Sunday, April 8, 2007

The Developing Mind: Toward a Neurobiology of Interpersonal Experience

By Daniel J. Siegel, M.D.
ISBN 1-57230-453-7

Reviewed by Marty N.

This is not a book about addiction but a general treatise on the development of the human brain through social interaction. It is the author’s thesis that the human brain is a construction project in which genetics supplies the building blocks but social interaction largely determines how they are put together. Transcription of DNA into the proteins that shape brain tissue is directly influenced by social experience, Dr. Siegel says. The actual “wiring” of the brain, the interconnection of its neurons, is dependent on social interaction, most demonstrably in early childhood. Repeated experience creates and strengthens neural pathways, while lack of experience causes the corresponding unused tracks to wither.

A key brain region in human social interaction is the limbic system, because this area in humans coordinates and combines emotional energies and regulation of body states with the rational-logical products of more evolved brain areas. It is the coordinating center for face recognition, affiliation, and empathy. The limbic system is not a simple fountain of primitive reflex-like emotions, as earlier researchers believed, but rather a highly complex junction box and switching station that processes inputs and outputs from many brain areas, “high” and “low.” It is therefore specially adapted for handling human interactions, which typically consist of a blend of emotional and logical signals, inextricably intertwined. “The limbic system functions as the center of processing of social information, autobiographical consciousness, the evaluation of meaning, the activation of arousal, and the coordination of bodily response and higher cognitive processing.” (p. 131). Dr. Siegel describes the state of effective communication as one where two brains are in resonance, with rapid cycles of feedback between them on many levels, showing not only logical interchange but also a range of other interactions right down to mutually modulated changes in respiration, muscle tension, heart rate, blood pressure and temperature. In good interaction, people not only “feel” the other’s state of mind, but also “feel felt.”

Current brain research, Dr. Siegel writes, makes clear that emotions are not merely the function of certain narrowly delimited brain areas, but are complex multi-stage processes involving cognitive, experiential, chemical and behavioral elements, having the entire brain for a staging area, and taking place within a social context. The distinction between “emotion” and “non-emotion” does not have a basis in human brain anatomy. Nor is it possible to consider the topic of emotion outside our social existence. We humans along with the other primates are unique in having large numbers of muscle endings in the skin of our face, together with the dedicated brain regions that operate them, all devoted to signaling or concealing the play of our emotions to others of our species. Reptiles are not so equipped.

The sense that humans have of being conscious and having a “self” is intimately linked with our emotional social interaction. Indeed, for Dr. Siegel, “the regulation of emotion, or the regulation of the flow of information and energy within the brain, creates the self.” (p. 159). As a psychologist specializing in the study of development, the author takes it as axiomatic that “the self” is not something we are born with, nor something that once formed remains immutable, but rather as something that is “perpetually being created.” Indeed, it is normal to experience a series of simultaneous “selves” phasing in and out, and not infrequently coming into conflict. “The idea of a unitary, continuous ‘self’ is actually an illusion our minds attempt to create.” (p. 229). It is normal to have “multiple and varied ‘selves,’ which are needed to carry out the many and diverse activities of our lives.” The persistence and power of any of these “selves” depends crucially on our relationship experiences, i.e. on the degree to which these organizing patterns of the mind experience social reinforcement and lead to successful integration within the larger pattern of our individual personality.

In conclusion, Dr. Siegel writes:

“Connections between minds […] involve a dyadic form of resonance in which energy and information are free to flow across two brains. When such a process is in full activation, the vital feeling of connection is exhilarating. When interpersonal communication is ‘fully engaged’ – when the joining of minds is in full force – there is an overwhelming sense of immediacy, clarity, and authenticity. It is in these heightened moments of engagement, these dyadic states of resonance, that one can appreciate the power of relationships to nurture and to heal the mind.” (p. 337).

I found this book interesting and timely by way of theoretical reinforcement for ideas I had put forward more or less intuitively and pragmatically in my “two heads” essay, “How Our Groups
.” My concern there was to give a secular answer to the question where the sobering power observed in self-help groups comes from. It comes, I said, from communication between the “sober selves” in the participating brains. Dr. Siegel’s book demonstrates in elaborate and neurologically informed detail how the “resonance of minds” in social engagement – a thoroughly secular process, although it can have a transcendent feeling -- contains the power to heal and transform. The fact that Dr. Siegel’s book is a general treatise about mental development that says nothing expressly about alcoholism, addiction or substance abuse makes it all the more valuable and interesting. Dr. Siegel is currently medical director of the infant and preschool service at UCLA, as well as a professor of psychiatry at UCLA Medical School, among other posts.

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