Emergence of Human Consciousness:
Interpersonal Neurobiology and the work of Dan Siegel
From what we can see from our vantage point here and now, the known universe emerged mysteriously some 13 billion years ago in a great flaring forth of energy, with matter, in the form of elementary particles, appearing and disappearing like bubbles and foam. Over time this emerging energy blob expanded, cooled and various shapes and forms of matter stabilized. At first large clouds of electrons and protons appeared, and then the protons and electrons combined to form hydrogen atoms, and the proto-galaxies arrived. These gave birth to mini (relative to the galactic clouds!) clouds which soon condensed into the first stars and the galaxies ignited into being.
9 billion years later, in a remote corner of one of the 100 billion galaxies, on a planet circling a rather ordinary mid-size yellow star, life emerged. Life is an on-going process, infinitely mysterious, self-organizing and self replicating, adapting and changing, complexifying, and evolving. Although truly a continuum of emergence that began 13 billion years ago, we have chosen the appearance of the cell the beginning of life. This simple organism found itself with powers and possibilities unknown to the stars and planets, the gasses and rocks, the atoms and molecules that slowly emerged and complexified over vast moments in time. It could replicate itself and this was something new.
Moving forward another 4 billion years in time we find a new emergence in the field of life, of aliveness: the proto-human mind. As mysterious as life itself is this mind with the capacity to self organize its own capacities, to complexify itself, to contemplate life, to contemplate itself, to imagine past and future and yet be fully present and awake now. This mind can also dream, both wondrous possibilities and hellsih nightmares, and can also get lost in these dreams and lose a felt sense of connection, of wholeness. It is a mind that can fall from grace and feel like it has been booted out of the Garden of Eden.
To truly unfold the mysteries of human consciousness, we are going to draw heavily upon the Dan Siegel trilogy, ‘The Developing Mind’, “The Mindful Brain” and the just published (Feb 2010) ‘Mindsight’. These are among the most fascinating and informative books I have ever read for those interested in yoga, integration, meditation and overall wellbeing. I highly recommend reading these on your own, and it will take years of reading and rereading to begin to absorb the depths of his insights. Dan describes the emerging field of interpersonal neurobiology, integrating the neurosciences and the study of neurons, brain structures and functioning with the study of human relationships. He describes eight interwoven and yet distinct domains of enquiry into how the human mind emerges, grows, complexifies and functions to present us with an ongoing experience of reality. These domains include memory, attachment, emotions, representations, states of mind, self-regulation, interpersonal connection and integration. A brief overview of each will be followed by a discussion on how we can use this in our practice and teaching.
Memory: Memory comes in two basic flavors, implicit and explicit or autobiographical memory. Implicit memory, to use Dan’s great image, creates the basic puzzle pieces that make up our mental experience. Implicit memory encodes, in neuronal firing patterns, our perceptions, emotions, bodily sensations and also our expressions of coordinated actions such as tying ones shoes or playing a musical instrument. Implicit memory also ‘harneses the brain’s capacity to generalize from experience’, creating representations known as schemas, which are summaries of similar events stored as a single pattern of activity. Finally implicit memory creates ‘priming’, the anticipatory process where the brain prepares to respond in a certain way to an expected event. All of this is stored as large scale complex patterns of activity in the body, the organs, cells and tissues.
Autobiographical memory has the components of implicit memory plus the additional ‘I am remembering’ thought. It involves a very specific area of the brain, the hippocampus, which integrates the implicit components to the sense of self, requires paying attention, and has many variations of expression. It does not emerge until 18 months or so, possibly up to the age of three, which is why most of us do not remember anything from the earliest months. Also, is diseases such as Alzheimers where there is damage to the hippocampus, new memories are not incorporated.
Attachment: Secure and insecure: The mammalian (and human) nervous system does not arise fully formed. It must mature after birth through entrained interactions with adults who, through their own actions, demonstrate patterns of behavior and self regulation. The brain is designed to be in relationship to others. Neuroscience has discovered what are known as mirror neurons is what is being called the social circuitry of the brain. Learning how to feel and understand the minds, feelings and intentions of other beings is a crucial component to health and well being.
Emotions: Primary and categorical: Emotions are patterns of organizing energies that allow a complex and dynamic set of responses to the environment.
Representations: How the nervous system organizes, presents and stores streams of energy and information regarding the world around us and our own inner processes. Each sensory modality organizes itself differently. Visual information is processed and recorded differently from auditory information, tactile information, The right and left hemispheres of the brain present very different types of information and if one is less stimulated, we may see a very limited understanding of what is happening. Humans also make representations of their own thought processes and of the minds of others.
States of Mind: waking, dreaming and deep sleep are three commonly experienced states. A state is a complex ordering of many processes and representations that has a level of stability in time. A healthy human mind can navigate through many types of waking states in a given day, including relaxation, the physiological arousal of running or engaged phyical activity, the alertness of listening to a lecture or musical performance, an animated conversation with a friend, a conflicted business meeting, etc. Each of these involves different levels of energy and differing modalities of perception and appraisal.
Self- Regulation: How we manage our arousal levels as the oscillate between high and low intensities. When children (or adults, when anger comes in) get too excited, they often ‘go over the edge’ and have a melt-down. Depression is when the energy level is stuck on low and no excitement is possible. How do we learn to raise and lower our energy levels to stay within a wide band of tolerance of experience, without “losing it”. Resilience.
Interpersonal connection: How do we develop the capacity to link up with another human mind to exchange energy and information. What does it mean to communicate? How do we learn to merge and separate with others in the social dance of life.
Integration: What is the process or set of processes by which multiple domains of mind can learn to function as a singular and more complex entitywhile retaining resilience. How can this process continue over time to become more and more complex. This is the realm of spiritual practice and here we will begin to see the science behind the ages old wisdom of the spiritual traditions.