Dr. Dan Siegel on the “Optical Delusion” Keeping Us from Understanding the Human Mind

“When you look at what the mind is, it might be something more than just brain activity.”

Dr. Dan Siegel is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, the founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA, and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute. The author of multiple bestselling books on mindfulness, development, and neurobiology, Dr. Siegel joined Heleo’s Mandy Godwin on Facebook Live to discuss the mysteries of the human mind.

Mandy: Your new book, Mind, includes a quote by Albert Einstein, about how our idea of being separate from the rest of the world is an “optical delusion.” How is that?

Dan: Einstein used the word “delusion,” a psychotic belief that’s not consistent with reality. When you look at what the mind is, it might be something more than just brain activity. The interconnections we have make the self that comes from the mind not just a solo product, not just within your head. I think that’s what Einstein was referring to, that there’s something about the human condition that gets us to this false belief that we’re separate.

Mandy: Absolutely. In fact, something that you’ve brought up is that many of our disciplines aren’t even sure what we’re talking about when we refer to “mind.”

Dan: This is the reason I wrote the book, because the word “mind” does not have a definition in my original field, which is psychiatry. It doesn’t have a definition in the field of medicine. It doesn’t even have a definition in the field of psychology.

Mandy: What was the working definition of “mind” that you came up with?

Dan: The “mind” is some aspect of energy and information flow. Flow means change; information is a pattern of energy with symbolic value. Energy is this movement from possibility to actuality through a series of probabilities.

Mind, in the subjective experience of it, consciousness and information processing, can be some emergent property of energy and information flow.

Mandy: And where is our mind exactly?

Dan: Yes, people often say, “Well, my mind is (pointing to the head). But where is it?” A lot of people turn to what Hippocrates said 2,500 years ago, which has been affirmed by scientists—it’s the common view: “mind is what brain does.” That puts the mind only in your head.

Of course the brain affects mental life, your feelings, your thoughts, your consciousness, memory, meaning, beliefs, attitudes, for sure, but is it limited to your skull? This is the issue.

Mandy: You mean, it’s not exclusively neural, it’s also social and interactive. So if it’s not just in your head, just in your skull, then where can you find the mind?

“The mind isn’t just influenced by other people—which is classic to social neuroscience— the mind emerges in the between-ness.”

Dan: You would find it throughout your whole body. Right now, your heart is influencing energy and information flow within your skin-encased body. It’s happening in your intestines. We know the bacteria that you ate this morning that you have in your intestines are going to affect the way you feel and think. Your intestines and your heart are a fundamental part of energy and information flow within your experience.

Right now, between me and you, we have energy and information flowing. Someone watching us could say, “Oh yeah, Mandy and Dan are talking. When Dan coughs, he keeps on putting his hand up [on the microphone],” because I have the mind of you and the mind of other people who are going to hear my coughing, so I cover this up so my coughing isn’t so loud. We have this interconnected mind.

If I were a person who were just thinking my mind came from my brain, I could say, “Well, our social signals influence each other.” What we’re saying here in this question, “Where is the mind?”, is that the mind isn’t just influenced by other people—which is classic to social neuroscience—the mind emerges in the between-ness. There’s something happening right here, in the pattern of the way you’re responding to me. Studies show if we mirror each other, we’re going to secrete more oxytocin. We’re going to have a more compatible way of talking to each other than if I started doing stuff that showed I wasn’t resonating with you.

That’s a between-ness. We don’t become each other. We stay differentiated, but we become linked. That’s the “where,” as much between as within.

Mandy: Most of the time, what we hear about in studies is the mind as brain activity, in the field of neuroscience. We don’t hear much of that linkage outside. It seems novel in many ways.

Dan: I knew there would be people who would say, “Well, we know mind is just the brain activity, so why don’t you talk more about the brain?” I’ve written books like that, and there are lots of books written like that. Let’s look at the big picture of what the mind is. If you want a book just on brain anatomy, go look at a book on brain anatomy. Let’s talk about the wholeness of the mind.

Mandy: You pose the question “when is the mind?” How does the concept of time apply to the mind?

Dan: You need to look into the science of time. Researching and writing this book helped illuminate something I had been feeling, but couldn’t really articulate, since I was about 11 years old. Sometimes in my mental life, I would have a feeling of, “Okay, time is passing, time is flowing, there’s not enough time, oh my God, things come and go.” At other times, I’d feel this timeless quality. Did you ever have that experience?

Mandy: Absolutely, especially when you’re really in the middle of something very engaging. There have been times where it seems as though a whole day can pass and you don’t even know, you’re immersed.

“It turns out that there isn’t something called time flowing, there’s just change happening. Time is really our awareness of change.”

Dan: Exactly, and other times you go, “Oh my God, I wish this would last forever.” Time is not something that flows like water in a river. Time as something that flows—we don’t have evidence for that. There is something called the arrow of time, which could be renamed the directionality of change. If you and I had an egg and cracked it open here, we couldn’t un-crack the egg. There’s a directionality of change. It’s now splayed all over the table. You can’t un-crack it.

It turns out that there isn’t something called time flowing, there’s just change happening. What we call “time” may actually really be our awareness of change. There are macro-states that have this directionality of change, but there are micro-states that have no arrow of time, no directionality.

The answer to the “when” of mind is that macro-state energy and information flow patterns, like a thought, have a directionality—they come and they go. In a practice called “the wheel of awareness,” I think you can drop into a micro-state condition where consciousness arises and has no directionality of change. It is “timeless.” Some states of pure consciousness, which you can get at when you’re in the flow of things or when you do reflective practice, can enter this timeless state.

Mandy: You’ve talked about meditative practice, and how that might lead to more awareness.

Dan: Yes, you can open your awareness to all sorts of things. This is the issue of the immersion of the book. I wanted the book to be an experience, not just a download of information, to be relational as writing, to ask these questions rather than just give final answers, and to let the questioning connect the reader to their own inner experience, as well as to me, as we go on the journey together. Also to say, “Look, these questions can open up your own experience of your mind.”

The “why” of mind was, emotionally, the most challenging to write, because it’s a little audacious. It’s really a question: “Is there a why of mind?” For me, when I say the mind is a self-organizing emergent embodied and relational process, then the “why” of self-organization has an answer, and it’s integration.

Integration is where you take different parts and link them to create more well-being. Relationally, what it means is you create more kindness and compassion toward others, and even toward yourself. Another outcome is curiosity and creativity, and openness to life as it unfolds.

Mandy: That’s very hopeful. There’s a really interesting anecdote where you bring in this concept of feelings not having a scientific basis. That struck me—science doesn’t want to encounter feelings. One thing that your project has been taking on is that integration of the emotional life and the neural life.

Dan: I think the way to begin is to honor that science wants and needs to carefully observe things. Usually, it wants to measure things with numbers, to do statistical analyses, and that’s fine. But what if the entity that we want to explore is something called subjective experience? Which would include emotions, but it also includes thoughts, perceptions, memories, beliefs, hopes, dreams, longings, attitudes, desires. That’s all the stuff of the mind. We put that under the phrase “subjective experience,” meaning you cannot really objectively measure it, or even observe it.

You and I see red, right? Even if we put 18 different options of red and we both pick the same one of the 18, I have no idea if the way you see red and the way I see red is the same. Poetry and art evoke subjective experiences. Even if I took a photograph, I have no idea if the feeling it evoked in me will be the feeling it evokes in you. You will have a subjective experience, and honoring that is important.

“You only get about 100 years in the body, but if you realize you are much more than your body, you’ve just achieved connection to people and living beings that were before you, and will be afterwards. You get this very different sense of vitality and meaning and purpose to life.”

From a scientific point of view, it’s important to recognize that you can’t outwardly observe subjective experience. The other thing is that, if we have teachings from our parents, from our schools, from society, that the self is a solo job that comes from your head, and that the mind is just brain activity, then what you say is, “Who you are is just your body.”

The sad outcome of that teaching is that you’re alone in this life. People feel so isolated because they see the “me” as separate. Then of course all you want to do is accumulate more stuff for “me,” get more for “me,” it’s about “me.” There’s not much in that that’s going to produce happiness or any positive outcome for the planet. What I talk about is an integrated identity, honoring that you have a “me” in the body, you get about 100 years to live in that body, awesome. Take care of the body well, exercise the body, feed the body, great. No one is saying the body isn’t important.

We’re also saying that differentiating the “me” within the body needs to be balanced with differentiating the “we” that is so under-recognized. That “we” identity needs to be talked about in homes and in classrooms and in the media. What’s been so exciting about it is people feel this opening up to a more authentic and real way of imagining where is your mind, who you are, why you’re here, what you can do with your life. You only get about 100 years in the body, but if you realize you are much more than your body, you’ve just achieved connection to people and living beings that were before you, and will be afterwards. You get this very different sense of vitality and meaning and purpose to life.

Unfortunately, in modern society, we’ve been living this very isolationist life. It’s a partial truth. To return to Einstein’s words, it’s an “optical delusion,” a psychotic belief. To be bold about it, it’s a lie that may be lethal. The more we believe that lie, the more we treat the planet like a trashcan, and there’s not much hope for the future.

Part of why I wrote the book was to open the conversation up with questions that can become a win-win-win situation. You get closer to the truth in yourself, that’s one win. You feel how you can develop well-being in your relationships with others, that’s the second win. The third win is that the planet is waiting for this transformation of our understanding of who we are and what to do with our lives collectively on Earth.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.