What is Mindsight? And How It Applies to You

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I just finished Mindsight The New Science of Personal Transformation by Daniel Siegel and wanted to summarize some of the main ideas into an easily accessible article. First of all, what is mindsight? This is an excerpt from Siegel’s book:

“Mindsight is a kind of focused attention that allows us to see the internal workings of our own minds. It helps us to be aware of our mental processes without being swept away by them, enables us to get ourselves off the autopilot of ingrained behaviors and habitual responses, and moves us beyond the reactive emotional loops we all have a tendency to get trapped in…The focusing skills that are part of mindsight make it possible to see what is inside, to accept it, and in the accepting to let it go, and, finally, to transform it.”

In other words, mindsight is the capacity to label, analyze and clarify our internal emotional world and how it responds to the world around us. You might be asking yourself, as I did while reading this book: ‘This is a great concept, but where is the science?’

Siegel argues that when we are attentive, the neurons in our brain fire together and that part of your brain becomes activated. This firing amplifies neurplastcity in the brain, which helps us process our emotions. We are literally ‘waking up’ the part of the brain we need to process different emotions.

An example that Siegel gives to help demonstrate the idea of brain activation from mindsight is an experiment done with taxi drivers. The hippocampus is actually enlarged in taxi drivers. This is the part of the brain we use for spatial memory. In addition, Siegel explains, the brain goes on neural pruning sprees and removes neural connections to hone down the various circuits that are unused so brain is more specialized and efficient. Siegel suggests that research finds people with mindful awareness training have a shift in their brain towards ‘approach state’ that allows them to move toward rather than away from challenging situations—which is the brain signature of resilience.

Major Helpful Concepts of Mindsight:

  • “Name and Tame:” When of the major principles of Mindsight is to ‘name and tame’ the emotions we are feeling. I find this very helpful and easy to adapt in my own life. If we name the emotions we are experiencing, rather than being overwhelmed by them we are in a much better place to process them. For example, think about the difference between saying “I’m angry” and “I feel angry.” There is a very distinct difference between them. “I’m angry” is a kind of self-defined, limiting state. “I feel angry” suggests the ability to identify and accept an emotion, without being overtaken by it.
  • Leaving Autopilot: One of the key concepts Siegel explains, that I find most relevant to my day to day life is being aware of our own mental processes without being swept up by them. This helps us get out of autopilot for ingrained behavior, habitual responses and emotional loops that we can get trapped in.
  • Honing the 9 Prefrontal Functions: Siegel touts nine of the major functions of the prefrontal cortex as being key to the development of mindsight: bodily regulation, attuned communication, emotional balance, response flexibility, fear modulation, empathy, insight, moral awareness and intuition. These 9 facets make emotional well-being. Mindsight helps you find impediments to each of the 9 areas so you can liberate the mind’s natural device to heal and reflect. I found it a bit overwhelming to try to think about all 9 at once, but was successful in addressing one area each week. By simply paying attention to each ability, I learned about myself and my ingrained habits.
  • Reflection’s Tripod: The major principle of mindsight is focused attention or reflection. Siegel breaks down reflection further into three pillars: openness, observation and objectivity. This is harder than it seems! However, I did find this helpful when trying to reflect on emotions, I normally tried to shove under the rug–jealousy, anger and vulnerability. At the very least, I felt more calm and was able to move past them easier–mindsight or just time?

One of the areas I truly struggled with was having more concrete steps to achieving or even practicing mindsight. Siegel regularly mentions ‘mindfulness training activities’ but rarely expounds upon how to complete these activities without him. Here are a few mindsight training activities I gathered from the examples he uses in the book:

  1. Non-verbal communication game of copying someone else’s facial expression and guessing the emotion.
  2. Non-verbal communication game of watching TV with the sound off and letting your brain ‘fill-in the blank.’
  3. Journaling about your day in pictures/smells/sounds to help activate the senses
  4. Trying to draw using different sides of the brain (he recommends some books on the topic)
  5. Journaling emotions
  6. Finding words to depict our internal world
  7. Making ‘mindmaps’ of our self and our relationship with others–how we see ourselves and our relations with others.
  8. Tensing and releasing certain muscle groups to become aware of them
  9. Having someone say ‘no’ in a harsh tone and then a nice ‘yes’ several times and discussing how it feels when both words are said to you.

I have yet to try any of these specific activities, but could see how they are action steps for the principles of mindsight. I look forward to further scientific studies–MRI’s, focus groups and research done on the principles of mindsight and it’s effects.


Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation 2010, New York, NY: Bantam Books

Cozolino, Louis. The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy

Malle, Bertram, Hodges, Sara, eds. Understanding Other Minds (New York: Guilford, 2005).

Eleanor A Maguire et al., “Navigation-Related Structural Change in the Hippocampi of Taxi Drivers,” Proceedings of the National Academu of Sciences 97, 8 (2000): 4398-4403.

6 Responses to “What is Mindsight? And How It Applies to You”

  1. David Nowell
    December 29, 2010 at 5:37 am #

    This is a great summary of a very helpful book on the topic of emotional- and self-regulation. Thanks!

  2. Marsha Lucas, PhD
    January 9, 2011 at 7:27 am #

    Nice job summarizing Dan’s fantastic book. By “mindfulness training activities” I’m willing to guess that Dan is referring, at least in part, to mindfulness meditation. It’s an attentional training technique honed over 2,500 years, and no religion is required. (Really. And you don’t have to sit like a pretzel, either.)
    Even with all of the neuroscience supporting the utility of mindfulness meditation, it’ still risky to put the word “meditation” in a book without concern about undermining one’s credibility as a scientist.
    I’m a neuropsychologist, I use mindfulness techniques with my patients, and I see a world of difference when they (and I) practice it, even if only a few minutes a day.

  3. ann lawlor
    January 10, 2011 at 5:54 am #

    Agree with other post, this is a great summary. More and more I am believing that emotional health and well-being equates to mental health. I suspect that there is actually only a small proportion of the population affected by serious mental ilness and this is probably due to a combination of things – the rest of us are emotionally unwell. Ingrained thoughts, habits and behaviours that we never challenge are doing real damage. We damage ourselves and others with our faulty thinking….especially about our emotional lives which we ignore at our peril. To label, acknowledge, express and manage emotions would go a long way to redress the balance.

  4. ltg
    January 10, 2011 at 8:37 am #

    Sounds like a good book, though I’m left wondering why he felt the need to give mindfulness a new name.

  5. Mindful Tia
    September 8, 2011 at 12:37 pm #

    Meditating is the single best exercise to get a more relaxed life. I know it helped me and kept me happy no matter what happened.

  6. Peter Howie
    December 20, 2011 at 7:51 pm #

    Thanks for this. While becoming easy with the difference between “I feel angry” and “I am angry” can be useful for many people, it has one unfortunate and serious drawback. It separates us from our emotions. Emotions are then viewed as something other than ‘us’. They are instead, something that happens to us. This can be a useful device and NLP and others have a variety of techniques for facilitating this process.

    The downside of separating emotions from us is that we then need to define ourselves in a new and different manner. This is I think implicit in Dan’s book and would be one or other of the numerous Buddhist ideas of self. Where our self is separate from our body and emotion comes from the body.

    This reminds me of the Seven Habits books that were religious constructs in a different digestible form. This too is religion, called mindfulness rather than meditation practice, and while nothing wrong with any of it, it is still a ‘dressing up’ process.

    Of course this whole response of mine is entirely self serving as now I don’t need to read the book!!! :)



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