The Mind, the Brain and Trauma

One of the leaders in the field of trauma studies is Dr. Dan Siegel. He is the author many outstanding books including: The Developing Mind: Toward a Neurobiology of Interpersonal Experience and Parenting from the inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive. He also has many excellent YouTube videos. When hearing him speak I have been very impressed by his passion for communicating with his audience, be it comprised of professionals or parents. I highly recommend his set of CDs entitled The Neurobiology of WE: How relationships, the Mind and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are

Much of the study of trauma has to do with the study of the brain and the impact of trauma on the brain’s architecture. One of the fascinating additions to this exploration of the nature of trauma is to also explore the nature of the mind. A deep philosophical conversation can be had around the subject of how the mind and the brain differ, influence each other and even where the mind actually exists. I think Dr. Siegel is one of the few professionals who has dealt deeply into the subject of the mind and its connection with the brain and then its connection to trauma.

In his book Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, he describes how he often asks the professionals in his audiences how many of them have attended a course or lecture that defined the mind or mental health as part of their training. He says on average only 2% to 5% of the mental health practitioners to whom he has spoken respond that they have received that kind of information. He stresses that the emphasis in their training is often on mental illness and misses the importance of exploring what a healthy mind actually involves. He asks the question, how can we describe what mental illness is, its many categories of symptoms and treatment techniques without having explored what a healthy mind actually is?

He describes how in 1992 he recruited 40 scientists to create an interdepartmental group at UCLA to study the connections between the brain and the mind. He shares that while the scientists found it easy to describe the brain as an organ “…   composed of a set of neurons encased in the skull and interconnected with the rest of the body” he quickly discovered there was no one view of the mind and no common vocabulary for discussing it. He said that many of the experts said that the mind was “just the activity of the brain” or that it was “a shared social process passed across the generations.” Or that “the mind is our thoughts and feelings.”

Ultimately he came up with a definition that was embraced by all the scientists participating in this study in order to provide a place for people to explore the power and the impact of the mind on one’s life, especially when that life is impacted by trauma. This definition: “The human mind is a relational and embodied process that regulates the flow of energy and information.”

He goes on to say, “The mind is real and ignoring it does not make it go away. Defining the mind makes it possible for us, both in our daily life and in our many professional pursuits— from psychotherapy in medicine and education to policy information and public advocacy— to share common language about the internal nature of our lives.”

He writes extensively about this definition, but for those just wanting to have tools for exploring trauma, it is helpful to appreciate that the mind and the brain are different and yet interconnected. Appreciating that the mind involves this combination of energy and information gives us a sense of the activity in the mind that is both dynamic and fluid.

Siegel tells us that each of our minds includes our “unique thoughts, feelings, perceptions, memories, beliefs, and attitudes, and a unique set of regulatory patterns.” He says that the energy and information flow happens, in part, in the body, occurring where we imagine our mental life takes place, and that it exists in the circuits and synapses of the brain as well as throughout the body. He said the mind also includes a part of the relational processes that occur between people as well as within them.

From all this emerged a new field that is called Interpersonal Neurobiology. It is the study of the mind/brain/body connection and how this can impact psychological health.

All of this can be a lot to understand and digest. At the same time, it can be helpful to appreciate that the science of trauma needs to include an understanding of the mind-brain-body connections, which includes having a usable definition of the mind.

The bottom line; our minds, interacting with our brains, experience life, experience trauma, organize all of our life experiences, analyze and categorize these and, to whatever extent, allow these to either make our lives clearer and richer and more fulfilling or create internal struggles, confusion, rigidity and fear.

Consider this: you have used your mind as well as your brain to process the information here. The degrees to which you have integrated life experiences in ways that make sense and allow you the freedom to retrieve memories and process them determines the degrees to which you experience what we call mental health.If nothing else, this information can help us appreciate that some of the pain as well as the healing of trauma is more than just a function of the brain. It is a function of the mind as well.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. Have you ever paused to consider how the mind is different from the brain? What actually is the mind?
  2. How does the information Dr. Siegel offers add to your knowledge about the nature of trauma and what is needed to help someone experience healing?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute