Dan Siegel Reflects on ‘Mindsight’ at SPPD Event

Dan Siegel Reflects on ‘Mindsight’ at SPPD Event

By Matthew Kredell

Dan Seigel Dan Siegel is executive director of the Mindsight Institute, an educational center devoted to promoting insight and empathy in individuals. Watch full lecture »
Photo by Tom Queally

To be a leader in the world of public policy requires being comfortable with one’s self, controlling one’s own mental and emotional state, as well as having a keen awareness of what is going on around you and the ability to empathize with others.

Dan Siegel recently discussed his transformational concept “mindsight” with students in the Doctor of Policy, Planning, and Development (DPPD) program as part of an orientation event hosted by the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development.

A graduate of the USC School of Social Work and Harvard Medical School, Siegel is an acclaimed author, award-winning educator and psychotherapist. He has written six books, most recently, Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation.

He is executive director of the Mindsight Institute, an educational center devoted to promoting insight, compassion and empathy in individuals, families, institutions and communities. He also is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine.

Nearly 120 people filled a room at USC’s Doheny Memorial Library to listen to Siegel speak and ask him questions. In addition to the DPPD professionals, faculty, students and alumni from the USC School of Social Work, as well as SPPD graduate and undergraduate students, attended the event.

“I’m always looking for ways to find a connection between the two areas of study that I’m really passionate about,” said Mark Gonzalez, a senior with a double major in philosophy and policy, planning and development. “[Siegel] talked a lot about developing the self. I think that, in order to make policy and planning decisions that are going to be beneficial to society, it’s essential to develop the self and have that sense of empathy he talked about.”

Mindsight is a term introduced by Siegel to describe the human capacity to perceive the mind of the self and others. Siegel presented the concept as a learnable skill that can be used to understand one’s inner life with more clarity, identify emotions being experienced rather than be overwhelmed by them and even change the physical structure of the brain. Through mindsight, one can monitor and regulate one’s own feelings, urges and actions.

At the heart of the concept is the scientifically tested theory that the brain and mind are embodied. Experiences shape the connections among neurons, which are called synapses. These synaptic connections shape the architecture of the brain that in part give rise to one’s mental state.

By practicing mindsight, a person can use the mind to change the brain. For example, someone feeling sad can acknowledge the feeling, recognize the cause, accept and let go of the root of the sadness and transform the mental state through the release of chemicals in the brain.

“If you think the mind is just the activity of the brain, then you’re a slave to the brain,” Siegel said. “We know now that the mind can change the function and structure of the brain. You can use the focus of your attention to change the activity of the brain and then do something we call snag – stimulate neuronal activation and growth. This movement we’re talking about is realizing that the mind is not just the activity of the brain. The mind uses the brain and relationships to actually create itself.”

Patterns of self-destructive behavior developed in childhood often are masked or relieved through medication. According to Siegel, mindsight can get to the root of the problem and eradicate it.

Siegel proposes that the mind is not just in one’s head but throughout the entire body, passing through various aspects of the nervous system and in relationships through information shared among people.

An awareness and empathy for those around you is essential for people forming public policy. Policy makers often are also in the public spotlight; a mistake or poor choice can ruin a career. Many cases of such errors in judgment make the news each year.

Deborah Natoli, interim director of the DPPD program, brought up an example of a politician she interviewed whose career drastically was changed by a moment of regrettable decision. Siegel said that, by using mindsight, the person could recognize the impulse to lie and, in a split-second, decide to pick another option.

Mindsight might seem like an unusual topic for the orientation of doctorate students in public policy, planning and development. However, Natoli, who asked Siegel to speak to the group, sees the importance of equipping professionals at this sophisticated level of leadership not only with greater analytical tools but with expanded interpersonal understandings.

“People who lead organizations and communities experience greater success when they possess mindful awareness of self and others. Leaders are role models, and through their quality of presence, realizing sound judgment and unshakable integrity, inspire cooperation to implement vision,” Natoli said. “Dan Siegel’s brilliant mastery of the internal processes that govern this awareness is a cornerstone for enhancing effectiveness.”

Siegel explained the three key elements of mindsight as openness, objectivity and observation. He would like to see a new way to approach basic education that includes a focus on internal understanding of relationships, reflections and resilience.

“I loved his point on how the integration of the three R’s – relationships, resilience and reflection – manifested into kindness,” said DPPD student Shirley Feldmann-Jensen. “I think we’ve lost so much social civility that somehow this needs to be reinfused back into our society. If we can surround those three elements in our policies, I think it can really have an impact on our society.”