A Psychiatrist on Why Your Mind ‘Has a Mind of Its Own’

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Your mind, as you may have noticed, often has a mind of its own: darting from task to task, debating what to eat for lunch, rehearsing memories you’d rather leave behind. If you want to have a better relationship with your mind, and not get quite so frustrated with how unwieldy it can be, it helps to have a clearer understanding of what, exactly, a mind is. Dr. Dan Siegel — clinical psychiatry professor at UCLA, founding co-director of the school’s Mindful Awareness Research Institute — has spent much of his career trying to understand that.

As he lays out in his recent book, Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human, the conventional view is that your mind is what your brain does, a perspective that, to Siegel, is incomplete. To Siegel, a more holistic conception of the mind is informed by one’s subjective experience — neural activity, yes, but also physical sensations, and the vast troves of data that life gives us. Much of the project of life, and the essence of well-being, Siegel argues, is to have a well-balanced brain, a harmonious mind. Science of Us talked to him about how to do that.

Your mind is a “self-organizing process.” Kind of like a cloud.

Some of the coolest things in the world are complex systems: networks of things that interact with one another in predictable and unpredictable ways. Two of them are, according to Siegel, minds and clouds. A cloud, he says, “regulates” its own “arising”: You don’t know how it’s going to form when the winds turn or a flock of geese flies through it, but the laws of physics governing the interaction say that it will reform, arising in a new, reconfigured shape that takes into account the new inputs. “You don’t have a programmer, or a conductor — it’s just built into the nature of a complex system to have self-organization,” he says. The mind is much the same way: Sense perceptions, autobiographical memories, and bodily sensations eddy through the organism called you, and the mind arises from all that. Like a cloud, the mind is constantly regulating its psychological energy, and that’s why, he says, “the mind has a mind of its own.” If you’ve ever sat down to meditate and seen your thoughts fly by, you’ve got a very intimate case study.

Because it’s constantly arising — and leading to spontaneous, self-generated thoughts — it’s very hard to “control” what’s going through your mind. It’s better to work with the structure that the mind is arising from. To Siegel, the key is “integration,” where different aspects of your mind are developed, but also linked together. It’s an intuitive enough point: If you spend your life absorbed in thought and neglect your body, your body will suffer; similarly, if you never investigate your emotions, your emotional life is likely to get unwieldy. Cultivating your mind is like developing a city, he says: You want the individual neighborhoods to grow, but they need to be linked together by infrastructure to make the organism as a whole flourish.

Minds heal through integration.

Consider the wondrous results that University of Texas psychologist James Pennebaker has found with “expressive writing,” or journaling about emotionally intense events in your life. In the course of his research career, he’s found that when people write lucidly about their lives in that way — for just 20-minute sessions — they grow happier and lose anxiety. They have fewer doctor visits, better-functioning immune systems, and according to one study, they find new jobs faster after getting fired. To Siegel, journaling like that is a “profoundly integrative practice,” because you’re integrating linguistic processing with autobiographical memories and bodily sensations. You “put the feeling into words,” as the expression goes.

There are similar things happening in “talk” therapy, Siegel says, though a better descriptor might be relational therapy. “You’re using the relationship of trust with the therapist to allow different aspects of a person’s memory systems and emotion systems to integrate,” says Siegel, who practices psychotherapy in addition to his research work. The power of the therapist-patient relationship is that it provides the bandwidth for people to bring up and process memories or emotions or bodily sensations that would otherwise overwhelm them. “When you’re not in the relationship with a trusted therapist, it floods you,” he says. “When it’s not flooding you, you’re able to maintain it.”

In a real way, your self extends beyond the boundaries of your body.

Siegel says that our relationships help form our mind, something that personality and relationship psychologists would certainly agree with. If that is true, then a given person is much more relational and interdependent than individualism would lead you to believe. “This body you get to live in for 100 years,” he says, but if what constitutes your mind is the currents of energy that go through your person, then you are very much a part of the people you’re close to. The stakes get even higher: Writing the book changed his feeling about death, he says, because if the mind is relational by nature, your corporeal form doesn’t necessarily need to be around for you to still be present in the world. “With this broader notion of mind, you realize that you’re connected to people that were existing before your body came around,” he says, and you’ll be connected to people, through the actions you take, “after your body goes.” It sounds like a religious, even mystical, perspective — but one that, he says, you can get to purely through science.

A Psychiatrist on Why Your Mind ‘Has a Mind of Its Own’