Steven Winn: Good evening. Welcome. Welcome to City Arts & Lectures’ evening with Dan Siegel. Welcome to the Sydney Goldstein Theater. You know, we always have great guests, but we have a really great guest tonight. I’m really excited and I’m sure you all will be too. His credits are so long I, excuse me, but I really have to read about him. I couldn’t commit it all to memory.
Dan Siegel is a clinical professor of Psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine, co-director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. And Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute. He trained as a pediatrician originally, has two children who are now in their 20s. His many books include “The Mindful Brain,” “Mindsight,” “Aware,” which was published just last year, and I’m going to read the subtitles of his parenting books, or some of them, because they really reveal kind of the breadth and complexity and scope of his vision of what we can learn from them.
One is called “Parenting From the Inside Out: How Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive,” “The Yes Brain: How To Cultivate Courage, Curiosity, and Resilience in your Child,” and “The Whole Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture your Child’s Developing Mind.” Please welcome, Dan Siegel.
It’s great. It’s a rock star greeting. I love it. There’s so much to get to but…
Daniel Siegel: Which part of that was the rock star part? The handshake?
Steven Winn: No, when they rush the stage, that’s when you’ll know. There’s so much to get to, but I want to start and talk a little bit about you and how you got here today, how you got to this chair tonight. I wanted to start by asking a little bit about your past. Am I right that you were the youngest of nine children? Is that correct?
Daniel Siegel: No.
Steven Winn: No, it’s not correct.
Daniel Siegel: I don’t know about the other seven, but there were two of us. There were two of us. Yeah.
Steven Winn: It’s always good to get the first question dead wrong. That way we’re on, you know, we’re, here we are.
Daniel Siegel: Oh that’s good, but then we could create something there together. Co-constructed narrative. Yes, it was a long time ago Steven.
Steven Winn: Where did I get the nine? I must be misreading…
Daniel Siegel: No, maybe my parents know something I don’t know.
Steven Winn: Maybe they do. Yeah. I’m breaking news tonight.
Daniel Siegel: This is actually, yeah, this is like, what’s that show where they discover your life?
Steven Winn: That’s right. This is your life, right? You’re going to find out…
Daniel Siegel: Dan, you’re the youngest of nine.
Steven Winn: Well given that there were only two of you, we’ll still go back to the question. Do you think there was anything in your childhood that predisposed you to become such an expert on child rearing later in life?
Daniel Siegel: You know, I am a psychiatrist. You’re not supposed to talk about that kind of thing in public.
Steven Winn: We have to switch chairs. I’m going to…
Daniel Siegel: That’s right. Yes, of course. I mean, you know, we all have direct experiences that shape what gives us meaning in life. So I think, yeah, there’re absolutely things in my own childhood that affected me being interested in what it means to be a human and what kind of relationships and ways of communicating would be healthy and which ones would not be healthy. Yeah, so yeah, the answer is absolutely yes.
Steven Winn: And and why pediatrics? You went to med school, you decided to do your residency in pediatrics? What drew you to that?
Daniel Siegel: You know, I always loved children. I always loved being a child. Parts of me still are a child. So and I love them too. And you know, so I guess I really liked hanging out with kids. I actually did a year of Pediatrics and then switched to child psychiatry and adult psychiatry because for me what I was really really interested in was the mind. And in Pediatrics there were so many other things going on that I didn’t have time to really focus on that particular interest. So I transferred fields from Pediatrics to Psychiatry.
Steven Winn: Was there a sort of a conversion experience for you along the way there? Something that happened that was you know, kind of say ah, this is where I want to go for this reason, or was a kind of an evolving thing?
Daniel Siegel: You mean the Pyschiatry part?
Steven Winn: Yeah. Moving from Pediatrics to the child psychiatry?
Daniel Siegel: Well there’s two layers of it. There’s two layers. The first layer is when I was in medical school and I thought about being a pediatrician, I had a mentor named Tom who was very influential in my life, and I did a summer internship with him living on his–my wife grew up in a farm and Tom said he lived on a farm, Caroline my wife called it a hobby horse farm, so it’s not a real farm.
But anyway, it was a farm. And so I lived out in the Berkshires with him and his wife and we used to go out with the nurses there and work with parents who were at risk of abusing their children. And so I learned to do family interventions and it was really really powerful and meaningful. But then when I went back to medical school, there was this lack of empathy and compassion in school. So I ended up dropping out of school. And it was during that…
Steven Winn: You dropped out of med school?
Daniel Siegel: I dropped out of medical school. And during the time away from medical school, there was a lot going on, but the bottom line is I came to reflect on how having compassion and empathy were like the centerpiece of living a full life and that just because the field of medicine didn’t seem to have it, it didn’t you know, I shouldn’t continue on in medicine.
So I went back to medical school, to the same medical school, and I was like an anthropologist studying the medical culture and how you could have really smart human beings who are well-intended, but they didn’t have this word that I made up back then, mindsight. They couldn’t see the inner subjective experience of their patients or their students or maybe even of themselves, I don’t know.
But this lack of mindsight made a whole culture that lacked compassion and kindness. It was painful. So when I went back to get my degree, I would like study how the patients who happened to get the good fortune of having a physician who had mindsight seemed to do better, and those that didn’t seemed to do worse.
So I was really deeply interested in that and I thought as a pediatrician I’d be able to really work on that but, you know, I thought Psychiatry would be a field that would be, I can go further than that. So that’s how that all started.
Steven Winn: Did you feel you were sort of out there on your own a little bit with this stuff at that time?
Daniel Siegel: Totally. It was very lonely, actually. Yeah. Because even in psychiatry, the field was in quotes becoming a biological [UI], everything was about medications and they were following what Hippocrates had said 2,500 years ago that the mind was just the output of the brain in your head and that just didn’t feel right to me.
There was a subjective experience that couldn’t be the same as just what happened in your head, but that’s what the field was saying. So even in Psychiatry, it felt very lonely because I was kind of not accepting the dogma and you know, ended up doing research in parent-child relationships, which my psychiatry mentors thought was just a professional death.
Steven Winn: I was going to ask you if you got a lot of pushback for what you–?
Daniel Siegel: Oh totally. They thought I was nuts. Seriously. I mean, those are the words they would use. Nuts.
Steven Winn: Mindsight–
Daniel Siegel: But I was used to that from my family. That’s the first question, you said.
Steven Winn: The nine of you.
Daniel Siegel: You learn these techniques for just like, you say, okay, whatever. Parent figures are telling me I’m nuts. I’m used to that.
Steven Winn: Mindsight is really sort of fundamental to a lot of what underlies a lot of your work. It sounds intuitive, but let’s drill down a little bit. What do you mean? What do you mean by that?
Daniel Siegel: But like right now Steven, between you and me. I could be looking at you and just notice what your foot is doing, notice your hand, notice how you’re shaking your head, and just leave it at the surface level of my eye for eye sight, seeing motion.
But I could also have a perceptual capacity to take the expression on your face, the movement of your body, the timing of what you’re doing, and then sense your subjective experience, which might be you know an emotion, it might be a bodily sensation, it might be an intention, a belief. All of that we’ll put under the word mind.
Because it’s your subjective experience. And so that capacity to sense the mind–like in medical school when a physician would tell a patient that she was dying and they’d leave the room and I’d pull on the coat of this professor and say, “you just told her she was dying, don’t you want to ask her how she feels about that?”
Then they would say, “why would I do that? I’ve done her labs. I’ve done her test. I’ve done her exam. I’ve told her what’s happening. Why would I do that?” And I would say “because it has a meaning that you told her that she’s dying and she feels something.” And they would go “if you want to talk about feelings become a social worker.” That’s a quote.
