"Fearlessness is the first requirement of spirituality. Cowards can never be moral." -- Mahatma Gandhi

Sunday, April 17, 2011

'Mindsight' and the Science of Mental Well-Being

"Mindsight is the ability of the human mind to see itself. It is a powerful lens through which we can understand our inner lives with more clarity, tranform the brain, and enhance our relationships with other."
-- Dr. Dan Siegel --
In one of the more insightful videos in an already insightful series of Google  TechTalks (below), Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., Co-Director of the UCLA Medical Center's Mindful Awareness Research Center and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute, goes where many other mind scientists refuse to go and defines what the 'mind' is. He then takes his audience through a fascinating and informative tour of the brain, highlighting how 'mindfulness' enhances brain function and increases mental and physical health.

Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, M.D.
"You'd be amazed," says Dr. Siegel, "but a lot of people live there lives just having thoughts, feelings, beliefs and attitudes, having hopes and dreams, and memories and perceptions - all the stuff we can use to describe the mind - but they haven't developed the capacity to actually observe those mental activities as the flow of energy and information, as the mind itself."

"That process of being able to see mental activity with more clarity and then modify it with more efficacy is something you can name with the word 'mindsight,' he says, defining 'mindsight' as "the ability to actually see your mind, not just have one."

"When you look at different areas of research what you find is that when 'mindsight' is present, various ways of understanding mental health are also present. There is something about being able to see and influence your internal world that creates more health."

 Dr. Siegel, a developmental psychiatrist by training, then takes his audience through the paradigm-shifting case of the family of a woman whose middle pre-frontal cortex was permanently damaged in a tragic car accident; a woman who, in essence, said that she had "lost her soul."

Pre-Frontal Cortex
Siegel describes how the middle pre-frontal cortex of the brain regulates the body, attunes communication, optimizes the flow of emotional balance, inhibits fear, gives an individual the ability to pause before acting (response flexibility), and gives the individual insight (auto-noetic consciousness), self-knowing awareness, the capacity for empathy, the capacity for morality, as well as compassion and intuition, or introception (the ability to 'be in touch with the feelings of the body' that controls the individual's ability to have empathy).

"A healthy mind emerges from integrated systems. Integration, (being) very clearly defined as the linkage of differentiated parts," says Siegel. "So that when you have a nervous system that is integrated you get these nine functions," both in the individual and the family, as well as in larger groups.

In the practice of mindful meditation, notes Siegel, there is a 2,500 year tradition of specific mental training to develop mindfulness traits, and a tradition which is designed to develop all nine systems, centered in the middle pre-frontal cortex. "We have every reason to believe that what you are doing in (practicing meditation), says Siegel, "is strengthening the integrative fibers of the brain, in particular the middle pre-frontal areas."

Thus, he concludes, practicing meditation affects both the ability to approach problem areas in life that the meditator once withdrew from, as well as  improving his or her the immune system. "But," he cautions, "(t)he mind uses the brain to create itself, and if the pathways aren't there, the mind can't do it."

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