Paying Attention

Mindsight lifted Jonathan's dark moods, got Stuart in touch with his feelings, filled the emptiness Anne felt, and helped Allison heal from trauma. There are meds for these sorts of things: for instance SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) help the brain be more flexible, adapt more smoothly to changes. Dr. Dan Seigel’s approach opted instead for mindfulness: “intentionally paying attention to the present moment without being swept up by judgments.”

He began with patients doing a body scan: sitting still and carefully noticing the feeling of the top of the head, face, neck, and so on, surveying the entire body, section by section. It’s the beginning of training focused attention on what’s there – noticing sensations, cultivating your inner observer. Siegel would typically progress his patients to a walking meditation – a slow walk with attention focused on the soles of the feet -- and then to a seated silent mindfulness meditation. Sessions with Siegel combined meditation and meditation instruction with counseling conversation inviting articulation of stories and feelings.

The details about how each patient was helped – and just what brain mechanisms were trained and strengthened – differed from case to case. Part of the training was learning about how the brain works – it helps to know the story about how mindfulness and mindsight are working.

The brain's middle-prefrontal cortex – just behind the eyes – is located close to just about everything. The middle-prefrontal cortex regulates the flow of sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts through the brain. Stepping back from the feelings and thoughts and watching them strengthens those middle-prefrontal regulatory neurons.

Mindsight promotes these middle-prefrontal functions:
  • Bodily regulation (keep heart and intestines working well)
  • Attuned communication with self and others
  • Ability to have emotional balance (gives live meaning and energy – without too much emotion, which is chaotic, or too little, which is rigid.)
  • Extinction of fear
  • Flexibility – pause before respond
  • Insight into self
  • Empathy with others
  • Morality: to realize we are part of a larger whole, and we can imagine a greater good and can act for it
  • Intuition.
Watching your mind at work – being present to what comes up, neither being carried away with it nor suppressing it – actually strengthens the neural pathways by which the middle-prefrontal cortex regulates an array of brain functions. The myelin sheaths on the neuron’s axons grows thicker, which helps them function better, and that middle-prefrontal area gets more neurons to fire along with it. The cacophony of 100 billions neurons begins to approach a higher, or deeper, kind of harmony.

Maybe, like Einstein, you have a natural integration and awareness that separation is a delusion, that the reality is that we, all together, consititute one organism. Or maybe, like Jill Bolte Taylor, a traumatic brain accident woke you up. But for the rest of us, we won’t get to Carnegie hall by practicing every once in a while. We won't arrive at equanimity and empathy by meditating half an hour a week. It takes practice every day. To become who you are: practice, practice, practice.


Video: Dan Siegel on Mindfulness and Neural Integration. 18:27
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This is part 4 of 4 of "Mindsight."
Previous: Part 3: "Perceiving, Not Just Having, Thoughts"
Beginning: Part 1: "Practice, Practice, Practice"