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The Developing MindReview - The Developing Mind
Toward a Neurobiology of Interpersonal Experience
by Daniel J. Siegel
Guilford Press, 1999
Review by Elizabeth McCardell, Ph.D.
Oct 29th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 44)

This book explores how experience, that is, interactions with the environment, might shape the development of the brain. It does this in a way that integrates neurobiology with subjective experiences, particularly those that occur in the reciprocity of interpersonal relationships. Siegel, a psychiatrist who specializes in the mental health problems of children and families, does not recapitulate the age-old dilemma of western science, that is, how to resolve the so-called 'hard problem', namely, how the matter of the brain generates the non-substantial mind; instead he enters into the thicket of his topic. His is a strictly scientific argument, yet one that seeks to improve, as well as explain, social interactions as it changes the very fabric of our neuropsychology.

Siegel's interactive relationship environment-neurobiological approach elucidates further what other contemporary neurological research has found: that the brain is a relatively plastic organ and thus capable of change throughout life.  Such insight is heartening for those engaged in providing psychotherapy to clients, for it gives understanding to the mechanisms involved in transforming maladaptive psychosocial patterns.  This is the author's aim, in fact, for this highly readable book.

Current research into emotional development, memory, cognitive science, neurobiology, systems theory are combined in the book; the latter forming the model of explanation for the relationship of the brain to the development of the mind through interpersonal encounters. The subtitle to the paperback version of this book 'How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are' is interestingly different to the hardback copy, 'Toward a Neurobiology of Interpersonal Experience' -- a subtle change of emphasis of purpose. The former looks to be marketed at a popular readership, rather than perhaps the more scholarly one of the latter title. Whichever title, the book combines both deep scholarship and relatively easy access to its ideas.

What of systems theory when applied to the interaction of environment and human neurobiology, given that this theory was first developed to describe the shape-changing behaviour of clouds?  It should be noted that interdisciplinary use has been made of systems theory since the 1940s, and its application to cognitive science is well established. Gregory Bateson, most notably, applied the non-linear dynamic model of systems theory, of which complexity theory is part, to problems of the mind in his 1971 book, Steps to an Ecology of Mind.  

Systems theory argues that however complex or diverse the world that we experience, we will always find different types of organization in it, and such organization can be described by concepts and principles that are interdependent with the specific domain at which we are looking.  By considering the brain as complex system whose processes organize its own functioning, and, as Siegel does, say that the 'mind emanates from the activity of the brain' (p.215), then we might agree with him that the mind is also a dynamical system with self-organizing properties, is open to novel response and adaptation to the environment, and has emergent patterns with recursive features. Using this systems approach, rather than the more traditional analytic approach (which grapples endlessly with philosophic dualism), Siegel emphasizes the interactions and connectedness of the different components of the system that is the human being in relationship with others. Complexity, adaptation, and self-regulation occur by a feedback looping process in an on-going relational response. Repeated patterns of behaviour become "engrained", 'meaning that they are made more likely to be reactivated in the future' (p. 211).  Siegel uses the analogy of what the Buddhists call 'laying down the path in walking' to describe how the process of engrainment might occur -- although he does not make reference to this (cf. also Varela, Thompson and Rosch's book The Embodied Mind, Cognitive Science and Human Experience, 1993 (not, by the way, in the list of references in Siegel's book).  The gist of the analogy is this: you walk down a hillside making a path as you go along. Then you walk up the hillside choosing the same pathway, so as not to tread down more grass. Day after day, hikers continue to use that pathway, for it is now recognizable as one. The path we make and walk is like the way we customarily behave, the process of which engrains particular states of mind. So, 'the brain is more likely to activate this clustering of processes in the future as cohesive state of mind.' Repeated 'states of activation at critical early periods of development shape the structure of neuronal circuits, which then form the functional basis for enduring patterns of states of mind within the individual.'  (p.219)  Neuronal activation is specific to their use, thus particular pathways are made.  This does not mean, however, that variability cannot happen; contrarily, the dynamical system that is the brain in interaction with the social environment means that it is sensitive to change. A balance needs to be achieved between novel response and familiar response, however, for the mental health of a person is at stake here. Too much variation and a sense of self is lost in erratic behaviour; not enough and a person's behaviour become stereotypical. Central to a sense of self, though, is a sense of a meaningful narrative or reasonable story. 'Is this [story-making function],' the author asks, only 'related to a drive to create coherence among the disparate aspects of one's own mind?' (p. 322) Not necessarily, he concludes. Having a story also allows us to make sense of other people's behaviour; it gives us access to social experience, a sharing in another's life world.

This book works on many levels and neatly fulfils the author's intention for it: 'to provide an overview and integration of [various] scientific perspectives, in order to build a foundation for a neurobiology of interpersonal experience' (p. 1). Highly recommended.

 

© 2003 Elizabeth McCardell

 

Elizabeth McCardell, PhD, Division of Social Science, Humanities & Education, Murdoch University, Western Australia


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