Every morning, people across Metro Vancouver brush their teeth before going out the door for work or school.
The really diligent among us regularly use dental floss, which removes plaque that builds up between our teeth.
Therapist and author Daniel J. Siegel thinks it’s time we started taking care of our minds in a similar way.
But instead of using a thin thread to clean out the space between our ears, he advises practising mindfulness.
He defines this as being aware of one’s moment-to-moment experiences, particularly on a sensory level, and not being judgmental.
It can occur through meditation, yoga, or tai chi, or even by doing something as mundane as washing the dishes in the sink.
Siegel, codirector of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview that this type of reflection, which has been practised for centuries, is like “brushing your brain” on a regular basis.
“I call it mental floss,” Siegel said in advance of a public appearance in Vancouver on June 18. “It’s literally a way of getting your mind to focus attention and pulling out all the junk between the synaptic connections, if you will. And there are enough studies to show it’s healthy for your brain.”
In his book The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement and the Cultivation of Well-Being (2007, W.W. Norton & Company Inc.), Siegel makes the case that this practice can have tremendous therapeutic effects.
In the book, he describes mindfulness in its most general sense as “waking up from a life on automatic, and being sensitive to novelty in our everyday experience”.
It’s best done by cultivating a state of curiosity, openness, acceptance, and love, which he calls COAL, for short.
“Any mindfulness practice involves two fundamental things,” he told the Straight. “It involves being aware of awareness and it involves paying attention to your intention. Now, this is just a practice that is thousands of years old, and recent research suggests that these practices, when done on a regular basis, actually promote well-being. They increase your immune function, allow your body to function better. They improve your mental state and allow you to have more emotional equilibrium. They improve your relationships, it looks like, by the increase of empathy and compassion.”
At the root of it all is a process called “attunement”, which Siegel said is a scientific term.
He noted that in the study of relationships between people, researchers will focus on how one person tunes in to, or aligns their internal state with, another person. It means that the person is being receptive to the other person’s feelings and words.
“That receptivity allows them to pick up signals that create a state of what’s called resonance,” he said.
As each person picks up on the other’s signals, their states change and they become more in tune with one another.
Attunement occurs in every culture between parents and children, he added, emphasizing that the immature nervous system of the infant is regulated by the more mature system of the caregiver.
This actually influences the development of the infant’s neural pathways.
“The relationships shape the regulatory circuits, the cortex, and the limbic system of the brain,” he said.
Carrying this further, Siegel said that a prominent researcher at McGill University, Michael Meaney, has demonstrated that when a mother rat provides caregiving to her pup, the pup’s brain structure changes.
Remarkably, genes are turned on during this process, which leads to the creation of proteins and the enhancement of the pup’s neural connections.
So where does mindfulness fit into all of this? Siegel said that this neural plasticity can be enhanced if people develop their own internal attunement skills.
So instead of being attuned with another person, people become attuned with themselves through mindfulness. And he suggested that developing this attunement with oneself can assist a person in overcoming early trauma.
He said that it’s not necessarily a case of undoing the earlier damage. Rather, he suggested, it may help the person grow new brain circuitry that overrides it.
Siegel said that mindfulness can lead to “integration”, which he defines as the linkage of differentiated parts.
He contrasted that with chaos and rigidity, which he said are characteristics of psychopathology and all mental illnesses.
“The mindful brain model is saying [that] using the mind to create a mindful state is helpful because it promotes integration,” he said.
He believes that this integration is also what leads to enhanced physical as well as mental health.
“For therapy, I think that mindfulness offers a revolutionary opportunity to really promote well-being,” Siegel said. “Not just reduce symptoms, but promote well-being.”
In other words, it’s the mental equivalent of brushing your teeth.
On Wednesday (June 18) at the Ridge Theatre, the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education and the UBC Institute for Mental Health present an evening with Daniel J. Siegel called “The Mindful Brain: Shaping Our Neural Circuits to Cultivate Well-Being”. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.