Are you using your whole-brain?

The Whole-Brain Child – 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind
By Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D.

I know the title of this book might not appeal to all readers right away, but I’m hoping that after you read my post you’ll want to read it, regardless of whether you have a child or not. I was initially interested in the book because I thought it would help me understand why my two bundles of joy are… well, not ALWAYS bundles of joy, but I soon realized that the book was also giving me some great tools that I could apply to myself and not just my kids. Thanks to the book I now understand how the brain is wired and how it develops, which has really helped me understand different patterns of behaviours. The brain, after all, helps determine what we do and who we are in life so understanding it, its main components so to speak, can really open ours eyes to how we can change certain patterns in our lives.

The book is an easy, fast and practical read. It’s written so that an average person can understand and enjoy the book. It’s broken down into 12 strategies that are based on a whole-brain perspective (which I’ll explain below). The strategies are all based on the latest neuroscience research, but it includes many real life examples that are relatable. However, the real gems of the book are what the authors call “What You Can Do” sections, which take up about half of each chapter. It’s these sections that I think everybody can appreciate and learn from, no matter their age or child status.

The whole-brain perspective is basically the idea that we can integrate our brain to think and react to different situations by using our whole brain, hence the name. Using our whole-brain, the authors argue, helps us thrive. As the authors note, the brain has many different parts, each with a different job to perform: “you have a left side of the brain that helps you think logically and organize thoughts into sentences, and a right side that helps you experience emotions and read nonverbal cues” (page 6). The right versus left side of the brain is a concept that is generally known, and it’s usually as far as we go in terms of understanding our brain. So what was new to me – and might be to you as well – was the following: “you also have a ‘reptile brain’ that allows you to act instinctually and make split-second survival decisions, and a “mammal brain” that leads you toward connection and relationships. One part of your brain is devoted to dealing with memory; another to making moral and ethical decisions” (page 6). In other words, just as we expect our vehicle to function smoothly because all of its parts are wired to work together, by integrating our whole-brain we can also function at our full capacity.

So why do I think this book can benefit anyone? I’ll share one concept and how the book has been helping me to think differently about how I approach various projects, both in my professional and personal life. Chapter 5 talks about integrating the many parts of the self, what the authors call mindsight (author Dan J. Siegel titled his first book by the same name in case anyone is interested in further reading). It is in this first book that he introduces the idea of mindsight and how we can come to understand not only our own mind, but also the minds of others. He provides a really helpful imagine of how our mind works: “…our mind can be pictured as a bicycle wheel, with a hub at the centre and spokes radiating toward the outer rim. The rim represents anything we can pay attention to or become aware of: our thoughts and feelings, our dreams and desires, our memories, our perception of the outside world, and the sensations from our body…The hub represents part of what’s called the executive brain, because it’s from this place that we make our best decisions; it’s also the part of the brain that allows us to connect deeply to others and to ourselves. Our awareness resides in the hub, and from here we can focus on the various point on the rim of our wheel” (page 93-94).

I created this diagram based on the one the author’s include in the book (see page 94). As a creative I am a very visual person, and I thought some of you might also get a better sense of the point he is making if I included this.

The importance of the wheel then is to realize that we can determine our own state of mind. This is a really essential idea because we determine our state of mind by determining what aspect of the rim we are giving our attention to in that particular moment. As I was reading the book, I realized that I had a rim point that I kept focusing on, whether I meant to or not, and it was the fear of failure and the fear of not producing something that was ‘perfect’. Professionally, this rim point has stopped me from pursuing a more prominent illustrative career, and personally, it has left me with a lot of half finished projects in my home (let’s just say that I don’t have enough fingers to count all of my in-process DYI projects). Now part of my challenge is addressing where this fear comes from, but that’s for another place. What this particular chapter taught me – and what I think is helpful to all readers – is that if we get stuck in a certain part of our rim, as I was, we can lose the ability to determine if what we “feel” is in fact who we “are”. This is a bit tricky to think about at first, at least it took me a sec, but what it means is that if we do this long enough – in my case criticize myself for not producing something ‘perfect’– then the negative rim point starts to define how I see myself, not just how I feel at that particular moment. That is, if we focus on a rim point long enough, it moves us from a feeling to a new reality.

In my case, for instance, when I have a personal project in mind I can visualize it in my head perfectly, but when I can’t quite execute the project as I’ve imagined it I get stuck in my negative rim. I tell myself that I’ll never be able to get it how it should be; it’ll never be perfect, so I stop (which explains all of my unfinished home projects!). It’s funny that this rim point doesn’t affect my professional life as a designer. As a designer I have a specific job to do, I have clients that I work with and in my career I am confident about what I know I can achieve. But creating something personal is quite different, it’s a different process and I only have to answer to myself. The book has really helped me to understand that if I implement the idea of mindsight I know that I can focus my attention on different aspects of my rim, for example, focus on the reasons why I love to illustrate or create personal projects. For me it’s about the exploration process, that’s what I love and where I want to direct my attention.

The take away point is that as a result of reading the book, I have been able to let go of my demands for perfection by focusing my attention elsewhere. For those of you who have seen it, my 30 day Art Challenge (for those of you who haven’t seen these posts click here) was a huge accomplishment where I was implementing what I had learnt in the book. Not all the pieces that I created and posted were “perfect” and although sometimes it was hard to post them as they were, I did because the point of the exercise was about the exploration of new ideas, not the perfection of an exercise. In the end then, although not every post of my 30 Day Challenge was a finished product, ultimately the exploration helped me tap into new sources of inspiration that have had a major benefit to both my professional and personal life.

Yes, the book addresses children and caregivers, but I really think that understanding the principals of how our brains function can help us all personally and professionally. As new technology has recently revealed, the brain is very adaptable, changing and developing throughout our lives. This means that it’s never too late to change or grow, all we have to do is direct our mindsight to the task.

2 Responses to “Are you using your whole-brain?”

  1. Hi Morgan. I’m glad you liked the post! I completely agree with you, parenting books (most of them), break down something that can be so complicated into something that can be easily adaptable.

  2. Morgan says:

    Great post! I too found that the whole brain child book helped me understand myself (and my husband) just as much as it helped me gain tools to help my son. I keep saying that ‘parenting books’ are just easier to read psych books

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