form of compassionate communication.
What was amazing about that was: in my work with enzymes, enzymes did a similar kind of thing. They took different elements of what was going on in the cell, and could coordinate and balance the different elements of the cellular system to allow the organism to reproduce, to grow, to develop, to adapt.
And that this honoring differences and promoting linkages within molecules, which we call integration, seemed to be identical to the process that happened in relationships.
At that time, what I wanted to know was: if this honoring of differences and promoting linkages was the basis of health, and the word we use for that is integration, what could science tell us? What could everyday living tell us? What could jokes tell us? What could creativity tell us? What could art tell us about the centrality of integration?
So it turns out that when you look at the mathematics of integration, an amazing thing happens. Have you ever walked along the bank of a river? Any of you ever do that?
Yeah. You noticed how the river flows in a certain way, and it has one bank on one side, and then you have the other side. And you can go on either side of the river, or go down the river.
Well, it turns out that the integration is like a river. Integration is where there’s a sense of harmony that’s flexible, and adaptive, and full of vitality.
But when you don’t link differentiated parts, when you don’t have integration, it turns out that the science of integration from mathematics says, “You’re going to go on one of two banks,” as if you’re leaving the river of harmony.