The great leaps forward in psychology have come from original insights that suddenly clarify our experience from a fresh angle, revealing hidden patterns of connection. Freud’s theory of the unconscious and Darwin’s model of evolution continue to help us understand the findings from current research on human behavior and some of the mysteries of our daily lives. Daniel Siegel’s theory of mindsight— the brain’s capacity for both insight and empathy—offers a similar “Aha!” He makes sense for us out of the cluttered confusions of our sometimes maddening and messy emotions.
Our ability to know our own minds as well as to sense the inner world of others may be the singular human talent, the key to nurturing healthy minds and hearts. I’ve explored this terrain in my own work on emotional and social intelligence. Self-awareness and empathy are (along with self-mastery and social skills) domains of human ability essential for success in life. Excellence in these capacities helps people flourish in relationships, family life, and marriage, as well as in work and leadership.
Of these four key life skills, self-awareness lays the foundation for the rest. If we lack the capacity to monitor our emotions, for example, we will be poorly suited to manage or learn from them. Tuned out of a range of our own experience, we will find it all the harder to attune to that same range in others. Effective interactions depend on the smooth integration of self-awareness, mastery, and empathy. Or so I’ve argued. Dr. Siegel casts the discussion in a fresh light, putting these dynamics in terms of mindsight, and marshals compelling evidence for its crucial role in our lives.
A gifted and sensitive clinician, as well as a master synthesizer of research findings from neuroscience and child development, Dr. Siegel gives us a map forward. Over the years he has continually broken new ground in his writing on the brain, psychotherapy, and child- rearing; his seminars for professionals are immensely popular.
The brain, he reminds us, is a social organ. Mindsight is the core concept in “interpersonal neurobiology,” a field Dr. Siegel has pioneered. This two-person view of what goes on in the brain lets us understand how our daily interactions matter neurologically, shaping neural circuits. Every parent helps sculpt the growing brain of a child; the ingredients of a healthy mind include an attuned, empathetic parent—one with mindsight. Such parenting fosters this same crucial ability in a child.
Mindsight plays an integrative role in the triangle connecting relationships, mind, and brain. As energy and information flow among these elements of human experience, patterns emerge that shape all three (and the brain here includes its extensions via the nervous system throughout the body). This vision is holistic in the true sense of the word, inclusive of our whole being. With mindsight we can better know and manage this vital flow of being.
Dr. Siegel’s biographical details are impressive. Harvard-trained and a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA and co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center there, he also founded and directs the Mindsight Institute. But far more impressive is his actual being, a mindful, attuned, and nurturing presence that is nourishing in itself. Dr. Siegel embodies what he teaches.
For professionals who want to delve into this new science, I recommend Dr. Siegel’s 1999 text on interpersonal neurobiology, The Developing Mind: Toward a Neurobiology of Interpersonal Experience. For parents, his book with Mary Hartzell is invaluable: Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self- Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive. But for anyone who seeks a more rewarding life, the book you hold in your hands has compelling and practical answers.