So, you know part of I guess my energy about it is you know, that feelings are real. And I was once in a debate in Psychiatry where the debate opponent–it was “should psychiatrists learn Psychotherapy or should they just be writing prescriptions?” So that was the debate, you can imagine which side I was on.
And you know, so my opponent gets up there. He’s first up, and he says “psychiatrists are medical doctors. We are medical scientists. And psychotherapists ask patients how they feel. And there is not a scientific piece of evidence that says that feelings are real. Therefore psychiatrists, being medical scientists, should not do a non-scientific process like Psychotherapy that asks about feelings.” And then he sits down.
The room was like standing room only, we were like the young whatever upcoming whatevers, and so I get up there and I’m going oh my God, what do I say to this? So I look at the audience. I look at my opponent. I just go “I feel really sad.” And then I sat down.
But then I said to him–I got back up–and I said, you know, “I don’t know a single scientific study that shows that my opponent exists.” And then I just sat down. Which was true.
Steven Winn: Along with the laughter, I’m hearing some sort of murmured affirmations out there. How different is it now than it was 30 years ago when you were starting this?
Daniel Siegel: Yeah, well, you know, it’s so interesting you’re asking that Steven, because I’m trained as a scientist, I felt a deep drive to bring to the field of Medicine, and the broader field of mental health, and then ultimately the field of parenting, you know, a scientific grounding.
So I brought a bunch of my colleagues together. I’m a trained attachment researcher. And I brought these 40 scientists together, and this is back in 1992, and basically with these interdisciplinary perspectives of you know, physicists and neuroscientists and psychologists and anthropologists and linguists and all sorts of folks, everyone together, I put together this field called intrapersonal neurobiology with these colleagues.
And you know, so I was really, I’ve put over this last whatever, I don’t know how many years it is now, but basically we have now 70 textbooks that I’ve overseen the publication of as the founding editor. And so what we try to do in this field is say “feelings are real and they’re really important, and the mind is not the same as the brain, no matter what Hippocrates said, or William James said.” And you know, we get a lot of pushback because people want to think mind is just a synonym for the brain. But in fact the mind is a fully embodied experience and its relational, like right now between me and you.
So what I say to people when medical schools ask me to teach their faculty I say, “look, from an interpersonal neurobiology perspective, you need to teach your medical students to understand the mind as a process that is in many ways differentiatable from the brain.” The brain is important, but the mind happens between us as much as within us. So if you’re teaching a physician how to take care of patients, they need to really focus on the connection between them. That’s where the mind happens. And the mind is all about healing.
Steven Winn: One of the things, for people who are not familiar with your work and I’m sure many are, is that you really meld those two things. Is that your books do talk about structures of the brains and the way the brain works and very physiological things that inform and interact with the ideas of feelings, which even today people have trouble grasping because they seem amorphous.
Daniel Siegel: Yeah. I know it’s so interesting, you know, every time–the main textbook that I first wrote was called “The Developing Mind,” and it’s now going to its third edition, 20 years after it was first published, and so I have you know, young people who I want to support in their growth and development and, you know teach them about interpersonal neurobiology. So I have, this time, I’ve had 16 interns work with me to go over all the over 3,000 papers that are supporting these perspectives.
And so it’s always fun to work with them and say, you know can we look deeply at the science of things like subjective experience and give a real strength to it? And I think we’re at a place where you know, you can move a whole field, the field of Mental Health. So that you asked, has it changed? And I think we have moved to a different place about understanding the relational aspect of mind and the importance of you know, human connections to create mental health.
Steven Winn: I’m gonna move to to a book of yours that seems, in my reading at least, kind of foundational to a lot of what you did, “Parenting From the Inside Out.” And there’s a line early in the book that says “making sense of your own life is the best gift you can give your child.” And you tell two stories about yourself in the book, which I think are interesting and revealing. One has to do with a shoe store.
Daniel Siegel: If I knew this was gonna be a psychotherapy session…
Steven Winn: It was, it absolutely, right?
Daniel Siegel: Let me get myself in that mode Steven.
Steven Winn: I’ll send you a bill later.
Daniel Siegel: This is good. Great, but this is confidential right?
Steven Winn: Absolutely. Everyone out there is sworn to secrecy. Tell the shoe shopping story, because I think it’s revealing of one aspect of what’s important.
Daniel Siegel: Yeah.
Steven Winn: About this point about knowing yourself and accessing experience in yourself and your path that informs….
Daniel Siegel: Yeah. This actual particular example’s from my co-author Mary Hartzell.
Steven Winn: Ah it’s her story.
Daniel Siegel: And bless her soul, she just passed after really fighting with early-onset Alzheimer’s so. You know, we can really take a moment to really reflect on a beautiful, beautiful person. And writing this book “Parenting from the Inside Out” with Mary was just an absolute joy. Absolute joy. So Mary tells the story of the shoes. That’s her story. But you know, the story is basically that, you know her issue when she was–maybe she was the one of the nine.
Steven Winn: She’s the one with the nine children.
Daniel Siegel: There you go. See where you can put us together. We’re very similar.
Steven Winn: Your mindmeld is perfect in the book.
Daniel Siegel: So she was someone who always didn’t get the shoes she wanted, it was always an anxious thing, and I think the reason was because she had an average shoe, you know, and so she could never get, cause they were always gone, an average shoe size. Anyway, so when she would then take her kids shoe shopping, this anxiety would always come about shoe shopping, and she’d get very curt with her kids. And she had to really reflect on, why am I being so irritated with these children when I take them shoe shopping? And why am I really like this?
So she had to really understand that the emotional state, the subjective experience that she was having in that moment created in the context of the relational thing going on the shoe store with her children, was an echo of memory. And we talk about different brain systems in memory. Because the brain is very important in its interaction with subjective experience, the mind, and how that comes out in our relationships.
So for Mary to stop putting all this reactivity on her kids, so they didn’t get anxious when they went shoe shopping, she needed to really take time, reflect, bring memory up into awareness, make sense of that memory, and then basically find meaning in the memory, which is the difference between just narrative and memory. So we can have lots of memories coming forward, but if you don’t make sense of them, you’re not creating what’s called a coherent narrative.
So this is basically, you know her experience as a preschool teacher and as a mom, and it was certainly my experience as a person on the planet, a therapist, but also as an attachment researcher, where that’s exactly what we had studied. That the most robust predictor of a way a child securely attached to a parent, turns out to be the way the parent has taken time to reflect on their past and make sense of that past. And they don’t have to sit down with their kid and say, “let me tell you all the different things I went through.” They make sense of it themselves.
And so that was you know, this book was very funny because I’d written “The Developing Mind.” It was a textbook for college and graduate school. And then this was the next book, I was writing with my daughter’s preschool director Mary. It got rejected 23 times.
Steven Winn: This book?
Daniel Siegel: This book. The manuscript, because people said, the publisher that rejected it said, “the American public does not want you to tell them what’s going on inside of them. They want you to tell them what’s going on wrong with their kid and fix it.” And so we wrote back to them and said “but that’s not what the science shows that parents should be doing.” And they said yeah, “but it won’t sell any books, what you’re telling us.” That’s literally what they said.
So luckily, you know some father who ran a publishing house, Jeremy Tarcher, handed it to his daughter and I ran into her in the line for the car at the valet at a grief center I was on the advisory board of. And she had just won this award for the Good Grief award, because do you remember it Lambchop?
Steven Winn: Shari Lewis.
