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Book Review - Dan Siegel - Mindsight

Publication date: 05 December 2011

The advances of neuroscience are everywhere these days. Whatever the media, whether television, radio, internet or newspaper, there always seems to be at least one article highlighting some new finding on the brain and its effect on behaviour. Many of the reported findings are both fragmentary and contradictory relying more on shock and impact of the headline than on the rigor of the research. So Dan Siegel’s Mindsight is both timely and important and adds much needed clarity of how the mind as a whole actually works.

Its significance however lies less in uncovering  new methods or even theories of what works for the mind and more with the under rated skill of consolidation. In Seigel’s case it’s the clarity of his of research into why the mind works as it does. Whilst this is not exactly the ‘great leap forward’ promised on the first page of the book his new understanding is shared in a way that does provide the reader with a very useful map and compass to guide them through both the darker crevices and sunny uplands of the brain and its resulting control over behaviour.

Seigel proves to be a reliable guide for much of the journey reassuring us throughout that he’s been to every place before and not as a guide but as a fellow traveller. His doubts, his humiliations and his conceits are shared as necessary references to his worth and to his authenticity. And he is also a great story teller, both open and confident, about the ups and downs of his clients and reassuring for those who need hope that there is a way through life’s difficult terrain.

Like every skilled navigator Seigel surveys and re-plots existing understandings with greater accuracy. Where existing terminology in the field is outdated or fails to properly convey the emotional landscape of another’s mind Seigel invents new terms. ‘Mindsight’,for example, is simply the process that enables us to monitor and modify the flow of energy and information our system of well being. Another example is ‘Transpiration’ which a means of breathing across the different domains of personal and interpersonal integration.

This is approach isn’t new. Psychology, psychotherapy and even neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) have been around for years and have similarly searched and created concepts to describe the mind where little of value previously existed. But these are about the externals, a strand of human architecture concentrating on appearance and ‘what works’ but revealing little about the source of all things mind.

Seigel comes closer and by connecting what with why his path stands the test of replication necessary for his very human science to reach respectability in the larger colder world of neuroscience research.

Therein lies the difficulty and the one major weakness of his approach. Siegel remains like his predecessors limited by words. No matter how sophisticated, how elegant and how crisp his arguments he still can not quite reach the ineffable quality of consciousness forming the root of mind. This has long been the provenance of the spiritual realm. Dan Siegel seems to know this but fails to acknowledge it clearly. His acknowledgement of Jack Kornfield a Buddhist spiritual thinker is acknowledged in the notes at the end. The Buddhist origins of mindfulness are barely referenced at all.

Moreover John O Donoghue is referred to in the main text  as a friend, a poet and philosopher. May be this is how he was known in the United States but over here he was widely known as a catholic mystic and often heard speaking of things metaphysical at Mass. Seigel’s reticence suggests that he wants his work to remain planted firmly in the scientific and material and thereby retain respect for scientific orthodoxy when quite clearly  the results of his understanding tug him ever more strongly to the sublime that was well understood by O Donoghue. It will be interesting to see how this tension plays out in his next book.

PS Danny don’t worry your secret is safe with us!!

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