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Review: Mindsight by Daniel Siegel

There’s something exciting and hopeful in the subtitle of Siegel’s book MindsightThe New Science of Personal TransformationWho doesn’t feel the need to be transformed?  (And yes, as a Christian, I believe true transformation is a gift from God, and will discuss that later.)

Rather than the old forms of psychology in which a person is a victim, helpless until rescued by a professional, Mindsight presents a take-charge discussion of the brain and more.  By following its insights people suffering from the ordinary malaise of discouragement and vague emptiness can make a huge difference in their own lives.  Of course, people with serious traumas will still need the help of a professional, preferably one who empowers them rather than treating them as a victim, preferably one who understands the gospel.

This book is, obviously, about ‘mindsight’ but what is that?  Siegel  writes: “Mindsight is a kind of focused attention that allows us to see the internal workings of our own minds.  It helps us to be aware of our mental processes without being swept away by them….  The focusing skills that are part of mindsight make it possible to see what is inside, to accept it, and in the accepting to let it go, and, finally, to transform it.”

In Mindsight, Siegel explains the physical structure of the brain and shows how, by taking practical action, people can activate and develop different parts of the brain, leading to a more integrated, compassionate, and joyful personality.

A key insight is that the mind, brain, and relationships are fundamentally related, and that our brains physically grow and develop in relationship with others.    What’s more, our brain involves a lot more than just our ‘skull brain’; it also includes the neural networks in the body, ‘gut instinct’, intuition, and hormones.

Siegel explains what goes on physically when our reasoning ability is overcome by deep emotional responses, (i.e. ‘losing it’) and describes how we can reduce this.  In fact, he claims that, “Mental activity stimulates brain firing as much as brain firing creates mental activity.”  In other words, you can exercise your brain.  While physical brain structure is affected by early experiences, adults can change the brain by mindfulness exercises.  Indeed, mindfulness exercises can reverse some of the issues caused by early experiences!

And how about relationships?  It seems that our neurons actually mirror other people’s neurons.  If we are in tune with others, we can feel their emotions, and our physical reactions such as blood pressure respond to theirs.  Thus there is actually a physical basis to the idea of vibes and resonance in relationships.  Two deep lessons are to be open to our body’s state and to know ourselves through our interactions with others.

By being mindful, we can learn to function optimally.  However, the basis for brain health is also physical:  exercise, good diet, and sleep.  Aerobic exercise actually enhances neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change.  So do novelty and emotional arousal, which is why people learn so much better when they are interested in a topic. (Take note, homeschool moms.)

In the rest of the book, Siegel shows how his ideas can apply to mind-body dissociation, trauma, memory, attachment, integration of various personas into one person (a crucial task of adolescence), and interpersonal relationships.  He discusses the importance of being acknowledged, of feeling safe, of knowing you are loved, of making sense of your life as a story, and of understanding the crucial effect of implicit memory.  Using mindsight to deal with the effects of trauma and other suffering can actually change the structure of the brain, giving physical healing to those memories.

Thus mindsight, according to Siegel, gives people more compassion for themselves, for others, and for the world around them as the mind uses the brain to create itself.

As a Christian, I believe spiritual transformation is a gift from God.  But, just as we may need help with our physical health, whether from regular physicians or holistic take-charge-of-yourself doctors, so we may need psychological help.  Learning and practicing mindsight is one tool, especially valuable in situations where psychological intervention is necessary but potentially helpful for anyone.

As a physicist, I can comment on neither the psychological data (although I have several questions), nor the philosophical ideas.

However, as a Christian, an individual, and a mom, I’ve seen Seigel’s ideas in action.  His insights are all around us every day.  Furthermore, they are present in both the new science of happiness as well as age-old wisdom.  I’ve also seen many of them come to the fore in radical and obedient Christian lives. Thus there is much of value in this book, but it’s missing something.  Something fundamental.

A few thousand years ago David, in tears and deep distress, wrote, “Why are you downcast, O my soul?  Why so disturbed within me?  Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” Here, in Psalms 42 and 43, is mindfulness, finding one’s place in a story, directing one’s attention, and acknowledging feelings of despair.  But David, unlike Siegel, turns to God, the source of true hope and transformation.

Mindsight is full of life-transforming insights that can provide relief and healing even in difficult cases. However, without God’s Word it is not going to lead to a transformation that will stand the test of both time and eternity.

I highly recommend Mindsight by Siegel to anyone interested in learning more about how the brain functions.  While reading it, however, remember that God, sin, salvation, conscience, the Holy Spirit, and the devil are all very real. Ignoring these realities, Siegel can tell only part of the story and can offer only a partial transformation.

Mindsight could inspire many pages of thoughtful writing.  If anyone wants to interact with me about this book, I would welcome guest posts and be glad to write more about it myself as well.

This is yet one more book in the 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge, and is linked to Saturday Reviews. For more inspiration, see No Ordinary Blog Hop, Encourage One Another Wednesday, and Women Living Well Wednesdays.

Disclosure: I was given this book and asked to respond to its ideas in a review.

6 Comments

  1. Ben W says:

    I’d be interested in interacting with you on this book and mindfulness in general. I am in the middle of reading the book and am pondering how this can and should integrate with a biblical worldview. It appears to me that Xians – and conservative ones in particular – generally do not give neuroscience the kind of attention it likely deserves. Please email me at [email protected]

    Thank you,

    Ben

    1. Annie Kate says:

      Hi Ben,

      Most Christians do not give neuroscience much attention, true, and that is partly because there are so many things that require our attention.

      But it’s good if a few people do and then tell others about it. So that was my role in presenting the review. 🙂

      I’d love to hear what you think about this book.

      Sometime this month I’ll be reading a book that tries to tie Christianity and neuroscience together. I think that would be a better time for me to discuss these issues with you.

  2. Tony Lopez says:

    Hi Annie,

    My name is Tony. I want to thank you for writing such a good review for Dr. Siegel’s book “MindSight”. Why? Simply because you remind us not to forget the most important aspect to human life, the spiritual.
    -Tony Lopez

    Peace + Blessings

    1. Annie Kate says:

      Thank you so much, Tony. The spiritual is truly the most important, but it is very closely tied to the physical, emotional, and mental. That’s why books like this are valuable, even though they do not recognize the spiritual aspects.

  3. Jose J. Campos says:

    I read this book a couple of years ago and found very interesting that there are a lot of new ideas and discoveries in this and other books, that complement very well with the messages in the Bible. I also came to the conclusion that in order to make the best of it/them, we should be take into consideration our spiritual.

    1. Annie Kate says:

      Yes, I forget which great person said it, but truth is always true no matter who discovers it. And ultimately, all discoveries will vindicate Biblical truth.

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