Your Mind Isn’t Confined to the Inside of Your Skull

Where is your mind? Professor Daniel Siegel answers this question with a more revolutionary one: Where isn't your mind?

Daniel Siegel: One aspect of the mind, beyond subjective experience, consciousness, maybe even information processing, these are facets of the mind that are good descriptions, let's just put those to the side for now. This fourth facet of the mind has a definition, not just a description. This facet of the mind can be defined this way: the emergent self-organizing embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information. And if we take that apart step-by-step we can see that the system we're talking about is called a complex system, that means it's open to influences from outside of itself, it's capable of being chaotic and it's non-linear meaning small inputs have large and difficult to predict results. When you have those three characteristics math says that system is a complex system. And once we're in the realm of complex systems we find that these complex systems have what are called emergent properties, the interaction of the elements of the system give rise to these properties that cannot be reduced to the singular elements that are interactions give rise to them.

The notion that complex systems have emergent properties is sometimes responded to by various scientists or even the general public as very confusing, sometimes even ridiculous. What I do in the book Mind is I actually put some quotes from some scientists who actually see emergence as not only a scientific property of complex systems but as a necessary way of understanding what it is that emergence, for example, why clouds have the beautiful ways that they unfold across the sky. That's an emergent property of water molecules and air molecules that form of the clouds and the emergent property there is self-organization that's determining how it unfolds. So when you come to the emergent property of self-organization then you also get people saying well that just doesn't feel right, it doesn't feel intuitive and I totally share that initial response. Self-organization has a strange reality where number one, as an emergent property it's the interaction of the elements of the system, in this case energy and information flow that is giving rise to it that's what an emergent property means. It can't be reduced to the singular elements. But as a self-organizing emergent property it means it's arising from something, that's the emergent part, but then it's turning back and regulating that from which it is arising, which is completely non-intuitive. That's called a recursive feature. Recursive means it has a feedback loop, it a feedback system, it feeds back on itself. So even there as I'm speaking to you I'm doing an assessment of what's going on I say feedbacks, no it's feeds back. So, what that means is that arising from the system is self-organization, it then regulates the interaction of the elements of the system so that self-organization is then continuingly influencing itself, which is completely the counter intuitive.

So here's the amazing thing, it's a proven property of our universe that complex systems have this recursive property to it. It's probably why people have not really gone to these emergent properties because especially self-organization it's not intuitive. The second reason I think people haven't gone here is because this definition of the mind as the emergent self-organizing embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy information is placing the mind in "two places at once", within your body and between you and other people and you and the planet. So this irritates people because first of all many people point to their head when they talk about their mind and they place the mind inside the skull. Fine. But even if you kept the mind only inside the skin encased body you'd feel okay with the word embodied and many people do.

However, once you say it's both embodied and relational you get into this really interesting new way of thinking because you say how could one thing, mind, be both within and between in two places? Well, here's a way to think about it: our fundamental element we're proposing is energy and information flow. Now, if you think about that the skull nor the skin are impermeable boundaries for energy and information to flow. So you may think of them as two places but it's one system, energy and information flow, and it's happening in many different locations.


Back in 1988, Pixies asked the catchy question: "Where is my mind?". Now, nearly 30 years later, UCLA psychiatry professor Daniel Siegel has a revolutionary answer. We’ve come to accept that the brain is the instrument that plays the mind, but Siegel takes it one step further by positing that your mind isn’t limited to the confines of your skull, or even the barrier of your skin anywhere in your body. Your mind is emergent – it’s beyond your physiology, and it exists in many different places at once. Daniel Siegel's most recent book is Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human.

Daniel Siegel's most recent book is Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human.

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