The Whole-Brain Child part 1

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend a lecture put on by local organization Austin In-Connection featuring award-winning educator and distinguished mental health researcher, Dr. Dan Siegel.  Dr. Siegel is author of The Whole Brain Child and The Developing Mind, among other texts, and a full biography can be found here:

The lecture was given at the LBJ library to a full house of parents, teachers, policymakers, social workers, and mental health professionals.  Here are my notes.. –Mitch


“We all want to create healthier communities.  We all want stronger relationships.  How do we do this?”

Some basic questions:

  • What does a person who wants to help a kid grow well do to actually help?
  • What is a teacher actually doing?
  • What does that have to with what a parent does?
  • On the macro-level, what does a community member or policy-maker do (to help)?

One suggested answer: EMPATHY

What is empathy?

  • The ability to tune in on what is going on inside another person, understanding their point of view, etc.
  • “Focusing attention on the internal experience of someone else”
  • Empathy can literally be a matter of life and death (think of a suicide help hotline).
  • Scientific studies suggest that empathic physicians have better results on immune system functioning and patient recovery rates.

The core research of Dr. Siegel has been focused in the area of attachment.  Attachment research deals with the ways in which a person has their inner life seen and respected (their thoughts, emotions, desires, fantasies, etc.).  This inner life is sometimes referred to as the SEA INSIDE.

“When we see the sea inside, great things happen.  The opposite is isolation.”  Seeing inside this sea inside and relating to others empathically can be summed up in their experience as “I feel felt by you“.  Empathy can be the presence to feel and have insight into others.  Empathy actually changes your physiology, even to the level of enzymes and chromosome maintenance (this has been scientifically proven).  Thus, empathic experiences, and experiences in general, in a person’s youth significantly affect their brain development.

In mental health, there are two poles representing openness to others and openness to the self.  An inability to do either may be referred to as a mindblindness.  Similarly, mindsight is the ability to see inside the sea inside, both with others and the self.  Mindsight is what allows for social and emotional development and intelligence.  Our brains are filled with mirror neurons that detect predictable sequences (the brain is an anticipation machine) and make a map of the intention of the person you’re perceiving.  These mirror neurons also allow us to feel the other’s feelings and connect it to our own feelings.  Our whole lives are shaped by our social nature.  We are born in connection to others.  The self is inherently relational and when we are used or victims of apathy, it feels wrong because it is a violation of millions of years of evolution.  “We as human beings uniquely among species share and distribute attachment responsibilities among others in our community.  We have a deep collaborative nature.”

It is important to remember that the mind is not just our brain activity.  The self is not skin-deep.  Neuroscience shows us that the “downstairs brain” (the seat of experiences and neurological processors for our digestive systems, heart, etc.) provides a conduit to and filter for what our “upstairs brain” does.  Our “upstairs brain” is the place of mindsight, where the linkage and coordination of differentiated brain parts happens, where maps of “me” and “we” are created, where moral reasoning and emotional regulation takes place.  This linkage between the differentiated parts of the brain is referred to as integration.  Our goal in nurturing the healthy development of minds and selves is creating more integration.



Creative Action Artist is a blog for Creative Action Staff to share inspirational and pedagogical resources.