Mind over Matter

Let’s face it: college is stressful.


Even after all my years in higher education, university life is, to this very day, still stressful for me. And if it’s still stressful for me, I imagine it must be stressful for my fellow students as well.


I’ll admit I don’t spend a lot of time thinking of new ways to cope with the stress in my academic life, but a recent weekend at a positive psychology symposium forced me to sit down and listen to some very smart people who have some really good ideas on the topic.


The idea behind the theme of this conference, “Mindsight,” is that every common mental disorder, including the depression and anxiety that so commonly result from the stress of college life, include some level of deficiency in relationships. The idea is that humans, as social animals, typically get into the most trouble when they neglect the development and nurturance of healthy social interactions, and that our health outcomes can be improved by additional attention paid to improved our functioning in these areas.  


Perhaps one of the most interesting elements of the conference was the diversity of the presenters. It included holders of doctorates in philosophical theology, doctors on staff at prestigious hospitals, directors and fellows of research institutes attached to medical schools and universities, poets, authors, lecturers and researchers.


“Mindsight” is the term coined by Dr. Dan Siegel, a presenter at the conference and author of “The Developing Mind.” The idea of developing “mindsight” is that by developing and integrating the natural skills of insight (self-understanding), empathy (other-understanding), and mindfulness (attentiveness), we can improve mental and physical health outcomes, and subjective feelings of wellbeing.


Sound too New-Agey for you? As it happens, there’s a lot of science to back up this assertion. Siegel’s book itself is supported with over 500 references. Mindfulness, for example, has been shown to improve immune and cardiac functioning, as well as subjective reports of wellbeing. Which makes sense, if you consider many people’s chronic addiction to (demonstrably inefficient) “multi-tasking” and how it might correlate with our chronic obesity, heart disease and unhappiness.


The conference introduced findings that broke new ground in other areas such as the definition of the mind. In the ’90s, the general scientific consensus was that the mind was the activity of the brain. With new understandings from the work of Siegel and others in related fields, the mind can be defined as “a process that regulates the flow of energy and information.” In fact, over 40 specialists in fields such as psychology, anthropology, psychiatry and medicine agreed upon this very definition.


With this new definition of mind and the research accumulated by the conference attendees, it is clear that the focus of the mind, literally, what we pay attention to, determines the patterns of neuronal firings, which cause physical neural pathway changes. “Neurons which fire together, wire together.” The mind is therefore responsible for physical changes in the brain, making the brain’s development more a result of the mind’s process than vice-versa. Thus, the old saw about “mind over matter,” that is, your mental processes literally dominating and reshaping physical reality, is shown to be demonstrably true.


So, all this sounds great, but where’s the practical application? Given my own admittedly limited knowledge of this field, it’s not exactly easy to say. Come on, these people have been studying the brain for decades, I just spent three days in a hotel ballroom. But since I believe an opinion column should be useful as well as thought provoking, here’s my shot at extracting the gems of usefulness from the deluge of knowledge:


  • Guard your attention. What you spend your time thinking about literally reshapes your brain, so be careful what you think about, because it will literally be burned into your brain.
  • Watch your behaviors. Your habits and patterns of interaction will become harder to change the longer they go on unconsciously. Instead, try to practice stepping back from your situation and reflecting on behaviors and patterns before you jump into them.
  • Be responsible for how you treat people. Interacting with other people changes both you and them. Research has shown that the self-regulation circuits in the middle of our prefrontal brain – the most recently evolved and highly developed part of our brains – respond most sensitively to interpersonal interactions.
  • Be aware that the brain is still developing in huge ways well into your 20s-so if you think you’re messed up and you’re still young, it’s not all over yet. In fact, given the brain’s incredible plasticity, even if you’re not still young, it’s still not over.
  • Realize that genetics do play a role in brain and temperament development, and some people are born with a genetic predisposition to psychiatric disorders – but that interactions with caregivers at an early age also play a huge role in shaping self-regulation abilities.

So there you have it. A bite-sized chunk of interpersonal neurobiology, distilled from an ocean of dizzying science and psychology. Next week: rocket science made simple.