Mindsight for Teens and Parents

I just finished Mindsight The New Science of Personal Transformation by Daniel Siegel and wanted to address some of the ways his research and ideas can benefit teens and parents. 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.

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.

Why is this important for teens and parents? According to Margot Sunderland, the brain’s stress response system needs to be developed in the amygdala. People who have not established stress response systems in their brains, can suffer all kinds of problems: Depression, persistent states of anxiety, phobias and obsessions, physical symptoms and ailments, being cut off emotionally, lethargy, lack of excitement and lack of spontaneity. Many teens are not taught how to respond to stress, and therefore are actually lacking the proper brain pathways to deal with anxiety in healthy ways. When teens feel overwhelmed, it is often because their brain can literally not handle the inputs.

Teaching our teenagers and children the principles of mindsight, can actually help them feel less overwhelmed by their emotions and environments. In addition, if parents learn mindsight they can overcome and tame their own stress and autopilot responses.

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 often teach this to teens when I am speaking to them at schools. 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. I think it is important to explain the importance of reflection to teenagers. It is OK to feel our feelings, it is OK to be angry and sad. In fact feeling our emotions, as opposed to pretending they are not there is healthy and normal. When we do this we are actually helping our brain work through them.

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 which we can do with our teens:

  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.

This is part of our Science of Family series. If you would like to read more articles on the scientific research and studies behind relationships, families and teens, please visit our Science of Families page for tips and updated research.


Sunderland, Margot. Science of Parenting: Practical Guidance on Sleep, Crying, Play, and Building Emotional Well-being for Life. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 2006.

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.

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