The Mindful Brain
"We want to understand the universal aspects of it so that we can draw from these wisdom traditions a scientifically based way of improving health
Daniel Siegel is a psychiatrist and author. His 2007 book, The Mindful Brain, is a scientific take on the practice of mindfulness, which is often defined as "non-judgmental attention to the present moment." Siegel's newest book is The Mindful Therapist, a text aimed at clinicians. Siegel is himself a clinician and an educator as well as co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA and co-investigator at the Center for Culture, Brain and Development. The following is an edited version of our conversation.
TNH: Before Herbert Benson came out with The Relaxation Response, scientific research on meditation was pretty rare. It seems like in the last ten years, it's become a trend. What has happened?
Siegel: A couple of things have happened. There's been a rigorous approach to the teaching of certain forms of meditation, and then the publication in peer-reviewed journals of work—especially in mindfulness meditation—that's not been a part of someone's proprietary thing but rather controlled studies that are published in the scientific journals…When you control for how reflective practices are done, you can show there are systematic changes not only in cognitive functions, but also the way the brain functions. People have started opening their eyes to that.
TNH: How did you become involved in scientific research on meditation?
Siegel: I actually knew nothing about meditation before about five years ago. I made the serendipitous move to use the word "mindfulness" in a parenting book, meaning how parents can be intentional and conscientious and caring…The parents we taught asked us when we were going to teach them to mediate! I wasn't a meditator, never meditated; I didn't know what they were referring to. So I would ask them why they were asking me this interesting question.
They said "You said meditation is your main principle."
I said, "Where does it say that?"
They would point to the word "mindfulness" and they would say "meditation" …"mindfulness meditation." I actually didn't know what that was. Right after that, I got put on a panel—I guess coincidentally, if there is anything like that in the world—with a guy named Jon Kabat-Zinn who is one of those careful scientists who has taken mindfulness meditation from a Buddhist tradition and put it into a secular approach and then demonstrated with Richie Davidson the incredible changes that have happened in the brain from even just eight weeks of what they call Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR). It uses yoga and meditation and group processes of discussing about life and stuff, so it has a lot of components to it, but the main ones focus on mindfulness. That's how I heard about it…For me it's opened up a whole new world because I don't have training in any particular religious tradition and I don't subscribe to a particular meditative tradition. My background is as a psychiatrist and attachment researcher.
TNH: I read your book The Mindful Brain. I'm very interested in what you had to say about how the six-layer architecture of the cerebral cortex influences the experience of mindfulness? Could you expand on that?
[Note: The cerebral cortex, the outer "rind" of the brain, is made of up six layers of brain cells. The lowest layer, most closely connected to the sensory inputs, is counter-intuitively labeled layer 6. The highest layer, which connects most directly to memory and to analytical parts of the brain, is labeled layer 1.]
Siegel: The experience you get from an immediate sensory moment, like you're bending down to smell a rose—what we believe happens is the smell of the rose will come in to your cortex at the lowest layers—there are six layers, we'll call that layer 6—and the neural translation of the smell goes to layer 5 and then goes to layer 4. Ultimately between 4 and 3 is where the movement of that flow can connect to other areas of the brain…Your higher layers of the cortex are particularly designed to assess the salience of what you're experiencing—at this moment a flower—and activate prior learning so that you can more efficiently process the information coming to you…What we believe occurs now is that the bottom-up experience of the rose is influenced by the flow from layers 1, 2, and 3 with the concept "rose," the word "rose," all the roses you've ever seen. At this moment then, what would influence awareness is the crashing of the energy flow patterns from layers 1, 2, 3, which is called top-down, with what's bottom-up from 6, 5, 4. When 4 and 3 meet, depending on the relative dominance of each flow, you can literally not bother to even experience an awareness of the scent and just go "Rose. Who cares? I'm late for work. Let me go," or you can mindfully let the top down not imprison you and spend even just five seconds with as pure a connection with the scent and sights of the rose or the thing that's in front of you as possible.
TNH: Those old movies where people are crossing the Sahara and they see a mirage—is a mirage a case where the top-down is imposing a pattern on something that actually isn't there?"
Siegel: Yeah. So let's walk that through. Your need for that moment is for water. There are patterns of air movement that could look like a palm tree. Your top-down is saying, "Where's the palm tree? Where's the water?" It interprets the movement of the heat from the sand as the movement of swaying palms and then your top-down basically shoves onto your bottom-up…"Ah, there's the oasis." And you come to believe it….I'm a narrative scientist. I'm fascinated with how the stories we have embedded in our life histories shape how we perceive things. Not to be insulting to any religion but there is this phrase that "there is no such thing as immaculate perception."
TNH: It seems that concentrative meditation deactivates certain brain areas that are not required for the task at hand. If you're meditating, the inner voice quiets because if you're concentrating on the breath, I suppose, you don't need it for the task at hand. There's also the study by Andrew Newberg that found that experienced meditators can deactivate the areas responsible for the spatial boundaries of the body, which may have to do with the sense of the loss of self. Is that a good thing? Some people might say, "We humans are distinct because we have this wonderful brain. Why would we want to deactivate the brain?"
Siegel: I'm talking about inhibiting top down flow, so in that sense I'm talking about [deactivations], but that's really more about enabling the brain to be more flexible in its functioning. I don't really see the need to get rid of a sense of the body. The idea of shutting off the parietal lobe and then feeling a sense of wholeness with the universe because now you've shut off a part of your brain—I don't particularly buy into the necessity of that. I think you can feel a part of a larger whole and also have a body…The left-shift that Richie Davidson has described is a really useful way to think about that. You've given the brain a capacity with mindfulness meditation to approach things rather than withdraw from them. You could say you're shutting off the right frontal area and turning on the left. You get something when you do that. You get the ability to approach things that are challenging. It's really the neural signature of resilience.