Daniel Siegel: Shari Lewis. So this is Shari Lewis’s daughter. So Shari Lewis’s daughter took over when her mom passed. And so I’m standing in line. She sees my name tag. I said congratulations on winning the Good Grief award, it’s a really so beautiful you’re taking over Lambchop. She says “oh thank you.”
She looks at my name tag, she goes, “did you write a parenting book?” I said, “well I did but it’s been rejected 23 times.” And she goes, “not 24.” I said, “what do you mean?” She goes, “well, my dad sent the manuscript to me and I read it. It’s the best book I’ve ever read on parenting. And I told him if he doesn’t publish this book, I’m never going to talk to him again.” And that was Jeremy Tarcher for Tarcher Penguin Books.
Steven Winn: So you really owe it all to Lambchop ultimately.
Daniel Siegel: Yeah, that’s right. Always valet park your car, Steven. That’s the lesson there.
Steven Winn: That’s the lesson. If anybody out there’s got a book, you valet park, right. The other story that you tell is about yourself, and that’s about your vexation when you were a father of a young child at being upset by your child crying.
Daniel Siegel: Yeah. This is a hard story. This is a really good session we’re having.
Steven Winn: We are doing well. We’re doing well.
Daniel Siegel: Yeah. Good you start with Mary, who was like a sister to me, and now…
Steven Winn: Now we’re on you.
Daniel Siegel: Okay yeah alright, I’m ready.
Steven Winn: I’ve got the mindsight on you.
Daniel Siegel: You’re going to the youngest of nine, yeah. Okay.
Steven Winn: You’re not going to forgive me for that are you?
Daniel Siegel: No, I think it’s great. I’ve just expanded my family.
Steven Winn: You just haven’t met them yet.
Daniel Siegel: Maybe you’re one of them.
Steven Winn: Could be. There’s a lot out there.
Daniel Siegel: Actually let’s reverse this. Yeah, Steven, how do you feel meeting your brother now?
Steven Winn: So tell that story about you, because it’s interesting, because it’s…
Daniel Siegel: This is a hard story.
Steven Winn: It’s about accessing a different kind of experience than the shoe story, which is about accessing childhood experience.
Daniel Siegel: So interesting. You’re really picking up on these very powerful moments. I mean when Mary and I were sitting down together to write this book–and we literally wrote it together, I mean we had these two screens, one keyboard, because I was the typist, and we would talk about what we could say.
And you know, as I mentioned earlier as a joke, but it’s kind of true, as a therapist, you’re not supposed to share that much about your personal life or anything like that. And so, you know, I’d been working as a full-time therapist. That’s what I do for a living. And so we were talking about how writing a book about making sense of your life really needed to have the authors be open and vulnerable. And she and I really talked a lot about, could I do that as a active practicing therapist?
And I was very nervous about it. But ultimately she and I decided to do it. And then of course the book, because of Lambchop, you know, it was published. And I was waiting to see what happened. And that story has gotten so many positive responses from people, even from my patients. So I think it was worth the risk.
So what the story is, is very sad to tell. And I’ll, if I start getting emotional, you know emotions are real, right. You’re going to be there with…
Steven Winn: We’re all here for you Dan.
Daniel Siegel: Yeah, I mean. You know, here I was–the story is basically about our son who’s now almost 30. So it was a long time ago. This is when he was like less than 1. Or maybe around one. That I would, you know, even though I was like a year of Pediatrics, three years of adult psychiatry, two years of child psychiatry. I was two years of attachment Psychiatry research training, and I was the training director in child psychiatry, or maybe I was almost, I was being picked to be the training director.
So there was a lot of training, you know. And yet I was like flipping out as a father. I mean, I don’t mean flipping out like excited, I was that too. But there would be times when you know, our son would you know, get frustrated like babies do, and I’ve never actually been much with a baby except as a pediatrician. And I would find myself getting irritated and impatient and sometimes really actually kind of losing it. I mean really flipping my lid, going off the handle, and getting really upset. And not being very functional as a parent in those moments. And it was really confusing to me, obviously was frightening for my son, and it was confusing for my wife. And so, you know, I tried to make sense of these things.
And so I give examples of different times it would happen, but it would always be where he’d get kind of irritated and you know, and I would try to soothe him. He wouldn’t be soothed. And then I would try to soothe him more and he still wouldn’t be soothed, and then there would be almost like a switch inside of me.
And as I would reflect on this, it was obviously, I was ashamed of what was happening. As a father I was ashamed, as a physician I was ashamed, as an expert in attachment I was ashamed, you know, all these things like whoa.
And so the first layer of story was I said, okay. Well, I must have been like ignored as a child, you know, there must be something about like just being upset, that I must’ve been upset as a kid and maybe that was it.
And it was a story I told myself and it kind of helped a little bit. I would start telling myself the story when he was crying. Ok don’t put your own stuff on him. But it didn’t really help much, actually. I would still flip out, you know.
And then another layer came up. And this is the really painful part to say, that Mary and I decided to put in the book. And I was really nervous putting this in, I’m nervous even now saying it actually.
But the emotion that arose when he would be really upset and not responding to my attempt to soothe him wasn’t just “I’m frustrated.” It was I was really angry. I mean really angry. And I couldn’t figure that out, and then one time when I was in a car with my father-in-law and our son was in the backseat and getting upset and I got so angry, I had these images of stabbing a child.
And so I just, we were in a parking lot and I just jumped out of the car, because I didn’t want my hands near my son. And I just jumped out of the car and it was like I was in this other world, because with my eyes closed–and with my eyes open it was like there was a stabbing feeling–with my eyes closed, I could see I was actually, and I know we talked about, well anyway, about Pediatrics and its meaning for you.
For me, I was a pediatric intern. And it was late at night. And I was with my co intern. And there we were in the treatment room. And this kid was screaming and hollering. It was terribly ill, feverish. And no one could get his blood to see what his infection was. And we had to do all sorts of things that I don’t really want to talk about to save his life.
And when you’re holding a kid down who’s looking at you, screaming in terror. And trying to do something to save his life by inserting needles in his body. It’s just a kind of dissociation. You, as a physician, have got to do this procedure, and you have to ignore the connection with this young kid’s terror. And this would happen night after night after night in our internship. And I would just dissociate it away and my fellow interns and I would go whistling down the hallway thinking was the greatest year.
And I realized that it wasn’t just that I had to dissociate away his pain, which is what was happening with my own son now, but–and here’s where the anger comes in–the kids were so sick and dying that we as young medical students who had no preparation in being taught mindsight or anything like that, we had to feel so helpless, so profoundly helpless, that it was almost like it was making us be ashamed of what we were.
And so what started happening–I’ve talked to lots of Physicians since–is that this whole dynamic of you not being able to save every patient. Because a lot of patients we had, we were in a tertiary care Pediatric Center, a lot of kids died. And that’s not why we went into Pediatrics. We went to play with kids, you know. So that shame that we were unsuccessful made us actually angry at the people that were making us feel so helpless. And those were the patients, the kids, and their family.
And once I came to realize that incredibly shameful realization that not only me, but later as I’ve talked to other physicians, other Physicians too, would actually have anger toward the patients who were vulnerable, because of an inability to sit with their own vulnerability and helplessness.
And once I came to that realization, I was writing in a journal about it, I talked to my therapist about it, the flipping out stopped. Until he became an adolescent. Then it’s a whole other set of issues.
Steven Winn: We’ll get to that.
Daniel Siegel: And you can hear about them in his songs. He’s a musician. You can listen to that.
Steven Winn: I’m really glad, first of all, that you wrote it in the book and that you unpacked it in such detail here tonight, because I think it illustrates how difficult it is to do this kind of work that you are encouraging parents to do.
