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

Daniel J Siegel

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.

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.”

I went to the western coast of Vancouver Island. And there I got a ride with someone, and I said, you know, “Thanks for the ride,” he said, “What’s your story?”

“I dropped out of Harvard Medical School.”

“What are you going to do now?”

I said, “I’m going to become a salmon fisherman.”

He said, “Really?”

I said, “Yeah.”

He goes, “I am a salmon fisherman, and it’s amazing, I’m dropping out, and I’m going to become a psychologist.” You know?

And I said, “Really? Why?” And he told me the whole life, and I said, “Okay, that’s maybe not for me.” So, I had always wanted to be a dancer, I had danced in college, and so I said maybe I’d be a choreographer, and I started doing that kind of thing, and I realized I loved how dance felt, and I had, like, no interest in how dance appeared, so I thought if I was a choreographer, I’d probably starve to death. So I ended up going back to school, but I was always interested in this question of how could you have really smart professors, really smart, concerned professors, who were blind to the mind? How was that possible? You know, how could we do that?

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Later on I’d work for the organization that collected 55,000 Holocaust survivors’ stories to document that, and I was their consultant, and, you know, I went to Poland, and we went to the concentration camps, and I met some people who had been there as kids, a place called Majdanek, one of the worst concentration camps – not that any of them are good – but this person said, “You know when I was a kid, it was amazing, the guards who’d work in the camp, killing hundreds of thousands of people, would come back and be really nice with their dogs. They’d play with their dogs and play with their kids, then go to the camps.”

So then I started thinking this thing about seeing the mind isn’t just something you have or don’t have, you can actually shut it off. You can shut mindsight off. And now we have a whole bunch of scientific data that shows that under certain conditions you can treat people similar to you as if they have a mind, and if you categorize someone “not like you,” you actually shut off the circuits of compassion if you don’t have this reflective capacity to stay present, to have the grit, the strength, to actually approach things that are difficult, like feeling uncomfortable because you’re with someone not like you. We can wake up to this and actually change these patterns that human beings have of, in fact, genocide, of looking at a world and feeling like we’re not a part of the planet, of realizing that in fact we are part of an interconnected whole.

So what I want to do with you is share with you some insights that come from a field I have been very proud to be a part of founding called Interpersonal Neurobiology, which is a fancy word just saying that the brain is a social organ of the body. And if we don’t take care of the social side, the mindsight side, the brain will tend to want to accumulate things and think that this bodily self is the only self, as if a cell in the body – if you’re a heart cell you said, “I’m just a heart cell, screw the liver cell. I don’t really care about the skin cells, I’m a heart cell.”

You know, we are all a part of one organism. And reflection is an opportunity to realize that relationships are our life’s blood. And this is what gives us resilience not only as individuals but as a collective community. So let me walk you through how this happens.

The way school is now is imprisoning the brain, literally. It’s putting the brain in a cage. We have to free the brain from that cage. And we actually know the science now about how to do that. So the question is: can we make this a collective movement, a grassroots effort to work together to make this happen? And here are some of the ways to think about it: The way we educate kids now, is we’re basically damaging their brains, to be really blunt about it. We’re taking a set of circuitry that we’ve evolved for sure over 40,000 years, probably two million years, and now we have evidence it’s probably 4.4 million years – this is an ancient set of circuits that modern culture obliterates in our strange way that we think we’re all separate from each other. This is a new invention, and it’s a kind of sickness, and this brain is sick.

So the question is: can we actually listen in to what’s happening to the brain side of things and understand it so we awaken how we approach our lives. Well, the kid is ready to awaken, right? I mean, at a young age, kids’ circuitry is all ready, the whole relationship that they’ve had with their parents has been shaping this brain, and then we shove them in schools and everything that was relational disappears after kindergarten. It’s so sad, and the brain shrinks away. Right? This kid has the ability to see all sorts of things – to be an artist, to be creative, to be intuitive, to stick to it, to approach things that are difficult and not withdraw from them – and we have the opportunity to support this child’s development. If we do it right and we train our teachers well, we can actually do it.

So here’s the deal. The brain is the social organ of the body. And when you see the internal subjective nature of feelings and thoughts in yourself and in others, then the interaction you have either with reflective awareness or with interpersonal communication that is a reflective sort where you look at this internal world – not just manage behaviors and tell people what to do but look at the internal world – you develop this thing called neural integration. Basically integration is the linkage of separate things together. And when it’s neural, it just means it is in the nervous system, that’s all that means.

And through an extensive set of research studies that I review in all the different things I’ve published, neural integration is basically the heart of health. It’s the heart of health in your body; it’s the heart of health in your mind; it’s the heart of health in our relationships, not with just one another but also with the whole planet. And so integration becomes a concept that actually organizes all of our thinking.

