The Balance of Mindsight
When l think of brain research and literature, two names come to mind: Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D., a world renown brain anatomist and Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., a widely known psychologist. Their knowledge and experience in this area are separate, yet, I feel their research can be intersected to give us all in-depth insights into the workings of our amazing brains. I will be highlighting a couple of Dr. Siegel's books, including, Mindsight and The Whole Brain Child and Dr. Taylor's most recent book, Whole Brain Living. All three of these resources are relatable and can be applied to all age children as well as adults.
Let's first start with a basic understanding of the structure of the brain. Dr. Dan Siegel coined the "hand model" of the brain. The linked video shows how you can use your hand to understand the triune brain. The three regions that makeup this model are: the brainstem, the limbic area, and the cortex.
This picture from Mindsight depicts the triune brain regions. The brainstem rests at the base of the brain which connects to the spinal cord. It receives input from the body and sends messages back down to regulate the body's basic functions, such as the lungs breathing and the heart beating. "The brainstem is also a fundamental part of what are called 'motivational systems' that help us satisfy our basic needs for food, shelter, reproduction, and safety. When you feel a deep drive; to behave a certain way, chances are that your brainstem is working closely with the next-higher region, the limbic area, to push you to act." (Mindsight, p.17). The limbic region houses several integral parts including the corpus callosum, the hippocampus, the cerebellum, and the amygdala. All these have a variety of jobs such as bringing our two halves of our brain together, our ability to regulate emotion, hold our memories, and balance our movements. Lastly, the cortex region holds the ability to map out our physical experience with our emotional perceptions as well as to organize and categorize data.
Now, let's explore a bit about what exactly is mindsight. Dr. Siegel states, "Mindsight is a kind of focused attention that allows us to see the internal workings of our own minds." "Name it to tame it" is a phrase that is explained in several of Dr. Siegel's books. It is the idea that if we name the feelings then we will not be overwhelmed by them. "Consider the difference between saying 'I am sad' and 'I feel sad.' Similar as those two statements may seem, there is actually a profound difference between them. 'I am sad' is a kind of self-definition, and a very limiting one. 'I feel sad' suggests the ability to recognize and acknowledge a feeling, without being consumed by it." (Mindsight, Introduction) Dr. Siegel goes on to explain that mindsight is our seventh sense, allowing us to explore the inner workings of our minds hence creating a deeper and more rich life.
Onto Dr. Taylor's insights, and then I will show the overlap of the two researchers. After having a stroke in 1996, Dr. Taylor spent the next 8 years recovering and understanding the impact on her brain. In 2008, she tells of her amazing story in a TED talk that has been viewed by over 7 million people world wide. In her first book, My Stroke of Insight, she goes into detail about the stroke and her recovery. Her second book, Whole Brain Living, blends neuroanatomy with psychology to show how we can short-circuit emotional reactivity and find our way to peace. Similar to Dan Siegel, Jill Bolte Taylor states, "When we understand at a cellular level what is going on in the relationship between our thoughts and our emotions, we no longer have to be bound by our emotional reactivity." (Whole Brain Living, Preface) Through the power of choice, we have the ability to decide the way we want to be in this world at any given moment. "Peace really is just a thought away. It is always right there, and always available for you to embody" (Whole Brain Living, p.10).
"We each have four distinctive groups of cells, divided between our two brain hemispheres, that generate four consistent and predictable personalities. Neuroanatomically there four groups of cells make up the left and right thinking centers of our higher cerebral cortex, as well as our left and right emotional centers of our lower limbic system." (Whole Brain Living, p. 11) Dr. Taylor names these four personalities the Four Characters and if we choose to get to know them, we will be on a road to freedom and emotional peace. Let's take a closer look at the four characters:
Character One: Our left thinking Character 1 is what we show to the outer world. Our 1's want to rule the roost. She is "our persona" as Carl Jung describes. Our alpha self of our Character 1 defines our physical boundaries; where we end and another begins. She thrives on details, making plans, and defines our social norms, being guided by right vs wrong. "Character 1s wake up in the morning and see the day as something to be conquered. They are eager beavers who rise early, love routines, and thrive on crossing things off their lists." (Whole Brain Living, p. 54)
Character Two: Our left emotional Character 2 is housed in the limbic region of the brain. One of the key components is the amygdala. The primary job of the amygdala is to scan to see if we are safe. I like to think of this key part as a smoke detector in your house. What happens if a little piece of toast gets stuck in the bottom of the toaster? Smoke comes out! Then, the dreaded piercing sound of the smoke alarm starts to blare. The only task of the smoke detector is to alert you that there is danger. It does not care if the whole house is burning down or if there is just some smoke rising in the air from the toaster. Same with our amygdala, it's main purpose is to alert you that there may be danger, whether it is real or perceived. "The safety may be either physical or emotional. The left amygdala tissue of our Character 2 module receives the information about the present moment and then immediately compares that information with our past experiences." (Whole Brain Living, p. 79) Our trauma, or our wounded self, lives within the Character 2 along with cravings and addiction. So, when the 2 takes over, self-awareness goes out the window, and we are in a reactive state.