Daniel Siegel: Yeah.
Steven Winn: That finding the things in their pasts that are informing, shaping, distorting, sometimes, their parenting, is really hard work. And the fact that you found it not just in you know, we all think oh, it’s the things that happen to us as children. Experience keeps going, and this was something that happened to you as a young adult.
Daniel Siegel: As an adult. Yeah. I mean I was you know, probably around 25 at the time but I was yeah, exactly. Right, you know, and this is, thank you for bringing it up, and we’ll–you’re a great listener Steven. No, but seriously, thank you for bringing it up, because what Mary Hartzell and I wanted to do with “Parenting From the Inside Out” is make it like one big hug.
And the reason we both put in our own stories was we know this is hard. And parents, by knowing about how memory works, about how narrative works, about how realizing we do the best we can, when you could realize that the reason to make sense of your past is because even though you can’t change the past, you can change the way you make sense of the past.
And so even for me being trained as a therapist, a psychiatrist, all these things I was trained in, it was a moment, and you know, I was ashamed of even putting in the book, but since then it’s been just so so powerful to connect with people who read the book, and it gives them permission to go to very vulnerable and deep places.
Steven Winn: Yeah, I guess one question that comes up about this, is you give such, you know, great advice about–and this is not a how-to book about parenting. None of your work is that. It’s many things that combines, integrates lots of things. But I think one question people have about this is, gee, I’m in the moment with this kid. You know, they’re throwing a fit at Starbucks there, you know, I can’t get past something.
How do you do this excavation of your past when you are so seized up in the moment? I’ve got to get through this thing. And don’t we have an instinct as humans to, once I’ve gotten through it, well, I’m done with that. We’re going to you know, sort of wipe our hands of that.
Daniel Siegel: Yeah, no exactly.
Steven Winn: How do you access that in the moment?
Daniel Siegel: Yeah, I mean, so the first thing to say is that the making sense process isn’t just in those moments in Starbucks. Yeah, so I mean, you do it, you know, at other coffee shops. So but you take the time to really give yourself and your child that gift. So that’s why we wrote the book.
Okay, but now you’re in Starbucks. Now this thing is happening and the idea of even the book “Aware,” that we can talk about, is if you had to do, like in you know in the movie “The Graduate” when Dustin Hoffman is not knowing what to do and some guy comes up to him and says “I want to tell you one thing young man. Plastics.” Right? You got that?
Steven Winn: I got the plastic.
Daniel Siegel: So the one word for parenting, if I was on an elevator and say well, what’s the secret of parenting? It’s the word “presence.” Not with a tee, but a c-e you know. I saw your mind going there. Did I get enough presents for my children? Yeah.
Steven Winn: You saw into my cynical, materalistic mind.
Daniel Siegel: Yes, I actually have a toy store… So yeah, presence, with a “c,” you know, presence, so showing up, you know. And this idea of presence, in the book “Aware,” you can see this exciting moment we have in science, in that book, where we can understand what presence is and how to cultivate it.
So in Starbucks, the idea is, yeah, your kid can get really upset and frustrated and this can happen. And so you can have an immediate reaction. And if you just think about a wheel where presence is in the hub of the wheel, where you’re aware, in a receptive open way. But on the rim, you have all the different thoughts, feelings, and reactions you can have, okay.
So if you’ve done the work of this wheel of awareness practice, which you can do from my website and it’s in the book, what you do basically, is you’re able to see, oh, I just reacted to my child in Starbucks with a “don’t do that!” Like that.
And if you then come off the rim–and this is something you can do focusing on the breath, and if you’ve done the wheel practice–you then drop yourself into the hub. And from the hub, you’re able to get down on your child’s level and say “you really can’t pull that down, that’s not okay.” So you stop dangerous behavior.
But now what you’re doing is you connect before you redirect. So this is the difference between a master of parenting or a disaster, to use the Gottman’s way of thinking about it. Right, because parents who just react, reactivity just creates more reactivity in the child. Receptivity pre
sence with you as a parent invites your child to be present for what’s going to change. So connect before you redirect is the way Tina Bryson, my other co-author, and I you know phrase that.
And there’s all sorts of fun things parents can learn. Like, name it to tame it. Right. So if you have the capacity to say to your child, “I know you’re really frustrated that you can’t pull all these toys off the shelf,” and you identify the frustration, there’s even brain studies that show that the activation that’s all there in a heightened emotional moment, if you use other centers of the brain to name what that internal state is, frustration, anger, fear, shame, the whole system becomes more equilibrated. It becomes more in balance.
So name it to tame it is a fun thing, you know, it’s a phrase that you can use, but it actually has a huge amount of science behind it. In fact everything I write as a scientist and clinician and educator is science based. And so this is why I think people find it so accessible, because I try to translate the science for everyday use. Like the Starbucks example.
Steven Winn: Yeah. Well, I mean one of the guiding premises and sort of informing thoughts of “The Whole Brain Child” is the moment you were trying to just get through, are actually the moments for great teaching experience and great parenting moments. If you can master them by doing just these kind of things. And some of it indeed comes from understanding the way your child’s brain operates, that’s not necessarily the same as an adult brain operates. Let’s talk a little bit about that. Left brain, right brain and upstairs brain, downstairs brain. Let’s unpack that a little bit.
Daniel Siegel: Right and you know, parents, when they learn about the brain, realize as–the first time this ever happened it was when Mary and I were actually getting ready to think about writing the book and I was teaching parents about these parts of the brain.
And I do it with a hand model, right? So you put your thumb in the middle, put your fingers over the top and you have a pretty–my daughter says don’t say this–so but a handy model of the brain, you know. Sorry, Maddie. Anyway, I can’t help myself sometimes. But it’s useful, it’s really useful.
And so I was teaching this in the workshop, and a mom said, because I said, look there’s a higher part of the brain. Tina Bryson and I now call it the upstairs brain. And the lower parts. The limbic thumb and the brain stem, which is in your palm, the downstairs part. And the way these coordinate with each other makes all the difference. And if you’ve had a difficult childhood set of experiences that you haven’t made sense of, it can make this system more vulnerable to flipping out, flipping your lid. And I give the example, you know of what happened to me with my son when I was young.
And so the next day after I teach this in a class about flipping your lid and the prefrontal region, this higher brain, not coordinating the whole system, and then acting in ways like I acted with my son. This mom comes to me the next morning and she says “that hand model of the brain changed everything.” I said, “what do you mean?” She goes, “well, first of all, I had a very difficult childhood,” she tells me, and I said “okay.” And she goes “and I understand by understanding this hand model of the brain that it’s not my fault, but it is my responsibility.”
And it was amazing, and we elaborated more. She said that she doesn’t have to beat herself up more for these, what I call them, low road behaviors or flipping your lid, like what I did with my son, instead you can use it just as you’re saying, not just saying, “oh this is such a burden being a parent,” but those challenging moments are actually invitations for growth and opportunity to learn. And she was able to see that.
So the hand model is basically this. Where attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connection grows. So the reason you as a parent want to know about your brain, is because you can actually use your attention to get your brain to fire in a different way, and then to rewire in a way that I call integrative. To link different parts of the brain together. Every study shows that is the basis of well-being.
So all of my writings about this process of the linking of differentiated parts, let’s just call that integration. So in your question about the hand model of the brain, you know, you got a hundred billion neurons, they’re all over the place, there’s trillions of connections. It’s overwhelming. How can you teach a parent who’s busy anyway about the brain?
It goes like this. Integration in the brain is health in your child. Period. And when you have integration in a relationship you stimulate integration in your child’s brain. Period. And every form of regulation you can name, regulating attention, emotion, mood, memory, morality, behavior, all those forms called executive functions–they all depend on integration in the brain.
