Rewiring our Brain in a Healthy Way: Daniel J. Siegel at TEDxBlue (Transcript)

Following is the full transcript of neurobiologist Dr. Daniel J. Siegel’s TEDx Talk: Rewiring our Brain in a Healthy Way at TEDxBlue conference. This event occurred on October 18, 2009 in New York. To learn more about the speaker, read the full bio here.

Dr. Daniel J. Siegel – Neurobiologist and Director of the MindSight institute

Hello everyone, how are you?

First, I’d like to thank Matt for that lovely introduction and to thank the Blue Man School people and everyone associated with Blue Man, and to thank Chris Anderson and TED for really allowing us to have this day together to talk about the potential of schools.

So with the notion of Ideas Worth Spreading, I am actually going to only present one idea to you – that we have to totally revamp education. And that idea is to look at the basic “R”s of education: reading, writing, arithmetic, and consider that in addition to those important skills, we need to offer three more Rs: The “R” of reflection, relationships, and resilience.

What I am going to do is share with you a little story about education and then go with you through these steps by which these new “R”s can become a part of education, not only here in New York, but everywhere, where it’s a different way of thinking about things. Like in any talk, you want to get to know a little bit about the person speaking, so I’ll just talk you about this kid, and the idea is that we all start out as this kid, who is exposed to certain things, not only in a family life, but if they go to school, early on in life, those experiences we have actually shape the brain.

So our genes, of course, affect the connections in the brain, but the experiences we have shape this brain. So if we’re just given reading, writing and arithmetic as the basic things that then get elaborated over and over and over again, it’s going to shape the brain in a certain fashion.

And what I want to suggest to you is that the brain has two very different sets of circuits. One is a circuit about the physical world, and the other is a set of circuits about the world of the mind. And these are extremely different. And when we see the mind, the internal life of ourselves and of others, through insight and empathy, that can be called “Mindsight.” That’s what mindsight is. And there’s a power behind developing these circuits that basically never happens in schools. It’s an unbelievable opportunity to transform not only a child’s life, and a family’s life, and a community’s life, but even to awaken people to the fact that we’re all interconnected. That’s what mindsight offers – that the brain, in fact, left to its own devices in modern culture, comes up with what Einstein called “an optical delusion of our separateness.”

An optical delusion, right? And yet if we get this reflection into the internal world going, we can dissolve that delusion. So I’ll just give you a little example from my own life, going through preschool, learning the basics of sharing toys, and sharing milk, and going through everything we do in kindergarten, and then something strange happens, of course: reading, writing, arithmetic take over, and all those important interpersonal skills go away.

Now, what happened to me is in middle school I continued, in high school I continued. I was fascinated with life, so I studied biology, worked actually at a suicide prevention service in college. I was really interested in not only molecules, but in the mind, and I thought a good way to combine that would be … what? To go to medical school, right? Not.

So I went to medical school, and I started asking my patients the oddest things. I would ask them how they felt. I would ask them what their life story was. And when I would come back and tell my professors about this, they would yell at me that I was doing a terrible thing. They would say – one of them said, “Daniel.”

And I thought, “Yes?”

And she said, “Do you want to be a psychiatrist?” Which is a dirty word in medical school.

I said, “I don’t know, I never thought about being a psychiatrist.”

She cocked her head the other way. She said, “Daniel.”

I said “Yes?”

“Is your father a psychiatrist?”

And I said, “No, he’s an engineer.” And I said, “Why?”

And she goes, “These stories you’re asking about, these feelings you’re asking about, that’s not what doctors do.” Then she said this, and I will never forget it: “Doctors stick to the physical.”

Now, I didn’t know it then, but that’s exactly the circuitry of the physical world. I ultimately ended up dropping out of school because I didn’t actually want to become that kind of a doctor, went around, and I had studied this enzyme that changes in salmon so that they could turn from fresh water to salt water fish, and I was really excited about that. Anyway, I thought I’d become a salmon fisherman, and I actually went and was in Canada, I went all the way west – “Go West, young man.”

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