If I were to ask you what are the qualities that you most want for your children, students, employees, or even for yourself so that you can reach those optimal levels of health, well-being and happiness, (no matter what part of the world you are listening from), the answer would probably sound something like this. “I want to them to develop a healthy mind, to pursue excellence, to have the skills needed to excel independently, to have compassion and empathy for others, to acquire the skills needed in this ever-changing world, or to adopt the mindset of lifelong learning that’s needed to thrive not just survive in this world” –something along those lines that focuses on developing the minds of our next generation with social and emotional skills.
In order to bridge this gap between knowing and actually implementing these skills, we must first of all have a clear understanding of what they are. If social and emotional skills are skills that we could say are of the developed mind, and we are moving into cognitive skills of the brain, it leads us to question what is the difference between the mind and the brain before we continue further? Once we have a clear definition of each of these, it’s much easier to continue to develop and implement these strategies needed for improved results. Have you ever thought about what your mind is? What about your brain? And how are they different?
Dr. Dan Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and the founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA, (who I’m so excited to share will be coming on the podcast later next month) has spent a considerable amount of time defining the mind.[i] He was shocked when he first started to study the mind and began surveying mental health professionals around the world who should know about the mind that “95% of them had never even been given a lecture on the mind, and probably couldn’t even tell you what the definition of the mind was”[ii] so he wondered how can we expect to develop it, without this understanding? He explores the concept of the mind in his book, Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation[iii] where he proves that you can define what a healthy mind is, not just describe it. His book allows that Mindsight “is the potent skill that is the basis for both emotional and social intelligence.”[iv] He explains that psychology means the study of the mind and behavior and elaborates that “when a parent senses the inner mental life of their child, (their mind) their child does really well in life. This ability to see the mind actually changes the structure of their brain. It’s called neural integration.”[v] Siegel further explains that when we can adopt this practice of “seeing the inner-life” or the minds of our students, children, friends or family members, it makes a considerable difference in the results and well-being that they achieve. Even developing our own practice of being more mindfully present of our own inner mind can “change the ends of the chromosomes in your cells”[vi] proving that what you do with your mind, makes a difference for the health of your body and your relationships.
Dan Siegel explains that a neuroscientist would define the mind “as the activity of the brain”[vii] but he could not settle on this definition as a therapist since this would mean our brain would control everything that we do. He came up with a definition in the mid-1990s that made the most sense to him and his colleagues and it was that the mind “is an embodied and relational process—since it’s in the body and it’s in our relationships with one another—that regulates the flow of energy and information.”[viii] This definition really got me thinking. I probably listened to it for a good week.
It got me thinking about the flow of energy and information and how it comes into our body through our senses, and what we do with this information to cause the results in our life. One of my first mentors studied the mind intensively and came up with a picture diagram that he called the stickperson[ix] that originated from the work of the late Dr. Thurman Fleet from San Antonio, Texas, who was the founder of Concept Therapy. Dr. Fleet’s diagram of the mind included the conscious mind that included how we perceive the outside world with our five senses, our (sight, touch, taste, hearing and smell) which is how we take in information from the outside world, along with the six higher faculties of our mind, our (perception, reasoning, will, memory, imagination and intuition) that give us a deeper perspective of the information we receive. The diagram also shows the sub-conscious (or non-conscious mind as it is more commonly called today) where information comes in automatically, and the fact that what we think about with our mind, shows up with our thoughts, feelings and actions, and causes the results in our life as our conditions, circumstances and environment change based on the actions that we take.[x] Dr. Fleet’s diagram shows how important it is that we understand how our mind operates in order to reach our highest levels of potential.
In our last interview with the Founding Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of the book Permission to Feel,[xi] Marc Brackett reminded us that “people don’t lose their jobs because of a lack of ability in the cognitive areas, it’s usually because of social skills—someone who just doesn’t fit into the organization for some reason, or who can’t seem to get along with the team.”[xii] Developing these social skills of the mind is what we all want. These are the universal skills that we want for ourselves and for others and it’s interesting that it’s taken so long for our schools to put an emphasis on developing the minds of our next generation of students.
