Dan Siegel offers therapists a new vision of the brain
by Mary Sykes Wylie
In 1999, a few months after child psychiatrist Daniel Siegel's book The Developing Mind: Toward a Neurobiology of Interpersonal Experience was published, Siegel received an e-mail, purporting to be from a representative of Pope John Paul II, asking him to come to the Vatican to talk to the Pope. Thinking the e-mail was a prank, Siegel ignored it--why would the Pope invite an expert on the neurobiology of childhood attachment over to the Vatican to schmooze? Nevertheless, one enigmatic detail of the message stuck in Siegel's mind as he deleted it: the Pope, according to the message, wanted very much to know why "the mother's gaze" was so critical to the growth and emotional well-being of a baby.
As it turned out, the e-mail was legitimate. An official letter soon followed from the Pontifical Council for the Family, formally inviting Siegel to be the main speaker at a Vatican conference for church leaders and Catholic social services providers and missionaries, to be followed by a private Papal audience for Siegel and his family. Siegel accepted the invitation with one caveat: he wanted the Pope to know ahead of time that the all-important loving gaze could come from either parent or from another attachment figure--it didn't have to originate with the mother.
Reading John Paul's biography before he left for Rome, Siegel discovered something he thought might explain the Pope's request. When John Paul was asked by the biographer if he remembered much about his mother, who had died when he was a young child, he said no at first. Then, a bit later, he backed up, saying he did recall one thing--"I remember my mother's gaze." Could the Pope want Siegel to explain what happened in the brain that made this ephemeral moment in the life of a young boy still resonate, like a lost dream, many decades later in the heart and mind of a frail, elderly man?
What drew the Pope to Siegel's work was apparently the search for some illumination about the small, everyday miracle of that gaze--what novelist George Eliot called "the meeting eyes of love"--that every child yearns for and must have, literally, to survive. Repeated tens of thousands of times in the child's life, these small moments of mutual rapport serve to transmit the best part of our humanity--our capacity for love--from one generation to the next.
For many therapists, what Siegel has done is to show just how, from the moment we're born, our most important relationships fire into being the neural circuits of the brain that allow us to understand and empathize with others and feel their feelings. But beyond that, he's gone on to link his interest in both science and the nuance of relationship with the almost unfathomable complexities of neuroscience to generate a field he calls "interpersonal neurobiology," which has brought the latest findings of brain science directly into the therapist's consulting room. As much as any figure in the mental health field, he's taken on, as both a professional challenge and a personal quest, the task of showing his clinician colleagues how the objective, physical matter of the brain--its lobes, modules, folds, lumps, tubes, and fibers--creates the possibilities for the subjective life of the mind, heart, soul, and spirit that is the glory of our species.
While still only 47 and not a formal brain researcher himself--certainly not the originator of the massive, accumulating body of theory regarding the processes of human attachment-- Siegel has displayed a unique ability as a synthesizer, weaving together strands of knowledge from a variety of fields. Through his highly influential book and hundreds of workshop presentations he's given around the globe in recent years, he's tried to bridge the previously disconnected worlds of neuroscience research and clinical practice. "Dan is the right person at the right time," says Pat Love, a noted couples therapist and workshop presenter who's devoted the past several years to integrating neuroscience into her own clinical work. …