October 8, 2015

Dan Siegel says I can use my mind to reshape my brain — or YOURS!

I’m in the middle of taking an on-line course by Daniel Siegel, MD.  I hope you do, too.   It’s called “Practicing Mindsight” — 6 hours consisting of 32 video mini-lectures delivered live to an audience of about 240 mental health professionals, physicians, educators, as well as organizational behavior and social policy wonks.   (I’ve also  heard a great TED talk by this guy).  He’s a famous psychiatrist, trained at Harvard Medical School and UCLA, now clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA, an award-winning educator – and expert researcher in the emerging field of “interpersonal neurobiology”.

It’s on a website called www.Udemy.com.  I’ve listened to the first 9 mini-lectures so far.  He began by asking how many of the professionals in the audience think the mind is important in everyday affairs — and in their practices/organizations.  All hands went up.  Then he asked how many had any instruction on what the mind is?   Five percent raised their hands.   He says that the proportion has been similar in 85,000 professionals he has asked.   He  says the purpose of the course is:  How to see the mind and make it stronger.    I say the course is focused on STRATEGIES for changing the STRUCTURE of the brain (one’s own and that of one’s patients/clients) by using the mind.   Think of that:  USING the mind as a tool to INTENTIONALLY remodel circuits in the brain.

Here are three big points I have heard in his lectures so far:

(a) Key definition:   The mind is a PROCESS not a thing.  It REGULATES (monitors and directs) the flow of energy and information both within an individual and between people.  (Energy is roughly defined as stuff that makes things happen.  Information is both data and meaning or story.)  As part of his grant-funded work, he had put together a group of 40 researchers in a wide variety of fields who were all (eventually) able to agree on this definition.

(b) “Attention” – which is where the mind focuses, what it is paying attention to  – is what CREATES new neural pathways, and STRENGTHENS either existing or new ones by reinforcing the pathway.  As the saying goes: “neurons that fire together wire together”.  For example, the more we pay attention to our pain (assessing it, worrying about it, “fighting” it), the deeper we are carving that channel.  Common sense, grandmothers, and “New Agers” have been telling us for years to focus on what we DO want instead of what we DON’T want  — and now science is confirming it.

(c) Humans are genetically programmed to AUTOMATICALLY create internal experiences and capabilities that mirror or incorporate things they see or feel during interactions with others.  As we watch someone else raise a glass of water to his lips, the cells in our brains that move our own arms light up.  We sense his intention to drink, we may experience thirst, or the sensation of water or of refreshment.  We feel sad when someone cries, and are happy at their joy.  Others’ brains shape what goes on in ours —  what circuits are firing and being reinforced — and vice versa.  Simultaneous mutual (interpersonal) experience is a KEY part of the “social” in our “social species”.

So I got this:  The techniques we use to SHIFT our attention (or another person’s attention) away from bad stuff and towards more productive ways of thinking are actually MODULATING neural circuitry in the brain (which is neuroplasticity in action).  This has now been confirmed by rigorous research on techniques such as mindfulness, CBT, etc.   (I personally remember reading a study which showed that SIMILAR changes in the brain can be observed after either medication OR “talk therapy”.  In that TED talk by Siegel that I watched, he asserts that much of the circuitry in our frontal lobe is created and shaped by everyday INTERPERSONAL INTERACTIONS which DEVELOP it – and of course it is our frontal lobes which make us uniquely human.)

The takeaway for us as physicians in tangible organ-system-focused specialties is there is POWER TO HEAL in our words —  and in the human quality of our interpersonal interactions.  We have an opportunity to INTENTIONALLY HARNESS that power and explicitly add it to our therapeutic armamentarium.

Although the mental health professions already are aware of the power of words and relationships, physicians are on the front-line dealing with patients with PHYSICAL complaints and distress.  We are in the best position to use the power of words and relationships to start relieving those symptoms and easing that distress — even if all we do is alert the patient to the healing power of the mind and persuade them to accept help from a mental health professional.  Apparently, the only specialty these days that requires training in patient communication is family practice.  Thus, this appears to be a neglected skill area in all of the other medical specialties.

Those of us who have accepted the idea that sickness and disability are the COMBINED product of bio-psycho-socio-economic factors, and who are setting out to reduce the disruptive/destructive impact of injury/illness on quality of the patient’s everyday life and future – especially in at risk cases and “heartsink patients” — MUST master this stuff.  We need to practice the SCIENTIFIC ART of empathic therapeutic interaction.  We must learn how to effectively redirect the patient’s attention into more appropriate channels so they develop their own capability to adapt to / cope effectively with their own situations.

The tuition for the Siegel Practicing Mindsight course is usually $137, but if you follow the directions below, you may be able to get a $39 special rate.  It supposedly ends TODAY — although it supposedly ended yesterday, too.  Some people don’t seem to be able to find the $39 offer.  There’s probably a glitch of some kind that is making it show up only when you wend your way through the electrons a particular way.

Here’s how I found it again just now:  I use Firefox.  I entered  “daniel siegel mindsight” in the search box, then I clicked on the link for an Udemy ADVERTISEMENT that appeared in the top left corner of the search results.  The website that appears says the rate is $39 again today (coupon valid until October 8).   But when I went STRAIGHT to the udemy site, the cost is $137.

Go for it — fool around, and then REGISTER!   But bring your brain AND appreciation for quirkiness with you.   This is  fascinating material taught by a deep and independent thinker, serious expert and experienced researcher.  And, Siegel is a character with really colorful personal stories:  so far we’ve heard tales of misfittery in medical school, salmon fishery, dance, nudity in Greece, etc.

One thought on “Dan Siegel says I can use my mind to reshape my brain — or YOURS!

  1. Kim Wiswell

    Great find, Jennifer – I snagged $35 pricing using the ‘BACKTOWORK’ coupon/code.
    I love the saying “neurons that fire together wire together”. Of note, this topic falls along the same lines as some course work I was introduced to by Dr. Callas at Medata back in the early ’80’s so I’m delighted to revisit it again.

    Reply

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