The benefits of learning these skills does take time to be seen, but the research is evident. Casel (the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning) has clear research that proves that implementing these SEL skills will improve students’ academic abilities. Casel’s meta-analysis of 213 studies involving 270,000+ students showed that “SEL interventions that address CASEL’s five core competencies (that we have covered in our social and emotional track) increased students’ academic performance by 11 percentile points, compared to students who did not participate in such SEL programs. Students also showed improved classroom behavior, an increased ability to manage stress and depression, and better attitudes about themselves, others, and school.[xiii]
The research also showed that we as parents, educators, coaches and counselors must first of all practice these concepts ourselves, before we teach others because if we haven’t developed a practice ourselves, our students will pick up on the lack of authenticity and won’t take the concept seriously either.
Marc Brackett also shared with us that the social and emotional competencies were harder to learn and implement than the cognitive strategies. He reminded us in episode 22 that “we can’t be sure that once we have learned a strategy (for example like one for improving our mindset) that we will then be able to implement that strategy while under stress whereas memorization of our times tables, a cognitive skill, is much easier to learn, use and remember.”[xiv] It’s a lifelong commitment to understanding ourselves, our emotions and continuing to apply the strategies to regulate us. We should refer back to the strategies in the social and emotional lessons to be sure that we are continuing to “sharpen the saw”[xv] and implementing these ideas for continual improved results.
Once we have a solid practice for developing our social and emotional mindset, (understanding ourselves and our emotions) it makes sense to move onto the cognitive strategies which are the processes of thinking and include the ability to focus and pay attention, set goals, plan and organize, persevere and problem solve.[xvi]
If cognition is the realm of thinking, then metacognition involves thinking about our thinking, reflecting on your own thinking process and the ability to monitor and manage your learning. This is where we must begin to create a plan to improve what we would like to learn. It is possible to learn anything with the right study habits, the ability to practice and refine the skills needed, with a positive growth mindset, we can create those “Aha Moments” of learning that come when we persist through something we are working on.
What Slows Down Our Learning?
Stress and anxiety make it difficult for learning to occur. When you feel threatened or anxious, the brain releases chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol. These chemicals quickly alter the way that you think, feel and behave and shut down the oldest part of the brain that are designed to keep us safe when we feel stress. It’s smart to learn quick and simple relaxation strategies that you can use immediately when you feel stressed or anxious. Taking some deep, long breaths can fuel your brain for focused attention and learning and prevent your emotions from taking control. If you are looking for a longer term solution, research does show that those who consistently practice mindfulness and mediation strategies, decrease the size of the amygdala, (the part of the brain that highjacks our emotions) and improves our ability to handle stressful situations so that we possess more equanimity, a mental calmness, composure and evenness of temper, especially during difficult situations.
What Strengthens Our Brain and Cognition?
When you are curious and interested, you will be ready to put in the effort needed to work hard and concentrate on new information. You must also be happy and relaxed in order to consolidate this new information. In his book Words Can Change Your Brain[xvii], Mark Robert Waldman outlines his brain-scan research suggesting that “the strategies incorporated in mindfulness could strengthen the neural circuits associated with empathy, compassion and moral decision making .”[xviii] This demonstrates just how powerful it can be to stop and think . Incorporating mindfulness into your daily routine can enable you to be more observant, creative, and ready to see the opportunity within your daily obstacles and challenges.
Here are Three Tips to Strengthen Your Brain and Cognition That You Can Implement Immediately:
- Take brief relaxation breaks to maintain focus and improve your ability to problem solve. We must find a way to relax our brain and body. It’s during these “resting states” that remarkable activity takes place, allowing the brain to creatively solve problems. Dr. Srini Pillay, an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, wrote a book about the importance of this resting period in his book, Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind.[xix] In this book Pillay explains that too much focus depletes your brain of glucose and depletes you. Be mindful of ways to eliminate decision fatigue and allow those times for your mind to become unfocused. He shared that Einstein discovered his Theory of Relativity by using his intuition, and then used logic to explain it. Unfocused time can take you to places and insights where focus cannot.
