Mindsight: A book review by Bob Morris

Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation
Daniel J. Siegel
Basic Books (2010)

How and why the mind uses the brain to create itself in order “to promote physical, psychological, and interpersonal well-being

In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, Polonius offers this advice to his son Laertes before his departure for college:“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Urging the young man to true to himself is sound advice but presupposes that Laertes knows who he is. For most of us, self-knowledge is immensely difficult to obtain and even more dcifficult to accept.  However, Socrates insists that the unexamined life is not worth living. All this is relevant to Daniel Siegel’s latest book, Mindsight, in which he discusses the core principles and potential significance of “the new science of personal transformation,” a process during which the brain creates itself or increases its capabilities  order “to promote physical, psychological, and interpersonal well-being.”

As Daniel Goleman correctly observes in an uncommonly enlightening Foreword, “Daniel Siegel’s theory of mindsight — the brain’s capacity for both insight and empathy…makes sense for us out of the cluttered confusions of our sometimes maddening and messy emotions…Self-awareness and empathy are (along with self-mastery and social skills) domains of human ability essential for success in life…Of these four skills, self-awareness lays the foundation for the rest.”

There are several concepts or themes central to Siegel’s narrative. For example, “The Triangle of Well-Being” reveals three aspects of our lives (i.e. relationships, mind, and brain) that “form the three mutual influencing points of the Triangle of Well-Bring.” Mindsight enables us to become aware of, indeed monitor and modify “the flow of energy and information within the Triangle of Well-Being.” Two others are “A Window of Tolerance” (see Pages 137-139 and 269-270) and “The Wheel of Awareness” (91-93 and 95-96). Siegel explains why Goleman is dead-on: “self-awareness lays the foundation for the rest.” That is not to suggest, however, that one’s self-awareness must be total before the expanded and enlightened mindsight can be applied. There are several reasons why I think this is so. Here are the two I think are most important: first, all human beings change (for better or worse) as does the potential self-knowledge to be obtained; the process of self-examination to which Socrates refers is endless until death. My second reason is that, over time, during our personal transformation, others will interact with us differently as will we with them and adjustments must be made, thereby increasing the number and quality of opportunities for gaining new, valuable insights about ourselves, of course, but also about human nature.

These are among the dozens of passages that caught my eye:

o  “Hand Model of the Brain” (Pages 14-22)
o  “The Mechanism of Mindlessness” (26-30)
o  “What Fires Together, Wires Together” (40-43)
o  “A healthy Mind: Complexity and Self-Organization (68-69)
o  “A Mindful Approach to Changing the Mind” (83-84)
o  “Awareness Training and Stabilizing the Mind” (93-98)
o  “Building Inner Resources” (135-137)
o  “Patterns of Attachment” (167-171)
o  “An Unresolved and Disorganized Mind” (182-188)
o  “Top-Down and Bottom-Up” (200-203)
o  “Making Sense of the Past to Free the Present” (217-220)

Then in the Appendix, I especially appreciate the provision of  “a dozen basic concepts and related terms and ideas that form a foundation for our approach of mindsight, integration, and well-being” (267-270) followed by extensively annotated Notes (271-300).

No brief commentary such as mind can possibly do full justice to the scope and depth of material that Siegel provides in this volume. I conclude with three points that are of special importance to me and will be, perhaps, to many others who read this brilliant book. First, our mind is what the brain does and the brain (viewed as a muscle) can be expanded and strengthened, with that process limited only by the nature and extent of our commitment to it. Second, the material Siegel provides has compelling and substantial importance to improving child development within and beyond their schools. Finally, I agree with Daniel Siegel that mindsight can allow us to “see the internal workings of our own minds,” to be sure, but it can also help us to increase our understanding and appreciation others and — through meaningful interaction with them — increase their understanding and appreciation of us. That is indeed a compelling vision.

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