So what we try to do in all these books is basically say to parents “you can trust your intuition and here’s a little bit of science to help you along the way.” If you have your relationship, the pattern of communication, be honoring differences and promoting linkages, that’s integration, you will give your child the kind of experiences that are actually going to shape the way their brain grows in an integrated way. And that’s what your job is. To be present for your child so you can integrate in a relationship to help them become integrated inside their body and their brain.
Steven Winn: Understanding that the children’s brains tend to be right brain more dominant, that they’re more about emotions and they’re more about that, and when you say connect and redirect, instead of trying to logically you know, to argue your child, or legislate your child out of an emotion, it’s about connecting to that emotion first, restating it back to them in a logical way. Is that right? Am I getting it right?
Daniel Siegel: Yeah, exactly. No, that’s exactly right. And you know, I got to say what’s so interesting about the way you’ve just phrased that is, you know, when I do the science editing and do “The Developing Mind” stuff, that’s like for graduate school and stuff. And then I write these parenting books.
So just that phrase, the reality is something like this. The sensations of the body arise up into the brain and the head with a dominant influence on the right side, you’re absolutely right. And the right side of the brain is really tuned into nonverbal signals and nonverbal communication. Interestingly, even the right side of the brain is dominant for a sense of self and autobiographical memory.
Whereas the left is actually a little more distant from the body. It has emotions for sure, but a little more distant from the body. And it can be using linguistic symbols, language, much more than nonverbal, that’s in the right. So when you look at the studies of brain scans and you say “name it to tame it,” where does that come from?
It comes from literally showing a photograph, which is a nonverbal signal, the right hemisphere gets super activated. That’s what you see in the brain scan. And then you have the person name their emotional state or what they see in the photograph. And the whole system comes down when the left and the right work together. When it becomes integrated it achieves harmony. When they’re not working together, then it’s either in chaos or rigidity. That’s the amazing pattern.
So for parents basically the fun thing that’s so effective, you say, chaos, things being totally out of control and unpredictable, or rigidity, things being shut down–those are the two kind of banks outside of the river of harmony. And this all comes from a mathematical analysis I did years ago of looking at complex systems basically, but understanding and thinking about what well being is composed of.
So, here’s the simplest statement Steven. Well-being comes from integration. So when we talk about these parts of the brain and a hand model all this stuff, it’s all about integration. And amazingly integration in the body and integration in relationships go hand-in-hand.
Steven Winn: Another important thing you talked about about the brain is how experience actually physiologically changes the brain and. I mean that’s really profound, interesting stuff. And talk about a little bit about what the implications of that are for parents who are trying to understand.
Daniel Siegel: Yeah. Well, you know in my own experience when I was in medical school, the person who taught me Neuroscience was a professor named David Hubel. And in 1981, when I was in medical school, he won the Nobel Prize for discovering that experience shapes the structure of the brain.
So when I was in medical school, this is like, we celebrated his Nobel Prize and it was like awesome. And so this was just what I was taught. And yet when I entered Pediatrics and Psychiatry, people seem to not know that.
And they seem to be saying “oh the only thing that happens is the brain doesn’t work well because of genes and give him medication because that’s the only thing that’s going to really help with a genetically not well formed brain.”
And it was just amazing, you weren’t allowed to talk about how experience shaped the brain, because of partly what happened in the 50s and 60s when unfortunately my field, child mental health, had accused parents of children with schizophrenia or Autism as being the cause of those conditions. And that was the saddest travesty that happened. So it’s an understandable pushing away from that.
And it went to the further extreme, which they said when I was in training Pediatrics and psychiatry, you were not supposed to talk about experience shaping the brain. You were supposed to figure out which medication you would prescribe for someone who unfortunately had some genetic reason their brain wasn’t working well.
So when I went into attachment research, it was inspired by my Professor Hubel, David Hubel, you know for discovering that in fact experience shapes brain. So for me, it wasn’t like something new, it was how I was trained. To then say, okay if David was right, then let’s see how therapy changes the brain. Let’s see how parenting changes the brain. Let’s see how meditation changes the brain.
And people thought I was literally out of my mind. Not that they knew what the mind was. But you know, they would say that you know, and I guess I just felt if you could identify that the mind was a process emerging from and regulating energy flow, then that energy flow could happen between us, and that’s what a relationship we would study in attachment research was all about, or energy flow could happen in the brain. And the way you used your mind to direct that flow is what meditation is. So for me meditation, mindfulness meditation, and secure attachment actually have the exact same research outcomes.
So when this started becoming clear when I was working in both those fields at the same time that didn’t talk to each other, I would just go, “wow, they both seem to be integrative.” One is a kind of internal attunement for mindfulness meditation, the other’s an interpersonal attunement, both are where energy flow patterns are being integrated, and they create, and this turns out to be true, integration growth in the brain happens with secure attachment, and it happens with mindfulness meditation, in basically exactly the same parts and networks of the brain. It’s amazing.
Steven Winn: We sort of know that we’re social beings, we know that intuitively. But to understand that our brains are wired together in some important way.
Daniel Siegel: Really wired together. I mean, you know, for you and for me to be speaking with each other like this, you can actually talk about–there are two professors I’m working with at MIT, Otto Scharmer and Peter Senge, about what we call generative social fields, and we believe very deeply that just on the human level, you can look at these fields that are producing, I think, that’s integrative states.
And I’m doing some work with Paul Hawken who you know wrote “Drawdown,” he edited “Drawdown,” and it’s all about our environmental health. And you can even look at the way human beings are not integrating with Earth and you see the chaos or rigidity that’s emerging in our climate challenges.
So the good news about that, even at the level of climate change, is if you can work with humanity to have us stop differentiating so much from other species on the planet, and realize we are hugely interconnected, because we’ve shut off those linkages, we actually can change the course of how human life on Earth is unfolding.
So these ideas of integration and what you do with consciousness, you know, we’re doing all sorts of things to try to bring different fields together. So whether it’s environmental scientists or medical scientists or parenting experts, we actually need to work together because this is an urgent time to raise these issues to see how, basically it’s energy flow patterns, are either going to be integrative and promote collaboration, connection, creativity, compassion or create this divisiveness that you’re seeing in the world now where everything seems to be going into rigidity or chaos.
And it’s a non integrative path we are on, and so we need to use our incredible capacity for consciousness, to use this, just like in the parenting thing, and Paul Hawken says this beautifully, not as saying “oh my God, the world is falling apart, this is a terrible terrible.” But say, “what does this chaos and rigidity invite us to do? How is it an opportunity for us to grow together?”
And I have a term called “mwe,” M-W-E, where we have to stop being a separate self that’s just me me me me me, and not just get rid of that and say “oh but we’re a we, yeah Kumbaya, all great.” No, you have to hold on to me, because what you do with your body in terms of making sense of your life is important, feeding your body well, sleeping your body well, educating your body, exercising your body, all these things are me.
But we are also a we. And if you put them together to integrate it, because integration’s more like a fruit salad than a smoothie, you know, you want to keep me and we together, you get a mwe, and I think if mwe do this, with conversations like this, mwe can change the direction of life on Earth.
Steven Winn: One of the things that’s great about reading your work is that you read it at so many levels. There are these very, you know challenging and exciting ideas that we’ve been talking about tonight, and there are also sort of very grounded kind of things, here’s how it translates into sort of the day-to-day.
“The Whole Brain Child” has 12 strategies for what you do, and we’re not going to get to all of them, but a couple of them are sort of, really made this wonderful and intuitive aha sense to me, why didn’t I think of that when I was a parent of a young child?