TNH: There was an article a couple years ago in a Humanist magazine that focused on negative side-effects of meditation, including psychosis that can sometimes occur when a novice participates in a long retreat. I've also read that Buddhist monks who have been tortured and suffer post-traumatic stress disorder can sometimes experience flashbacks while meditating, perhaps due to deactivation of frontal areas that inhibit traumatic recollections. Are there downsides to meditation, and should some people not meditate?
Siegel: I've asked the exact same question, concerned that at least we "do no harm." The answers I've gotten are this: in short-term ways of focusing on the breath or focusing on something internally for a few minutes, there is no negative side effect and there is no condition for which that's a problem. Even for someone with psychosis, three, four minutes of inward focusing where you're present with them—they can come right out of it and talk to you about it. That's what I've been told by professionals in the field. For long, extended meditations, that can become problematic and for week-long silent retreats, it can become extremely problematic because the brain is a very social organ and it requires social communication to maintain its sense of equilibrium…For these longer ones, we want to really be careful.
TNH: Stephen Batchelor is someone who has spoken to us at the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy. He has written Buddhism without Beliefs. Sam Harris, the author, is also a neuroscientist and has written about extracting the wisdom of Buddhism from the religion of Buddhism. That's something that we in the Humanist Chaplaincy are interested in—the project of secularizing meditation, secularizing mindfulness so that it is simply a form of mental exercise or therapy. How do you feel about that project?
Siegel: When you work in schools that don't allow religion, it becomes an essential question. When you work in therapy with people of varied religions it's important to have something that's available in that way. I feel very deeply that the reason mindfulness is practiced in virtually every religion we know of, as far as my reading of it, is because it's a common human process…We want to understand the universal aspects of it so that we can draw from these wisdom traditions a scientifically based way of improving health in the body, improving health in the mind, improving heath in relationships. Having spoken with a number people of different religions, and talking about using a totally secular approach to mindfulness, you get a lot of thumbs up all over the place, including the Dalai Lama. I feel very comfortable with the idea as a scientist and clinician of using reflective practices as a form of mental, relational, and brain training.
TNH: As Humanists, we're trying to figure out how we can have a positive philosophy of life, but we don't have a holy scripture. It's one thing to say, "Think for yourself," but it would also be good if there was something like a best-practices manual. And it seems to me it ought to be a loose-leaf binder, open source, and subject to revision. I've even been thinking that it should be an inverse of the DSM [the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders], something where experts come together to produce a code of how to achieve well-being. What do you think that idea?
Siegel: I think we have to be careful. If you've ever heard this thing Jack Kornfield and I do called Mindfulness and the Brain by Sounds True, he's actually done that already. He's outlined a DSM of positive living. He actually calls it that. I can't recite the details of exactly what he put in there, but I think it's inspired by Buddhist tradition. Not being trained as a Buddhist, I would do it based on integration and talk about the implications of integration. In my own field of Interpersonal Neurobiology, we conceptualize health as integration—which serves as a secular ethic that can be embraced by everyone. Integration is something we can teach in all walks of life—and it promote well-being within the brain, the mind, and our relationships. You might do this from your own perspective…Positive psychology did that. They came up with a manual of positive characteristics. Apparently there is no evidence it actually works, according to Martin Seligman's own statement in This Emotional Life on PBS. So while the idea is good, Seligman himself stated that it may have been premature to actually come up with a manual like that before the evidence of its efficacy was established.
TNH: You have an interest in climate change. This question is related to that. It's about the "hedonic treadmill," the idea that we chase after experiences that give us pleasure but once we get them, we become bored with them, and seek out new things. This can lead to a consumption-oriented lifestyle. It seems this treadmill is due to habituation to the things we have. I'm thinking that mindfulness can serve as an antidote to habituation and get us off that treadmill? The things you have, you can still experience their value, you don't forget about them, you count your blessings. Is that something you'd agree with?
Siegel: That's a great way of saying it. Mindfulness offers an opportunity to get closer to what truly matters and free yourself from the addiction of material acquisition. Just like a drug, it has this illusion that the temporary state of excitement—I'm just so non-materialistic, I can't think of an example—
TNH: A new kitchen?
Siegel: You get a new kitchen, and that goes away and you go, "I guess I'll redo the upstairs. I'll get new carpet."….It's going to take a huge paradigm shift, and maybe mindfulness is the key, to let people lower their materialistic treadmill tendencies, to awaken their minds to simple pleasures and meaningful connections in life and then to refocus their energies in ways that are truly meaningful—helping other people, building communities, finding a way to preserve the environment. This is all a we-based approach, where you realize it's a win-win situation, because when you focus on the "we," the "me" in "we" actually feels better. Integration is at the heart of this transformative opportunity.
TNH: At the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, we're trying to build a community where Humanists can offer each other social support. It seems like a lot of atheists are rugged individualists—perhaps because they were rejected by their community or for whatever reason—and many of them see no point in banding together. Can you see a role for secular communities that would provide the same sort of social support one would find in religious communities?
Siegel: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. A million yeses. It's the fundamental problem of our world. We're so isolated, we're so disconnected and yet we have so much potential to be embracing each other, where we go from "me" to "we." That's what we need to do. It's an unbelievably important topic.