Review and Summary of “The Neurobiology of ‘We'” by Daniel Siegel

by Scott Crabtree

Exciting, innovative, helpful, incomplete, frustrating, and thought-provoking: all these words describe Daniel Siegel‘s audiobook The Neurobiology of ‘We’: How Relationships, the Mind, and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. I usually try to boil down my book reviews to one helpful sentence for readers who are short on time. But as you can see, my one sentence summary of The Neurobiology of We comes packed with a wide variety of adjectives!

We previously reviewed Mindsight, also by Dan Siegel, and were happy to recommend it despite a few flaws. If you’ve recently read Mindsight, I’d suggest waiting a while before listening to The Neurobiology of We, since this new book covers some of the same topics. But don’t fret! The Neurobiology of We also bravely explores a lot of new territory about the mind, the brain, relationships, and how they all interact.

Our attachments to others shape our brains

The Neurobiology of We by Daniel Siegel

Siegel’s main contribution and focus here is on how relationships shape who we are. You may have heard the phrase, “Neurons that fire together, wire together,” which means our life experiences rewire our brains. Every brain on Earth is different because we’ve all had different experiences.

One of the most important influences in our lives is how our parents or caregivers respond to us when we are young. (I’m going to use “parents/caregivers” for simple language going forward, though of course many people are raised by a single parent or another caregiver. Please feel free to substitute “parent/caregiver” if you prefer).

You might be wondering, “Why are you talking about attachment to parents/caregivers when Happy Brain Science focuses on the science of happiness at work?” Let me explain. Science is clear that a huge factor in our happiness–and therefore success–is the quality of our relationships with others. The quality of our relationships at work may be heavily impacted by the quality of our first and most important relationships: those with our parents/caregivers.

How we attached to our parents/caregivers impacts how we connect now

Attachment theory describes how the type and quality of our attachment to our parents/caregivers shapes our brain, mind, and relationships with others in the future. Siegel summarizes the four primary kinds of attachment in young children:

  1. Secure attachment: Our parents/caregivers respond to our needs appropriately. We know we can count on them. We feel secure and happy, eager to explore our surroundings.
  2. Avoidant attachment: We can’t trust our parents/caregivers to fulfill our needs, so we act indifferent to their presence. We don’t explore our surroundings. We are emotionally distant.
  3. Anxious attachment: We can’t rely on our parents/caregivers; sometimes they are there for us, and sometimes they are not. So we develop a mixture of anger and helplessness towards them. We feel anxious. We might cling when we do experience a connection.
  4. Disorganized attachment: Our parents/caregivers somehow frighten or threaten us, even if not intentionally. We might end up feeling confused, depressed, angry, passive, or apathetic.

Siegel clearly explains how our attachment experiences as children wire our brain to approach relationships in one way or another. We store memories in our brain that affect how we relate to the current experiences and people in our life. Some of those memories are conscious and explicit. However, others are only “implicit,” which means we don’t have conscious awareness of them.

Memories affect our minds and our relationships

Relationships shape who we are. They directly affect our brain and mind. Mirror neurons and other circuits in our brain help us understand, imitate, learn from, and communicate with other people.

The challenge is that for many of us, our past memories of relating to others are not positive. We may feel anxious, avoidant, or disorganized in how we relate to others, because of how we attached–or didn’t–in early childhood.

If a memory or a person is too painful for us, part of our brain shuts down to that memory or experience. Using compelling examples of PTSD, Siegel helps us understand how memories can lead to mental distress. He makes it clear how shutting off from a memory or a relationship isn’t our healthiest state.

Chaos theory, complexity, and connection

Siegel turns to chaos theory–a branch of mathematics focused on complex, dynamic systems–to better understand the brain and how it can best function. With its 86-100 billion neurons, each averaging 10,000 connections to other cells, the human brain certainly qualifies as a complex system! According to chaos theory, the most stable systems are differentiated, open, and connected. That is, various parts of the system are quite different, but they are all connected to each other and open to input.

The author makes a compelling case that the key to high-quality relationships–and therefore the key to a thriving mind and a strong sense of well-being–is to stay open and connected to others, and to various parts of our own mind.

Mindfulness can help us stay open and connected

Ultimately, Seigel’s interesting journey into the brain, mind, and relationships ends up focusing on mindfulness as the key to well-being. Mindfulness is simply paying complete attention to the present moment without judgment. When we are mindful, we are open to input. That input might be from a colleague–or it might come from a part of our body that is storing an old, unconscious memory of a difficult relationship.

Mindfulness gives us the ability to stay open and connected, and therefore increase the well-being of our mind. It can help us be more aware of how past experiences affect how we relate to others now. Being present can help us do a better job of recognizing old issues, without letting them interfere with our current relationships.

Various studies support Siegel’s argument. As I share when I present Empower Your “Inner CEO” with Mindfulness, a growing body of research suggests that those who practice mindfulness meditation enjoy better self-awareness, self-control, and quality of relationships. Those who meditate ultimately enjoy more health and happiness. (As a result, I also incorporate mindfulness into my workshops The Science of Being Happy and Productive at Work and Collaboration through Candid Conversation, and several mindfulness solutions are included in our Choose Happiness @ Work game).

An incomplete, frustrating, and wonderful audiobook

It’s hard to write a summary of The Neurobiology of We because it contains so many big ideas–many of which were not connected before this audiobook. While I was thrilled with the new explorations, I wanted more from the book. I especially wished it had offered more applicable solutions to the relationship challenges in our lives, and that Siegel had gone deeper into fields that were only hinted at.

But ultimately, The Neurobiology of We is wonderfully thought-provoking. I find myself continuing to think about the important ideas in the book, and how they might affect my work, my relationships, my brain, and my life. For those who are interested in thought-provoking material more than a “how-to” or “self-help” book, The Neurobiology of We is a great choice.

Following the suggestions in the book, I’m trying to stay open and connected, especially to different points of view. What did you think of this audiobook? Or what did you think about this summary of The Neurobiology of WeI’m open to input and would love to connect…

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