Dr. Dan Siegel, as a brain researcher, is astounded that neither scientists, including psychiatrists, nor philosophers or academicians have come up with a good working definition of mind, nor can they describe what thinking is.
Neurobiologist Dan Siegel recently visited Portland to speak at a conference on integrative medicine. He opened his talk with the question: “What is mind?” He asks this question of all his audiences. Over his years of speaking to perhaps 100,000 science professionals and another 100,000 educators, nearly 95% of them have never even considered the question, he says. They had no lecture on the subject in all their education.
Mind is clearly not the same as a brain firing electrical impulses through neurons, according to Siegel. No one even knows how much brain and mind overlap. He has come to believe that subjective experience is real, consciousness is real, but the challenge that arises for those in his field is: how can a scientist address what is real when it can’t necessarily be measured in the laboratory?
Siegel’s efforts in “interpersonal neurobiology” seek to find answers to these questions by integrating research in linguistics, psychiatry, neurobiology, environmental science and medicine in order to promote human well-being and planetary health.
He mentioned part of this quote by Albert Einstein:
“A human being …experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
In one analogy Siegel describes the mind as an ocean. Deep underneath, it’s always calm and steady. At the surface it can be calm or have wind and waves. As individuals integrate their day to day awareness with the larger sense of mind, it steadies the storms of daily experience.
Siegel uses the term “mindful” to describe the many subjective elements of consciousness – such as love, compassion, fear – that can’t necessarily be seen in brain study or scientific data. Attention, for instance has both neurological and relational elements.
According to Siegel, science has made great strides in measuring the brain, but love cannot be found as one of its functions. Nor can our greater connection to others be measured in there.
Though elusive for brain scientists, subjective experience cannot be ignored. Nor can mind, which possibly is the source of consciousness and perhaps the vehicle by which we’re all connected.
Parents, teachers, and mental health professionals need to know that things such as fear and love are real to their students and patients. In brain science and in working relationships, connection is all important, he says. Coordination of brain, body and social connections results in longer lives, more happiness, healthier epigenetics, better regulated energy flow, and improved compassion and empathy.
Others see the value of this perspective as well.
Diane Ackerman in her article “The Brain on Love” points out that:
“Brain scans show synchrony between the brains of mother and child; but what they can’t show is the internal bond that belongs to neither alone, a fusion in which the self feels so permeable it doesn’t matter whose body is whose.”
And some echo this sense of connection to others as important not only for the health of communities and the earth, but also for each of us as distinct individuals.
“Studies in the United States, Scandinavia and Japan have consistently shown that people who are isolated or disconnected from others are at an increased risk of dying prematurely.”
Scientists looking for a better understanding of mind may help. I’ve found that personal relationships do not necessarily provide a feeling or awareness of connection. But a deep interconnection, like a mother and child, does. My compassion and empathy for others comes more easily when understanding that we are all connected through a higher being. Some people refer to this as universal consciousness; some God or Yahweh. I like to think of it as divine Mind.
The Bible has long offered this guidance and understanding:
“…be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous;”
Perhaps we don’t know what the mind really is or how consciousness works. But we do know, as Siegel tells us, that integrating compassion and love strengthens the fabric of a balanced society and helps individuals stay healthy as well. When we act for the benefit of others, it can have a positive influence on everyone’s health.