- Improve the circuits of your brain by learning to look within for answers. In his book, “Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation” Dr . Siegel shares that teachers introduced to “mindsight or the ability to focus on the inner life of their student or child” teach with the brain in mind and are reaching students in deeper and more lasting ways .”[xx] The research shows that developing the ability to make sense of your own life and past experiences, translates into the development of your students and children. Dr. Siegel is an expert on Attachment Research and discusses the fact that having Mindsight ourselves, will help develop securely attached children who will learn resilience.
- Create a plan for persistence. If your first plan does not succeed, what will you try next. Map out strategies for your plan b and be ready to pivot or try something new if the first plan fails. Those who fail, often attribute their failure to lack of inspiration, ability, talent or lack of time, but most often it’s due to insufficient application of strategies towards a goal and lack of persistence.
I hope you have found these tips and further study of the mind vs the brain to be helpful as we move into the cognitive track and dive deeper into how we can use our brain to facilitate and improve our ability to learn and create lasting results. I’m excited to speak with Dr. Siegel the start of November. His work has inspired a lot of my early research into the brain and there’s no one like him who can explain such complex concepts in a way that anyone can understand them. I look forward to bringing in new experts to inspire new ways of thinking around the power and purpose of our brain in our cognitive track. See you next time.
Integrating Social, Emotional and Academic Development (SEAD) March 2019 The Aspen Institute https://www.aspeninstitute.org/publications/integrating-social-emotional-and-academic-development-sead-an-action-guide-for-school-leadership-teams/
“How to Reach the Aha Moment of Learning” Diagram adapted by Andrea Samadi with permission https://www.dropbox.com/s/lktxwm2u130vllr/18-Metacognition.jpg?dl=0
[ix] How Your Mind Works Proctor Gallagher Institute, idea originally from Dr. Thurman Fleet https://www.proctorgallagherinstitute.com/25593/how-your-mind-works
[x] How Your Mind Works Proctor Gallagher Institute, idea originally from Dr. Thurman Fleet https://www.proctorgallagherinstitute.com/25593/how-your-mind-works
[xii] Marc Brackett on the Importance of Emotional Intelligence https://www.pbs.org/wnet/amanpour-and-company/video/marc-brackett-on-the-importance-of-emotional-intelligence/
[xiv] EPISODE #22 Interview with Marc Brackett, Founding Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/founding-director-yale-center-for-emotional-intelligence/id1469683141?i=1000450933434
[xv] Sharpen the Saw 7th Habit of Highly Effective People Stephen Covey https://www.franklincovey.com/the-7-habits/habit-7.html
[xvi] Integrating Social, Emotional and Academic Development (SEAD) March 2019 The Aspen Institute https://www.aspeninstitute.org/publications/integrating-social-emotional-and-academic-development-sead-an-action-guide-for-school-leadership-teams/
[xvii] Andrew Newburg M .D . and Mark Robert Waldman, “Words Can Change Your Brain,” (The Penguin Group, New York, New York) Page 12
[xviii] Andrew Newburg M .D . and Mark Robert Waldman, “Words Can Change Your Brain,” (The Penguin Group, New York, New York) Page 12
[xix] Dr. Srini Pillay Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind https://www.amazon.com/Tinker-Dabble-Doodle-Try-Unfocused-ebook/dp/B01JWDZ7SK/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=pillay+tinker&qid=1570042219&s=digital-text&sr=1-1
[xx] Dan Siegel, Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, (New York: Bantam, 2010) Kindle Edition Location 133 https://www.amazon.com/Mindsight-New-Science-Personal-Transformation-ebook/dp/B002XHNONS/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=mindsight&qid=1570042869&s=digital-text&sr=1-1