Book Reviews

The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are.

by Daniel J. Siegel (Guilford Press)

At UCLA last year, I heard Dan Siegel say something that is a fundamental departure from the way that most of us think about our selves. “The self”, he explained, “is composed of three elements: our brain, our body, and other people.” We are vitally affected by our relationships in the Primal Period. Siegel writes about the need to create secure and safe attachments for infants and children: “Attachment relationships may serve to create the central foundation from which the mind develops. Disorganized forms of insecure attachment may serve as a significant risk factor in the development of psychopathology.” On the other hand, children who have attuned, secure attachments and who feel loved will tend to be happier and more resilient over their lifespan. This is because, “early experience shapes the regulation of synaptic growth and survival, the regulation of response to stress, and even...gene expression.” Siegel also explains that, earlier in life, intrauterine factors may have a significant effect in determining a person’s temperament. Another key concept is differentiation and integration. As our brains grow, each region develops in specific ways - such as memory, vision, and empathy. These areas need to be integrated so that there is a smooth flow of energy and information between them. A complex “unity in diversity” (Murray Bookchin) is vital for stability in ecological systems in general, and for our brains in particular. When the flow of energy and information is disrupted, our thoughts and feelings can become either shut down or more chaotic. Siegel believes that all psychiatric disorders reflect “chaos and/or rigidity” resulting from such “impaired integration.” Regarding relationships, compassion is beneficial for everybody. "Studies of happiness, health, and wisdom each reveal that positive attributes are associated with helping others and giving back to the world”, Siegel writes. “Being compassionate to others, and to ourselves, is a natural outcome of the healthy development of the mind." While these problems usually have their roots in infancy and childhood, they are often caused, or made worse, by the “social determinants of health”. High levels of inequality and child poverty correlate with higher rates of emotional, intellectual, and even physical problems. For instance, research in the U.S. found that poor children were more likely to suffer brain damage almost as severe as having a stroke. The Developing Mind is neither a “self-help” book nor light reading - its almost 400 pages of text covers topics such as “self-states”, semantic memory, and “modes of processing”. This detail, however, should not discourage the reader who wants to get a state-of-the-art picture of what it means to be human, from the author of such books such as the very insightful, “Parenting from the Inside Out”.