Neuroplasticity, explained

Daniel Siegel, M.D., explains how our thoughts and feelings can physically alter the makeup of our brains.

In his book Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, Daniel J. Siegel wrests the mind/body connection from the realm of self-help books to that of real science. Lashaun Dale, creator of Equinox’s Conscious Movement classes, sat down with the UCLA professor of psychiatry to find out why practices such as breath awareness and consciousness training are more than just good ideas.

LD: For those who haven’t read your books, how do you explain the concept of neuroplasticity?
DS: Neuroplasticity just means how the brain changes its structure in response to ongoing experience. When you focus attention, you specifically activate certain groups of neurons — and when neurons are firing together, they wire together. Which means you can actually change the architecture of the brain.

LD: I want my neurons to wire together and fire together, but in the right direction. Can you talk about successful practices we can use to work the neural circuits in a positive way?
Think of it this way: Nobody is born as an athlete. You have to train your muscles, train your body and have discipline. Mindsight is the same thing — it’s the ability to monitor the flow of your thoughts, feelings and attitudes. And as you monitor them, you also learn to modify them. All sorts of research shows that when you develop these skills, really powerful transformative processes happen. Immune functions improve, cardiovascular functions improve, you decrease burnout and there’s a sense of well-being that develops. You can literally transform your life toward health.

LD: Can you give an example of how this works?
Take a simple breath awareness practice, something that’s done in many traditions from yoga to Tai Chi to Qigong. When it’s done repeatedly, a recent research study shows that it actually increases the enzyme in your body called Telomerase — which maintains the ends of your chromosomes and keeps the cells alive longer. So mindful breath practice is a really good thing; it gives you longevity and well-being.

LD: But the idea of wellness and a balanced life isn’t always appealing to everyone. Some relate it to being just a chilled out yogi and not having any fun.
No, no, that happens when you’re dead! It’s not about ridding yourself of stress; it’s about learning to cope with it. It’s not getting rid of the surf, it’s learning to ride the waves.

LD: So what is your definition of wellness? It seems like it always comes back to your concept of integration.
DS: Yes, integration is really a central theme. It’s allowing parts of a system, let’s say your body or a relationship with another person, to be differentiated — or to be allowed to grow in their own special pathways. Your brain has a left side and a right side and true vitality comes from allowing them to be special and unique, but then linking them together. Imagine a choir singing in harmony.

LD: Could you talk a little bit about the term "mind"? Because I think people confuse the term "brain" with "mind."
The mind can be defined as a process — a verb, not a noun — that regulates the flow of energy and information in the body and in relation to other people. So it’s a self-organizational process that has the capacity, if we train it, to stabilize and transform the way we go through life. Otherwise, you’re just willy-nilly; things are just sort of happening.

LD: I do find it hopeful to think that I’m not stuck with my mental processes. It’s a comforting thought.
It has been so rewarding to think deeply about these issues for the past 20 years. [Developing mindsight] allows you to go from being a passive rider on the journey of life to an active author of your own life story. And ultimately, it’s about bringing kindness into the world.

For more information about mindsight, including online classes, go to drdansiegel.com.