i n t e g r a l c o u n s e l i n g i n s t i t u t e
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
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."
"Brain imaging findings suggest that secure social interactions foster the
integration of disparate parts of the brain."
"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