Now, to understand that, we look at this triangle of well-being and resilience, which basically puts on equal footing three fundamental aspects of our life that are not reducible to each other. The brain is the easy one – you know, a hundred billion neurons in there, trillions of glial cells that support the growth of the different connections in the circuitry. Relationships and the mind.

The first time I showed this was in Poland when I was working there, and one of my co-faculty members said, “You’re insane!”

And I said, “Why am I insane?”

He goes, “You put relationships and the brain on the same slide. They shouldn’t even be in the same talk. You’re crazy.”

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I said, “I might be crazy, but I don’t know why that’s the reason to be crazy!”

So then I made up this term “interpersonal neurobiology” to really make him think I was insane. But the idea here is that – and this is a long – I could do an eight-hour talk on this one triangle here – but the issue to take home is this: Just as we’re sitting together now, we share information with each other. That information is driven forward by energy, and I don’t mean any airy-fairy idea of energy, I mean like when you turn on the light, energy flows through the circuits to give you light. You need energy to move your body. So, it’s actual physics aspect of energy that drives information forward. So we’ll just call it information for now, to make it simple.

Relationships are how we share information – driven by energy – with each other. The brain, the whole nervous system distributed throughout the whole body – so I just call that the brain – is the mechanism by which information flows. And the mind, which is a really exciting topic – of course, it’s our subjective experience, it’s our consciousness, it’s our will, it’s our stick-to-it-iveness, it’s all that stuff – but in this triangle, it’s a process that regulates the flow of information. And we can actually honor the mind being as real as the brain, as real as relationships.

Now, with this triangle in mind, let’s go through a quick review. You have experiences which drive energy and information through synaptic connections. You then increase as electricity flows down the long length of the neuron. You actually have neurons which “fire together, wire together.” Okay? You can create new neurons throughout the lifespan; you can create connections throughout the lifespan; you can actually lay down a sheath around the neurons that are connected to each other, called myelin; and deep practice does this, especially practice where you confront your challenges and don’t withdraw from them. This idea of grit, this idea of really going forward and having deep, deep practice grows myelin. And it takes 10,000 hours for expertise, but it doesn’t take that long to develop the basics of skills. Right?

Mindsight is a skill you can develop. So we have to ask the question: How do we get the neurons of compassion, the circuitry of kindness, to actually grow the ways that we realize we are part of a functional whole? Okay. And we actually know this. How do we plug in the kids’ brains so we can actually develop mindsight in their lives? And we actually know what to do. But we can’t just do it by adding on a little one-hour thing a week. We have to flip questions on their head. Turn it upside down so that we see, in fact, things from a new angle. What I’m suggesting is that you could have a whole curriculum where reflection, the importance of relationships, and the way they develop resilience is actually at the heart of the curriculum. This can start early on, but in this adolescent’s brain, you need to know that the adolescent brain is a construction zone. And we can still work with adolescents and find a way to continue to teach these reflective skills, and children who have them before adolescence actually have more resilience during adolescence.

We know that from research. And we know that this child’s brain will also continue to grow throughout, not only till she’s 25, but it’s going to continue to grow throughout the lifespan. There’s wonderful, wonderful new work on that. What I want to suggest to you – and this is to put in relationships, resilience and reflection all in one slide – is this: There’s an injunction I was given a year and a half ago, that said, “Please find a way to make the world a kinder place in a secular fashion.”

So what I am suggesting in response to that question that was asked to me, is that “brainbrushing” can become a daily activity, just like toothbrushing is. Okay? And this would be a form of brain hygiene just like you have dental hygiene. How many of you brush your teeth? Right? We brush our teeth, we do, we brush our teeth. Why not have a reflective practice where we know you get amazing things from that? So that the brain becomes integrated, it gets pulled together.

Now, when you have an integrated brain and you do your brainbrushing, this is what happens. Watch this. This is from science, that the area just behind your forehead – and we’ll do this very quickly – put your thumb in the middle and your fingers over the top – that’s a really handy model of the brain. And you have your spinal cord, your brainstem, your limbic area’s all there – the part we’re going to talk about is the cortex, and the front-most part pulls it all together. The part we’re talking about is your middle two fingernails, right there, that area. If you lift it up and put it down, notice that it connects everything. And that’s true of this area is called the middle prefrontal cortex, that which reflection develops.

And watch this: Here are the middle prefrontal functions that mindsight promotes. Watch this – and you think about how many of these you would like: bodily regulations so you keep your heart and your intestines working well; attuned communication with yourself and others; the ability to have emotional balance so life has meaning; and energy, but not too much so it’s chaotic, too little so it’s rigid. The notion that you have the extinction of fear.