Strategy number seven, making recollection of part of your family’s daily life. And the example that’s used is we’ve all had this experience as parents, so no matter how old your kids are, it starts pretty early, you ask them “how was your day at school?” “Fine.” Or some variant thereof, or even less than that sometimes.
Daniel Siegel: I could have done that with you tonight.
Steven Winn: You could have?
Daniel Siegel: Yeah, you said “well, tell me about the nine kids.” “Yeah, they’re okay. They’re good”
Steven Winn: But I mean one of the things that you suggest that a parent might do is, instead of, to try to draw your child out, and this is about memory and trying to facilitate it in your child, “tell me two things that happened in your day. Tell one thing that’s true and one thing that isn’t true and I’ll try to guess which one is true.”
Daniel Siegel: Yeah exactly.
Steven Winn: Which I thought was great. I wished I thought of that.
Daniel Siegel: You know, I, that’s why we wrote the book. We wish we thought of it too. Actually I can say that, Tina has young kids.
Yeah. I mean the idea there is, and maybe it’s because you know, I’m a therapist, and I’m also a scientist. So, you know, I love the science. I mean, you know, in “Aware” we go deeply into quantum physics and the origin of consciousness and stuff like that. But when I, a therapist, I’ve got to work in a very practical way to help people.
Steven Winn: Right.
Daniel Siegel: So I guess in the books, it was a natural thing to say, how can you translate this complex science in a way that’s actually fun and hopefully interesting, but always effective and helpful. So that’s where it comes from, you know.
And so this would be an example where your child can do much better with a specific way that you’re using recollection to invite in a sense, if you want to go with the brain, invite the circuitry of memory and reflection to be activated. So it’s one of these three R’s I talk about. Reflection, relationships, and resilience, these new 3 R’s in education. This would be one example of teaching kids to reflect.
In some ways it’s exactly what we’re talking about about mindsight. You know, there are parents who never would ask a child what they’re remembering. And the studies are really clear, parents who asked children about what they remember have children with stronger memories. Parents who talk to kids about their emotions have kids who can be aware of their own emotional state, the emotional state of others, and therefore regulate those states better.
So what we do in our conversations, reflecting on the inner nature of the mind actually changes the structures in the brain that allow healthier regulation to unfold. So what I said as a researcher, you know, seeing what all the other researchers were doing, finally I said, you know, “I’m a clinician, why can’t this be available not just to my patients in my office, but to someone who might read a book?”
You know and so this is what’s been so deeply deeply rewarding for me as just a person on the planet, is to be able to put some words on a page, and then have parents read them and come up to me, you know, sometimes with tears in their eyes or a big hug, and say, you know “learning that kind of thing has made a huge difference for my family.”
Steven Winn: Before we go to questions, which we will, just a moment, the people who read your books are already inclined towards learning and becoming more mindful about their parenting. What about folks who are carrying so much damage forward from their pasts that this process is just much more challenging? What about them? I mean, we all have pain in our past. But it isn’t distributed equally. And trauma and just, but trauma of all kinds.
How do parents unpack those things and not deliver them as we hear often that you know, cycles of abuse and all these things that we know well about? What advice do you have about that? What thoughts do you have about that? It’s a big topic I know, but.
Daniel Siegel: Yeah. You know, I think when parents hear that there’s science behind the following statement, it’s very helpful. And here’s the statement. That no matter what you may have been through, no matter how hard it was, no matter how terrifying it was, no matter what was done to you or what you did. The research is very clear.
If you take the time and and really take strength and courage to reflect on what happened by making sense, not just intellectually analyzing what happened, but feeling and sensing those things from memory, then you can actually liberate yourself from the prison of the past.
And that statement combined with what some people are hearing, which is the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, done here in California, you know, tells us that if we’ve had a really hard set of things and get a certain score on that scale that it’s going to be a medical problem for our life. Even having a shorter life.
I immediately say, when people ask me about that, those studies were just epidemiological studies, were not looking at people who took time to make sense of their life. They’re not looking at people for example, who did a reflective process of journal writing. It did not look at people who got therapy. It did not look at people who did meditation.
And that those ways of reflecting and making sense can actually, and research has shown this, they can reduce the cortisol hormone of stress. They can improve immune function. They can reduce inflammation by changing the molecules that sit on top of genes that control your inflammation response. They can improve your cardiovascular factors. And they even, this was shown in San Francisco, they can even alter an enzyme called telomerase, that will repair and then maintain the ends of your chromosomes so your cells can be healthier and you can be healthier and live longer even.
So what I say to them is, the research is really clear that the very factors that are the reason why adverse childhood experiences are likely causing these medical issues that can be life-threatening are probably these five factors I name. And we know that ways you make sense of your life and do for example, mind training of mindfulness meditation as one example, they can reverse all five of those factors. So I say that right away in the first paragraph of engaging in someone.
And then I say look, you may not realize this, but that making sense process of becoming present for whatever you’ve been through can actually change the molecules of your body that are the very ways, if you don’t do this work, that will make your life really difficult, medically even. But you can use your mind in the making sense process to heal those early adverse experiences and have health now.
Steven Winn: Incredible plasticity and and resilience of the brain and of us.
Daniel Siegel: Exactly.
Steven Winn: Physiologically and emotionally.
Daniel Siegel: With the action of the mind. And in relationships that are supportive. This is the great news. So we’re in an amazing moment of science to give people hope. Even though we know we should prevent child abuse, absolutely. Prevent child neglect. Absolutely. And now say if you were someone who’s neglected or abused when you were a kid, there is incredible hope for you.
Do the work. It’s hard to do. It’s painful. And I’m glad you brought up the story of you know, me flipping out, because it’s painful to go into places of shame like that and to act in ways you don’t want to act or to feel things you don’t want to feel. Feelings are real and really important and you can heal them. And that’s the message I try to give people.
Steven Winn: Right. We’re going to bring the audience into this now.
Daniel Siegel: Thank you Steven.
Steven Winn: If you have a question, thanks to you Dan. If you have a question, raise your hand, please and someone with a with a mic will come to some of you.
City Arts & Lectures: This question is all the way at your right, towards the middle of the orchestra.
Audience Member 1: Hi, thank you so much for being here. My question, I’ve heard it attributed to you that something about how parents, if at least like half the time we’re sort of getting it right in terms of responding with a regulated humane response, you know, if we’re sort of generally speaking half the time we’re getting it right, you know right, wrong, take it with a grain of salt, but that our children will benefit and still sort of reap those rewards and it’ll help them be regulated too. And as a parent I love that. You know, I love that.
I’m also a teacher, and 50 percent’s like an F. It’s literally an F. So I’m wondering, is that an accurate thing? And I love it, but I’m also wondering, wouldn’t it be more like 70%? Because like I’m thinking if your kid breaks, I mean hear me out, like your kid breaks a vase or something, or they’ve done something, and as they’re coming to you, as they’re about to approach you, isn’t there some sort of predictive ease or some calm in that transition to seeing their beloved parent?
Like don’t they have to sort of know what they’re going to get generally speaking? And I’m wondering about that. And I you know, I heard the thing on the radio today, the professor about the dandelion and the orchid, and I’m wondering maybe it’s the difference, if you accept that, maybe it’s a difference in the type of child and how much they need you to be reliable.
Daniel Siegel: Wow, so that’s a whole other evening right there, that holds one question. That’s great. I would like to be a student in your class.