Character Three: Opposite of our 2's, the right emotional Character 3 assesses the situation of the present moment based on the here and now, not on the past. "...is a well-honed truth detector. It reads body language, matches it with facial expression, and then interprets the emotional cues of inflection of voice and vocal intonation. When all those pieces of the puzzle fit together appropriately, we interpret that behavior as truth." (Whole Brain Living, p. 103) Joy is the primary feeling of our 3. Humor is a tool often our brains will choose to use to engage our fun-loving Character 3. For me, singing my music loudly with all the windows down or pounding the tennis ball outside in the sunshine is how I can experience this region of my brain. When I think of our Character 3, I think of Lee Ann Womack's song, "I hope You Dance":
I hope you dance... I hope you dance...
I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance, Never settle for the path of least resistance, Livin' might mean takin' chances, but they're worth takin', Lovin' might be a mistake, but it's worth makin', Don't let some Hell bent heart leave you bitter, When you come close to sellin' out reconsider, Give the heavens above more than just a passing glance, And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance.
Character 4: We all share in our right thinking brain Character 3. It is our collective consciousness; "the portal through which the energy of the whole universe enters into and fuels every cell of our body." (Whole Brain Living, p. 125) Stillness and quiet is the key to expand the consciousness of the 4. All three of our other Characters have to be calmed in order for us to enjoy the beauty of our Character 4. When I am in a place of peace and calm in nature, I feel most Home. I wrote an article recently about the idea how Home and attachment are related. It will give you further insights into our character 4. "...it is our spiritual being having a physical experience. And as such our Character 4 is our connection to our Higher Power [for me, God] whereby we exist as a part of the Infinite Being....[where] we are perfect, whole, and beautiful." (Whole Brain Living, p. 131) As I am engaging in mindfulness such as yoga, prayer, deep breathing, and walking, two more songs that help me to allow my Character 4 to come online are "Exhale" by MercyMe and "In the Stillness" by LeeAnn Rimes.
How do these two concepts of the 4 Characters and having mindsight intersect? It all has to do with the power of choice. Mindsight allows for the four characters to be balanced in order to achieve integration. Dr. Dan Siegel in Whole Brain Child defines integration as " it coordinates and balances the separate regions of our brains that it links together....and helps them work together as a whole." (Whole Brain Child, p. 6) "Harmony emerges from integration. Chaos and rigidity arise when integration is blocked." (Whole Brain Child, p. 12). I like to use the analogy of a canoe floating down the river that Dr. Siegel refers to as well in his book. On one side of the shore are some sticks, rocks, and debris that have created rougher waters. The other side is lined with trees and rocks in a row creating a stillness and calmness. Harmony is achieved when we steer our canoe to be balanced in the center of the river. When our boat veers off to the chaotic side, we feel we are in a reactive state. However, when our boat methodically is drawn to the organized side, we may get stuck in a state of rigidity. It requires flexible thinking to bring our canoe back into a balanced whole brain consciousness.
Wheel of Awareness
In the Huddle, the first step is to breathe. The sixth sense on the outer rim of the wheel is calming the interior of the body. The second step is to recognize all Four Characters and how they are running at the present moment. We have to use our first five senses in order to take an inventory of which of our Four Characters are presently online. Third step is to appreciate that our amazing brains have all the Characters for us to use at any time. In the Hub is the "inner place of the mind from which we become aware of all that's happening around and within us. It's basically our prefrontal cortex, which you'll remember helps to integrate the whole brain." (Whole Brain Child, p. 93) We then Inquire and invite all Four Characters into the huddle so you can strategically decide on your next move. Using mental awareness activities of the seventh sense will assist you to decide which of the Characters you choose to bring to the forefront. Lastly, you navigate your new reality and start down the path toward harmony. Then, you can enlist the eighth sense of being interconnected with others from a whole brain perspective.
It is all about CHOICE! I am hopeful that you are feeling empowered after reading this article and knowing you get to choose your state of being. Your circumstances or other people do not get to dictate which of the Four Characters you will choose to have come online. Through mindsight, you will become more aware and get to decide what you will focus on at any given moment. What freedom! In conclusion, I am including a poem I have written about the power of choice.
What does that word actually mean?
Can we choose which feeling to reside within?
Choices, we face them every day
Some more simple, some more overwhelming
Which do we let in?
What drives them?
Desires? Pain? Fear? Situations? People?
A gift, our brain
Do we choose stillness or pain?
Do we choose sunshine or rain?
Today, what will I choose?
The crossroads, is it a roadblock or an opportunity?
Stand tall, that’s my choice!
Face the giant with my slingshot
Boundaries, that’s my choice!
Fill my bucket with my ears and eyes
Power, that’s my choice!
Listen with my stillness to the One