You also have the ability to be flexible and pause before you respond. You have the capacity for insight into yourself and then empathy into other people. You also have this capacity for morality: to realize we are a part of a larger whole, and we enact behaviors and can imagine what it’s like to be for the greater good, and finally, accessing intuition.

Now, how many of you would like to have that in your life? This is possible! Research shows that empathic relationships and reflective skill training promote these. Of course, anyone who’s a parent knows you can flip your lid and sometimes lose any of those, right? Any of you do that as parents? There you go. Well, you can see. Now, the fact is, we can develop these in children. All nine of these middle prefrontal functions can be what we’re aiming for so that we deliver in education an integrated brain. An integrated brain. And what we would have then, in conclusion, is a child who honors the way the mind is important, that the circuitry of compassion has been developed so that relationships, the brain and the mind become a triangle embedded in this child’s synaptic connections, so they realize they’re a part of a larger whole, they feel attuned to themselves, they feel committed and responsible for others, and they go forward in life with the synaptic circuitry that allows them to feel connected, to have a sense of equanimity, to have wisdom in their life, and a sense of responsibility for all living beings on our planet. Thank you very much.

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Q&A session

Host: Stay up here for one second.

Daniel Siegel: Sure.

Host: You know, we’ve had the opportunity – I’ve had the opportunity, and we have at Blue School and Blue Man, to hear you speak several times over the last month or so. Your book “Mindsight” – you talk about a practice of mindsight, right? So, is this something – can you sort of relate the practice of mindsight to educating kids?

Daniel Siegel: Yeah. I think the first thing to be with, of course, is having teachers really know what this reflective skill ability is. And it’s like the difference between, in your own life, looking at just behaviors, which are the physical aspect of the world, versus looking at the mind that’s behind the behavior. So what you can do is train people, literally, to become aware of the signals of their experience. So I’ll give you – can I do a little demo?

Host: Yeah.

Daniel Siegel: So all of you, to see what this is like, just let yourself notice whatever happens as I do what I am about to do. Okay? Just notice. All right? Okay, just notice. Now, one moment. Notice, just notice whatever happens.

Anyone noticed a difference between part one and part two? What did you notice? You had a cup of water and you took a sip. When I had a cup of water in my hand, what did it feel like? It made sense. It was satisfying. It made sense, and someone’s pointed to their throat. Could you feel the water going down, some of you? So we have a system of neurons, you can know, that connect us one to the other, and when you can make sense of what someone is doing, you actually embed that in your same body experience. So you can simulate behaviors. You can also teach, let’s say, teachers, how to be aware of what “no” does for children, and make training of the experience of “no” and “yes” – as you’re going to see in a second – part of what they do. Do I have enough time to do this too?

Try this out. So just close your eyes, and just notice whatever arises. No more drinking water – sorry if you don’t have water around – so just notice whatever happens when I say the following things: No. No. No. No. No. No. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. When you’re ready, you can open your eyes. How many of you noticed a difference between “no” and “yes”? So what did “no” feel like? Negative, what did it feel like in your body? A pushing down. Pushing back. It sucked. Okay. And then what did “yes” feel like? Say it again. Empowerment. Encouragement. Expansive. What else? More love. Okay.

Now, I’m not even your dad telling you, you can’t have ice cream before dinner, right? So just this little, teeny, like, two-minute-set of exercises, what we begin to realize is that the “no” experience creates a reactive response from the brain stem and the limbic areas, these deep areas, that get us ready to fight, flight or freeze. Okay? And so when you have children, either in a family or in a school, that are constantly hearing “no,” they get into a reactive mode rather than the “yes” mode of receptivity.

Now, kids absolutely need discipline, they need structure, they need to have grit, they need to go forward, to approach things that are difficult. So I’m not saying just everything goes. There is a way of making “yes” in a structured setting. That’s the kind of things we would teach you how to do. Because if the child is reactive, if they’re told they’re no good, no good, in whatever kinds of ways, their behavior, their impulses, like that girl, you heard the story about, where she’s told, she’s a problem, and then finally someone sees her gift and says “You’re a dancer,” right? That’s the kind of “yes” we want to give kids. We want to help them find their element, as Sir Ken Robinson talks about beautifully, to find their passion and to allow them pursue it so they can develop these various areas of expertise, lay down the myelin in their circuits that allow them to actually develop who they are as individuals, but also at the same time, realize that we are all a part of an interconnected whole.

To inspire them to rewire their brains is basically what a mindsight approach does. And what you do is you train the whole system that you’re working in to think this way as you offer people the opportunities to come look at that triangle. If you take that triangle, which I teach people who work with really young kids, to use that triangle as an organizational principle: mind, brain and relationships, it actually can organize an entire curriculum. That you follow that triangle through from preschool through high school, and you will have a different generation as these kids grow up.

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