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.
And one bank is the bank of chaos, where things are out of control, unpredictable, flooding you, and the other bank is the bank of rigidity.
When I read that, it blew my mind because every patient, every person I was seeing for psychotherapy, in my experience, was coming in from either chaos, or rigidity, or both.
If someone had been traumatized, for example, they’d be rigidly avoiding the experiences that they had had. Or in contrast, the same person would also be flooded with feelings, and flooded with images, and flooded with memories of the traumatic event.
That would be an example of chaos or rigidity.
Or if someone had a difficulty not related to a trauma, but related perhaps to their genes, and they had a disorder like, for example, manic-depressive illness, also called bipolar disorder, they could be shut down in depression, which would be the rigidity part, or they’d be flooded with mania — thoughts intruding, behaviors intruding, emotions intruding.
And then I turned to the psychiatric Bible. It was called “The diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders”, that we’ve now been using for a third of a century.
And it turns out that every symptom of every single syndrome in that entire book can be understood as either chaos or rigidity.
So then the question came up: could it be that well-being is integration, and impairments to mental well-being — we call that mental health — when you have an impairment, it’s impairments to integration, and so you become either chaotic or rigid.
And so what happened in the last 12 years is we now have evidence to support that perspective. Then, in fact, the major psychiatric disorders, whether they’re caused by genes, or toxins, or other elements in the environment, not from experience, these disorders, like manic depressive illness, or schizophrenia, or autism, they all are examples in the brain where you aren’t differentiating areas, or you’re not linking those areas that are differentiating. So, it’s an impairment to integration.
And even in the disorder of people who are abused, you’ve got this situation. An incredible opportunity then became: could we take a science that you may have heard about, called neuroplasticity, the division of neuroscience that says you can actually change your brain throughout your entire lifetime? Not just during the early years, during childhood and beyond, but throughout your lifetime.
And if that were true, could you actually create an approach that helped people integrate their brains? Could you actually change the structure of the brain?
And it turns out that we’re now getting evidence that you can do that. And there are number of approaches to show that you can stream energy and information, the physical aspect of life, where you actually think a certain thought, or focus your attention. What you’re basically doing is streaming energy and information through your brain. It’s basically a part of what neuroscience tells us the brain does.
And if you can do this in a way to actually get the brain to differentiate its parts, like the left side and the right side, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard Iain McGilchrist’s beautiful work on left-right brain differences that he’s summarized in his writings — but what you can find is you can actually find a way to differentiate the left from the right, and then link them.
So, you can take the linguistic and language-based logical ways of being that the left creates in tearing things down, and the way the right kind of pulls things together, seeing the context and the whole of everything. When you bring them together: creativity emerges.
And when we think about all of the different talks that you’ve heard before, that you’ll hear in this set, you can think about how does the creativity that comes from a person pursuing a passion, or an individual finding an artistic expression, or someone dealing with something as overwhelming as you’ll hear about, as the Holocaust.
How do you actually find a creative way of living that brings vitality and well-being?
What I’m going to suggest to you is that each of those are examples of creating integration in your life. One way we can approach this is in our individual work. And there are all sorts of studies now to show you can integrate the brain by doing something called mindfulness training.
You can integrate the brain by pursuing creative activities. When you see what Sir Ken Robinson, for example, does in his beautiful work on finding your element and seeing how creativity can inform schools. Creativity emerges from integration.
And so, what I’d like to leave you with is this incredible opportunity you have. Right now, think for a moment about times in your life when your life may have become rigid, shutdown, not moving.
Now, think about a time, at that moment where something in your life going on didn’t honor differences, like between you and someone else, or didn’t promote linkages between you and someone else.
Or even these things can be going on inside of you, a part of you really wants to be wild, going out and exploring things; another part of you wants to be domestic and stay at home. How do you actually honor those differences and promote linkages?
Think about the time when you were rigid, and maybe even it was a time when you also became chaotic, exploding in anger, or being really frustrated.
As you reflect on that, think about how, if you would introduce the idea of integration then, and now, from this day forward, if you introduce the idea of integration, how can you literally reflect on your life, either what’s going on inside of you, or between you and others, and then find a way to honor the differences going on inside you or between you, and then promote linkages.
What I want to urge you to consider is that if you do that, you’ll find you empower yourself to use all the science of the brain and all the science of the well-being to actually bring vitality to yourself. And not only will you make your life more vital.
But in the last 15 years of doing this kind of work with people, either individually, or in families, or in schools, and trying to bring this out into the communities, what’s been absolutely incredible was to realize when this process of integration that we create inside of ourselves and with others is made visible, the outcome of such a process is kindness and compassion.
And if you have an interest in not only bringing well-being into your life, but also creating more kindness and compassion toward yourself and bringing that to others, then following the path of honoring differences and promoting linkages, of developing integration in your life, will bring more kindness and compassion into your world and to the larger world in which we all live.
Thank you so much for your kind attention.
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