So just to cover a couple of things. You know, the first thing to say is absolutely there’s–to get your last point first. There is something called temperament and there is something called attachment. And they appear to be relatively distinct from one another. That is, you are born with, either because of genetics or what’s called epigenetics, or things not related to experience, like just random things that happen in utero, you know you’re born with a certain proclivity of your nervous system called temperament, there’s lots of ways of measuring and talking about it, so it’s very important.
And temperament in a way combines with parenting experiences called attachment, so that you develop your personality based on kind of an amalgam of that. And classically people would call that you know, nature for the temperament, and nurture for the attachment. And we should never use the word versus, it’s always and. It’s nature and nurture. There’s no reason to ever say nature versus nurture. So that’s the first thing to say, and there’s different categories that people have for how to divide that up.
The second thing you say in terms of 50% or 70%, and I get your point, like shouldn’t your child have like the majority of experience be some way so that their brain doing a summary thing says, “oh the most likely outcome is my mom is going to do this or that.” Is that what you mean by the seventy percent versus the 50? Like that? So I mean that’s really great math. I mean that’s beautiful.
So I’ll just point out, you know, there’s a beautiful researcher and colleague, a friend of mine, Ed Tronick. And you know Ed does some beautiful research. And the bottom line is, when you just hang out with a family, most of the time parents aren’t getting it right. They’re just you know, distracted or whatever, this and that. And the issue is when there’s a heightened emotional moment, and there’s a rupture in the connection, is there some time when the parent recognizes the rupture and makes a repair?
So the word repair would be the most important word in your 50 verses 70% thing. So that ultimately it isn’t about perfect parenting. There is no such thing as perfect parenting. The reason why Mary and I or Tina and I always put an examples of how we flubbed up as parents, even though we’re writing this book, is because repair repair repair. You couldn’t say it enough. It’s the most important thing and that’s where we have to be kind to ourselves as parents.
Now that being said, repair requires a kind of presence to say oh I messed up. There was a rupture in that 50% or the 30%, whichever number you want to use of yours. And so that’s what kids really want to look at.
Now, I’m an attachment researcher, so we have our own ways of categorizing these patterns of parenting. And what we do see is that about 55 to 65 percent of the non-clinical US population has a kind of relationship their kid has with them that’s called secure attachment. And so that’s cool. And what that generally means is that parents, when they mess up, they make a repair of the rupture. Doesn’t mean they’re perfect parents, but there are patterns–this gets to your last part of your question–you know about what your kid can expect.
We’ve done studies to show–now the kids that we initially studied are in their forties–so we have a lot of data to support what about to say, you can show that the pattern that is created repeatedly, let’s say not paying attention to the emotional life of your child, not paying attention to the mind of your child, results in what’s called avoidant attachment.
And those kids with avoidant attachment have certain patterns of being as adolescents and adults into their 40s that you know, you could actually alter by altering your parenting. So it’s you know, you wouldn’t say they flubbed up, but they’ve created a certain way of ignoring the mind if you will.
Or in other cases, I go through piece by piece. So the issue is you’re absolutely right, there are patterns, there’s no such thing as perfect parenting, if that’s the essence of your question, and repair is so important.
And so just knowing that, you can take a deep breath. Everybody, let’s all take a deep breath in the room. And that’s great, and then just have a lot of fun. Seriously, I mean I would, I like to say, because my kids are you know, almost 25 and almost 30, you know is, “the days may be really long, but the years are really short.” You know, you got to really appreciate the incredible gift of being able to hang with your kids no matter what challenges they bring you. You know, and just love them. Be crazy about them. And that’s really what what kids thrive with.
Steven Winn: Strategy number eight: teaching with feelings come and go. Most feelings, you say, pass in about 90 seconds. Which is, those 90 seconds can seem real long, but it really is ninety seconds. I thought that was a nice observation. We should probably grade on a curve when it comes to parenting too, shouldn’t we?
Daniel Siegel: We shouldn’t grade at all actually. But in terms of the curve, you know kids will throw you a curveball. And this is like loose associations, but they’ll throw you a curveball. And you know, really finding a sense of joy in parenting.
There’s a great school system in Italy Mary used to work with. Reggio Emilia. And when you go there, there’s a sign over the main entryway and it says “Niente Senza Gioia.” Nothing without joy. And really if you just take a step back.
And you know, I always call it like the 99 year old person perspective. You’re 99, you’re on your deathbed, and you’re looking back on your life when you had young kids. What kind of wisdom would you like to give yourself now from that 99-year-old bedside? Right? And so like have fun. Enjoy, bring love into, bring light, bring joy. That’s Niente Senza Gioia.
Steven Winn: Another question.
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s from the back of the balcony towards your left.
Audience Member 2: Up here. I would like to know if you can talk a little bit about grandparents admitting the mistakes that they made, because I remember at one point hectoring my teenage son about lying, and my mother saying “oh we all lie,” which allowed us both to back away from this, you know loggerheads. Can you give me any advice as to what I can do as a parent grandparent?
Daniel Siegel: Yeah, such a beautiful question. Thank you. I mean the first thing to say about it, and just to make a pitch for our human origins, is we evolved, in terms of grandparents, to have something called allo parenting. A-L-L-O parenting. So allo means other.
And Sarah Hrdy, H-R-D-Y, wrote a beautiful book called “Mothers and Others.” And the issue is that, unlike most other mammals and certainly most other primates, we humans have a very unique thing that we do. We take our incredibly precious resource, our infant, and we hand them over.
So if Steven and I were in a community and I could read Steven’s mind and know where your attention is, what your awareness is on, you know what you’re feeling, what you’re, you know, really holding inside of you. And I would say, “here Steven. Take my baby, here.” And I would give my baby to you, and I’m going to go get us some food from the field.
So now I’ve got to read Steven’s mind to make sure this baby is going to be protected and cared for while I go out to the field. So we evolved because of allo parenting. It meant we could read the mind of–mindsight basically–mindsight developed at the core of our humanity. And we first learned about the mind of another before we learned about our own mind. It’s an amazing amazing finding.
So Steven’s now caring for my baby. I’m getting the food. And now we are nesting, we’re sharing the food, sharing childcare. And so in terms of grandparents, the first part of my response to your question is, we need to remember we were meant to live in community. And contemporary culture is not like that. I was gonna say something else a little more severe. It’s sick. And we need to correct that illness. We were meant to live connected to one another in trust and community. So that’s the first thing to say about the grandparents.
The second thing to say in terms of, you know, working this through and your question specifically was about how the grandparents can figure out things about this. I’ll just say very briefly, I’ve got to change some things as a clinician, but there was once this incredible moment where some grandparents had the courage to come into town to work with their adult child with her kids. And so the kids were at home. But now we were working as adult grandparents with their child who was an adult.
For them to have the courage to go through the adult attachment review, this way that you work in the “Parenting From the Inside Out” book, to make sense of your life. And they did this in front of their daughter. And the things that came out were incredibly empowering for the whole family to find reconnection with one another. Incredibly painful things that had never been spoken. Things that absolutely influenced the parenting experience of this young mother.
And that liberation that comes from making sense in terms of the grandparents is part of this cross generational thing. Because we do have cross-generational passage of insecure attachment. That’s been shown. And you can liberate yourself from that by making sense of your life. And that’s, at the heart of this question is, you know, we need to embrace these connections we have, but we need to also encourage grandparents and parents to do this making sense process.
Steven Winn: And what’s nice about that is it’s never too late.
Daniel Siegel: It’s never too late. Absolutely, Steven. That is the big message from tonight. It is never ever too late.
Steven Winn: Let’s take another question.
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s all the way at your right at the front of the orchestra.
Audience Member 3: Hi, Dan.
Daniel Siegel: Hi.
