Thursday, November 15 , 2018, 2:20 pm | Fair 73º

 
 
 

Russell Collins: Daniel Siegel and the New Supermind

The scientist, a pioneer in the emerging field of interpersonal neurobiology, will speak next month at the Lobero

Along the disputed frontier between religion and science, there have always been the peacemakers looking for a way to bridge the gap, or at least to minimize the collateral damage of battle. One method for achieving this is just better cartography — a more definite line of demarcation between the two domains, and more solid agreements about staying on your own side of the fence.

Russell Collins
Russell Collins

Biologist Stephen Jay Gould proposed the terminology “non-overlapping magisteria” for such a peaceful church-and-state coexistence between the two domains. But for most of the Earth’s population, the idea that spirit and matter can be so neatly divided is … unsatisfying, at least.

A second alternative to taking sides in the often vitriolic dispute (see Galileo vs. The Inquisition and, more recently, biologist Richard Dawkins vs. God) is a philosophy that softens the boundaries between religion and science by identifying a sort of no-man’s land where they overlap. Out there on the mysterious far frontiers of human knowledge, this second camp says, science and spirit may be one. A recent philosopher of this school was Sri Aurobindo, the Cambridge-educated Indian psychologist of the early 20th century who coined the term “Supermind.”

Supermind, according to Aurobindo, was to be the end product of Darwinian evolution, a super-integration of human mental activity that would bring the world to a new level of consciousness and community.

While the idea of an evolutionary endpoint — implying an overarching design — isn’t widely accepted by 21st century biologists, a new coalescence of science and spirituality has been quietly brewing, epicentered around the Dalai Lama, but involving highly respected scientists (physicists, neuroscientists and biologists, primarily) and religious people of many stripes.

Prominent among those scientists is Daniel Siegel, one of the founding pioneers of an emerging field of neuroscience called interpersonal neurobiology, which shares some theoretical turf with Aurobindo’s Supermind. Siegel is careful to define his work as strictly scientific, but he is clearly in the camp that values the cross-pollination of ideas from the two domains. And his thinking has expanded dramatically from the purely biological and psychological investigations of his books in the ‘90s (e.g. The Developing Mind) to something that sounds — happily, I think — more like a vision for the future of humanity.

“From a scientific perspective, the sense of our interconnectedness is blossoming in a wide array of research areas — from social network studies to quantum physics” is how Siegel put it when I asked him about this. “I usually don’t use the term ‘spiritual’ unless I am quoting someone else.” He prefers to think of his work as “consilient” with spiritual wisdom, meaning that they drill down toward the same deep discoveries about experience and reality, but from different disciplines or domains. Rather than “spirit,” Siegel has adapted the biological term “transpiration” to represent the expansion of personal identity from a sense of “I,” as he explains it, to a “‘we’ that is larger than even our interpersonal relationships.“

It’s understandable, I think, that Siegel would want to distinguish his research into interpersonal neurobiology from religious practices. Still, the story of “mindsight,” as he has come to call it, began with an epiphany and is being spread by him with evangelical zeal.

The epiphany occurred when Siegel was at Harvard Medical School. He speaks movingly of it in a new book, Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation.

Siegel describes the moment in a lecture hall called, appropriately, the Ether Dome. As the accretion of two years of lectures and interactions with his professors pressed down on him in his chair, he suddenly felt the deadening impact upon his psyche of the medical worldview of the time. “Perhaps this was my teachers’ way of dealing with the overwhelming feelings of facing illness and death every day,” he writes, “of feeling helpless at times, incompetent, or not in control.” Whatever the origin, the outcome was a reductionist approach to medicine, where the deepest currents of human experience were ignored. Patients’ “feelings and thoughts, their hopes and dreams and fears” just didn’t figure into the medical equation. Prefiguring an awakening that has occurred across many domains of medicine since then, Siegel was struck by the realization that medical worldview being presented in the top universities of the country was just wrong.

Siegel’s alternative, developed in the intervening years in collaboration with neuroscientists at his UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center, is a concept that features integration of these subjective aspects of experience — thoughts and feelings — with the biological aspects that have traditionally been the focus of medicine.

Further, Siegel is blazing new trails in the understanding of “the integration of integrative domains,” as he calls it, or how my body and mind can be tuned in to your body and mind, and how this attunement expands out to the community and even to the global level Siegel calls this essential flow “mindsight.” Mindsight enables integration, he told me, which “is the way we link different elements to one another to create harmony. Integration is the essence of health — and mindsight enables us to create well-being in our internal and interpersonal lives.”

At the core of his highly readable Mindsight is an idea that Siegel believes is important for the world to hear. I asked him to boil the concept down to a sentence or two (Siegel is an entertaining and charismatic speaker, by the way, and a master at making complex ideas understandable), and this was his reply: “On one level, mindsight is the way we can see the mind in ourselves and in others. On a deeper level, mindsight is the ability to perceive patterns of energy and information flow as they are shared among people in relationships, as they move within the structure of the nervous system, and as they are regulated by the mind itself.”

As I understand it, mindsight is a human capability that allows us to witness our own physical and mental processes — to notice them unfolding inside us — while at the same time having the capacity to accurately perceive them unfolding in others. The term mindsight originated from Siegel’s neurobiological investigation of empathy and insight, but it has come to mean, for him, something larger, something almost ... redemptive.

Several years ago, Siegel was asked by the Dalai Lama to advance humanity’s understanding of compassion and kindness through his work in interpersonal neurobiology. His answer was mindsight, which he’s described as a “movement,” and a “way of transforming not just your personal life but our whole social life in the communities we live in and for the larger global village.” In Siegel’s words I hear a message of planetary harmony and well-being. It’s a message with which, in their best moments, both science and religion can be fully aligned.

Siegel will speak at the Mind/Supermind event at 7:30 p.m. Monday, May 10 at the Lobero Theatre.

— Russell Collins is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.

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