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                   February 2006 Book Review and Quotes Archive

                                                      The Mirror Neuron Mindfulness Hypothesis

                                                                        By Shelley Norton, Ph.D.

 I recently attended a conference called Emotion Meets Spirit that brought together a group of noted clinicians and researchers

to attempt to integrate Buddhism, mindfulness, psychotherapy and neurobiology.  It was held in a beautiful retreat center in the

mountains above Santa Cruz and was attended by mostly mental and alternative health practitioners.  Most all of the

presenters were long time Buddhist practitioners, meditators and depth psychologists.  One fellow stood out as the only

non-meditating, non-Buddhist child psychiatrist who really had, in my view, the most important things to say about mindfulness,

wellbeing and their underlying neurobiology.  His name is Dr. Daniel Siegel and he has been researching the neurological basis

of attachment and had discovered a lot about our brains in relationship and mindful awareness, what he calls mindsight; the ability

 to create an image of the internal state of another’s mind.

 

  Siegel explains the neurobiology of attachment in two books, The Developing Brain, and Parenting From the Inside Out

These books emphasize the need for us to be aware of our own attachment experiences, childhood issues and traumas and our

own neurologically based arousal and reactivity.  He is now extending these concepts to address mindful awareness, positive

psychological adjustment and psychotherapy in a book due out early this year entitled The Mindful Brain.

 

Siegel seems to have come to his belief in and appreciation for mindfulness skills by looking at brain science and admits he

does not have a meditation practice (yet).  But his talk provides some of the most compelling scientific evidence for meditation

as a means of enhancing mindfulness skills and of the positive effects on mental health of increasing mindful awareness. He

suggests the essential need for parents and all of us to increase our ability to experience what he calls “resonant awareness”. 

This is the experience of what is occurring in the moment, purely, openly without assumptions from the past or from the invariant

representations our brains generate based on past experiences. He presents compelling neuroscience to support the notion

that these abilities are essential to healthy development and wellbeing.

 

The mirror neuron hypothesis is at the core of this research.  This system of neurons allows the brains in humans (and

primates) to perform its highest tasks including learning, imitating and empathizing. The mirror neuron system allows for the

ability to create an image of the internal state of another’s mind.  For example, one study had subjects watch a hand move

forward to caress someone else and then saw another hand push it away rudely.  The brains of the subjects registered

the pain of social rejection as if it was happening to them. Mirror neurons are involved in social/emotion intentions as the

brain simulates these actions providing a template for anticipating what will happen next.  Mirror neurons reveal that the brain

is able to detect the intention of another person, a possible mechanism not just for imitation and learning but for what Siegel

calls mindsight.

 

This area of research and is called interpersonal neurobiology and has many implications and applications for psychotherapy,

child rearing and education.  Dr. Siegel is working on a project in the schools in Southern California to teach mindfulness skills

to elementary school kids, noting that the “coherence of mind” involved in developing mindsight is correlated with wellbeing

and thriving in children.  Siegel and his colleagues work has been highlighted in two recent New York Times articles and

Portland State University is offering a certificate/continuing education program in interpersonal neurobiology.

 

So mirror neurons and mindfulness may be a mega trend in 2006, and yet those of us who are therapist types have known

about mirroring a long time.  Now we know a lot more about the biological basis of therapy, attachment and mindfulness. 

Given these advances, practicing meditation and teaching meditation skills in psychotherapy and to children (without the

Buddhist cultural overlay), may be an evolutionary step toward healthier more integrated minds.

                                                                      

                                             February 2006 Weekly Quotes    

 

"Freedom is at hand when the fundamental qualities of nature, each of their transformations witnessed at the moment of its

inception, are recognized as irrelevant to pure awareness; it stands alone, grounded in its very nature, the power of pure

seeing. That is all."
The Yoga Sutra of Pantanjali, A New Translation with Commentary by Chip Hartranet
 

 "Brain imaging findings suggest that secure social  interactions foster the integration of disparate parts of the  brain."
 Dr. Dan Siegal, Child Psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles, discussing interpersonal neurobiology

 

"When I'm telling you my feelings, discussing memories, in this close relationship, I'm achieving better neurological integration;

I'm repairing the connections in the brain."

Dr. Dan Siegal, Child Psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles, discussing interpersonal neurobiology

 

"I am getting ready to give up on free will." ~ John Parker

 

                                     

 

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