Audience Member 3: Where attention goes neural firing flows.
Daniel Siegel: And neural connection grows, yeah.
Audience Member 3: Neural connection grows. And feelings are real.
Daniel Siegel: Feelings are real.
Audience Member 3: So where tension goes neural firing–does that stimulate feeling? Emotions? Or does the emotion come up from the bottom to the top and then the top tries to make sense of it? And how does it then manifest as behavior? That whole…
Daniel Siegel: Boy, this is like another evening we could have. This is great. This is so–these questions
Audience Member 3: I’m available.
Daniel Siegel: are so great. You’re available. Good good good good. I don’t know about you, but for me, this is so much fun. I mean, you know to be able to talk deeply about this. Yes.
Audience Member 3: I’m a 55 year old father of a four-year-old.
Daniel Siegel: 55 year old father of a four year old. Okay good. Great. Okay, so.
Steven Winn: Never too late to have a child.
Daniel Siegel: That’s right. So your four-year-old has given birth to a father. That is so cool. Yay. Awesome. I love it. That’s so good. So I’ll say a couple of things and. So so like, you know, there’s me as a dad resonating with you. There’s me as you know, a clinician thinking about the issues of the emotion stuff. Then there’s me as a scientist finishing this third edition of “The Developing Mind” and you know thinking about all the different scientific studies of emotion. So there’s so much I could say about this one question you’re asking, so I’m going to try to make this really brief.
The issue here has to do I think with the fact that many of the fields of science that would be relevant to your question don’t talk about something that’s bewildering to me why it’s not talked about. But it’s energy. It’s energy flow.
And so for me emotion is a shift in the state of integration of energy flow, so that when an emotion is rising from the different organs of the body, up through lamina one, this layer one of the spinal cord, and up through the tenth cranial nerve, the vagus nerve, and moving up into an area called the insula, and driving itself up especially in the right hemisphere of the brain, into these regions that allow you to make representations, a re-presentation of the body’s state.
That’s the first step to answer your question, is that the registration of body state is probably what we mean by emotion. Right. So that’s all a body thing. In fact, the first brain was not in your head, it was in your heart and your intestines. And all this stuff is moving upward to the head brain.
The next thing that happens is–this gets to your question about what do you do with it, how does it affect behavior–these states, these energy states are not only happening in the body, they can happen like right now between you and me. So like I could go like this. “Well, that’s kind of a boring question. What’s the next question?” Like that, and that would be a certain emotional response.
But instead, you know, I’m resonating with you and what you said and being a father and all this stuff. So you can feel that in me. So there’s a shift in integration between the two of us. Now that shift in integration relationally affects my body, it affects your body, so we’re resonating.
And I have an, I’m an acronym addict, but you have the acronym “PART” P-A-R-T. I’m present for your question, and I’m attuning to your internal aspect of what’s going on. That’s the A. I’m resonating with you, and then it develops trust.
So in terms of what you’re gonna do with your four-year-old, your part that you’re going to play as a dad is to be present, attuned, resonate, and cultivate trust. And that’s basically what’s going to happen, so that as you show this in your behavior with your child and when there’s ruptures which are going to happen for sure. Even if you write books about this, they’re going to happen.
You’re going to make a repair, meaning you’re going to realign, be present, apologize, say let’s make a reconnection, especially with a four-year-old, attune, resonate, and develop this trust.
Now, we could do this example if you want, and I don’t know if we have time to this Steven, but there’s this experience of reactive states and receptive states. If you want to do this, it takes like two minutes to do, I don’t know.
Steven Winn: Let’s do it.
Daniel Siegel: You want to do it. Okay. So just to respond to your question in an experiential way, everyone put your stuff down and we’re just going to do this teeny little exercise where I’m going to say a word. I’m going to repeat it several times. And all your task is to do is just be aware, so have a receptive state of awareness, to whatever happens. I’ll repeat the word several times. I’ll pause. Then I’ll repeat another word again, and then we’ll pause. And then we’ll do some other things. So here’s how it goes. Just get yourself ready.
No. No. No. No. No, no, no.
Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes, yes. Yes. Yes.
Take a nice deep breath. And try putting one hand on your chest and one hand on your abdomen, especially if you’re not driving a car. Put some gentle pressure, do some nice deep breathing. And now switch it out so the hand on your chest goes to your abdomen, the one on your abdomen goes to your chest, nice deep breathing. And now put it whichever way feels most comforting for you. Left on top or right on top. And just put some gentle pressure. Sense your breathing.
And now take a nice deep breath. All right. Thank you. And you can leave your hands like that if you’d like, or put them in your lap. So let’s just see a show of hands, how many of you felt a difference between the sensations in awareness with no versus yes, raise your hand. Okay, so it’s virtually everybody, that’s very good. And you know, if we had time, we would go through the audience and say what did no feel like, what did yes feel like. Let’s just shout out a couple of words for no. What did no feel like?
Scary. What do you hear? Fear. Steven you…Say some more.
Steven Winn: Hostile.
Daniel Siegel: Okay hostile. Okay, so you can feel it. So that’s called a reactive state, and we’ll talk about in a moment. Now what about yes. Let’s start on this end. Just shout out a word or two and Steven will repeat them.
Steven Winn: Calm. Open. Soothing. Peaceful.
Daniel Siegel: Peaceful. Encouraging. Inviting. Very good.
Okay, great. So that’s a receptive state. So the brain has two states. Reactive or receptive. So in terms of your question about being a 55 year old father with a four-year-old child, the first thing to say about emotions is the shift in integration. The receptive yes state is a state that permits integration to unfold. You can be present, attuned, resonate, and create trust. That’s the receptive state.
We often get into the no state unintentionally. And in the no state, what you’re doing is creating the reactive state in the brain that happens with threat. And it’s fight, flight, freeze, or faint. The four F’s.
Now, you can’t parent effectively when you yourself are in a reactive state. But because of a whole system, as Steven was pointing out, we’re social creatures. Because we resonate with the state of another person, when your child, when your four year old’s going to be in a reactive state, if you haven’t done your homework, you’re going to get reactive when your four-year-old’s reactive and then she’s reactive, and he’s, you’re reactive…
And you see this with parents. So you need to develop a buffer. And in the wheel of awareness practice, just as one example of a way to do it, you develop this hub of the wheel. You’ve done your work so your child’s all reactive. You want to fight back. You drop into the wheel and that’s where you stay receptive.
So basically the idea of emotions and their behavior, when you are in a reactive threat state, anyone, a kid or an adult, whether you’re working as a school teacher, you’re working as a political person, you know, running a company, whatever you are–if you’re reactive and coming out of fear, you behave one way in terms of your behavior. And this is where emotion, this shift in integration rigidifies, and makes you prone to chaos, when you are in this non-integrated flow of a reactive state. It’s what some countries on this planet are entering.
And so what we need to realize is this question about emotion is not just about you and your child, it’s about how we relate to each other in community. It’s about how we are interconnected with one another. In our cities, in our states, in our nation, in our international relationships. So we need to learn to be receptive, to realize we are all in this together on this planet.
And I know I keep on talking about climate issues, but you just need to read the news to know that the future of all of our children depend on how we take the lessons, for example, of “Drawdown,” Paul Hawken’s book. And then say we are going to work together in a really positive way take the invitation to collaborate and connect as a mwe, so that we can actually make the future for our children hopeful and healthy.
Steven Winn: Well after Dan has generously given us so much to think about and feel about, and please drive home with both hands on the wheel tonight, Dan will be signing books in the lobby. So thank you all so much and thank you very much.
Daniel Siegel: Thank you Steven. That was awesome. Thank you.