The Power of Mindsight-by Daniel Goleman

Daniel Gole­man requires no intro­duc­tion. Per­son­al­ly, of all his books I have read, the one I found most stim­u­lat­ing was Destruc­tive Emo­tions: A Sci­en­tif­ic Dia­logue With the Dalai Lama, a superb overview of what emo­tions are and how we can put them to good use. He is now con­duct­ing a great series of audio inter­views includ­ing one with George Lucas on Edu­cat­ing Hearts and Minds: Rethink­ing Education.

We are hon­ored to bring you a guest post by Daniel Gole­man, thanks to our col­lab­o­ra­tion with Greater Good Mag­a­zine, a UC-Berke­ley-based quar­ter­ly mag­a­zine that high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Enjoy!

- Alvaro


The Pow­er of Mindsight 

How can we free our­selves from pris­ons of the past?

– By Daniel Goleman

When you were young, which of these did you feel more often?

a) No mat­ter what I do, my par­ents love me;

b) I can’t seem to please my par­ents, no mat­ter what I do;

c) My par­ents don’t real­ly notice me.

The answers to such ques­tions don’t just reveal truths about our child­hood. They also tend to pre­dict how we act in our clos­est rela­tion­ships as adults.

Our child­hood shapes our brain in many ways—and so it deter­mines our most basic ways of react­ing to oth­ers, for bet­ter and for worse. When par­ents con­sis­tent­ly prac­tice empa­thy toward a child—that is, they tune in to the way that child views and feels about her world—they help instill in that child a sense of secu­ri­ty and an abil­i­ty to empathize with oth­ers lat­er in life. But when par­ents act dis­mis­sive­ly toward a child, they can make it hard­er for that child to be in touch with her emo­tions and con­nect with oth­er people.

Daniel Siegel has done years of research to sup­port these con­clu­sions. Siegel, a psy­chi­a­trist at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Los Ange­les, found­ed the field of “interpersonal neurobiology,” which explains the brain basis for our habits of bond­ing with oth­ers. His research shows how we can over­come emo­tion­al dis­ad­van­tages that might have arisen from dif­fi­cult childhoods.

“Let’s say a child’s angry and is start­ing to throw something,” says Siegel. A dis­mis­sive par­ent focus­es on stop­ping the behav­ior, instead of acknowl­edg­ing the emo­tion that might have caused the child to throw that object. “The emo­tion behind the behav­ior is not rec­og­nized. It’s not seen.”

If par­ents con­sis­tent­ly fail to acknowl­edge and dis­cuss the con­nec­tions between a child’s behav­ior and her emo­tions, says Siegel, the child won’t gain any insight into her own thoughts and feel­ings, nor will she appre­ci­ate oth­er people’s emo­tion­al states. Siegel calls this abil­i­ty “mindsight,” and he argues that it serves as the basis of self-aware­ness and empa­thy, while also pre­dict­ing what kind of par­ent that child will grow up to be.

How­ev­er, Siegel points out that actu­al child­hood expe­ri­ences are less impor­tant than how we make sense of those expe­ri­ences. In oth­er words, we can learn to think about our expe­ri­ences in ways that can help us over­come them. This is good news for par­ents who had mis­er­able child­hoods. In fact, it’s nev­er too late for adults to devel­op mind­sight, because we can always rethink our child­hoods, gain a new under­stand­ing of them, and thus avoid repeat­ing the mis­takes of the past with our own children.

When I spoke with Siegel recent­ly, he described how he watched a 90-year-old woman in ther­a­py learn ways of talk­ing about her own and others’ emo­tions, after a life­time of deny­ing them. The process, he says, start­ed by revis­it­ing her child­hood, when “she would come home sad and she would be pun­ished for not being more upbeat,” which cre­at­ed a per­son who was good at focus­ing on behav­ior and bad at per­ceiv­ing feel­ings. But when Siegel helped this woman see how her habits of mind were shaped in child­hood, she was able to free her­self from their grip.

“You can make sense of what has hap­pened to you,” says Siegel, “and become freer from these pris­ons of the past that real­ly con­strain so many people.”

Oth­er sci­en­tists have con­duct­ed research that val­i­dates Siegel’s ideas. For exam­ple, Joseph LeDoux, a neu­ro­sci­en­tist at New York Uni­ver­si­ty and per­haps the world’s lead­ing expert on emo­tion­al mem­o­ry, has found that when­ev­er we bring to mind a strong emo­tion­al mem­o­ry and think about it dif­fer­ent­ly than we had before, it actu­al­ly gets chem­i­cal­ly record­ed in the brain in a whole new way. A process of intro­spec­tion can actu­al­ly change the way that mem­o­ry is imprint­ed on our brains, pro­vid­ing a neur­al basis to last­ing changes in our behav­iors and habits of mind.

And just as our rela­tion­ships with our par­ents shape our neur­al cir­cuit­ry, so too can our adult rela­tion­ships help rewire us for con­nec­tion and secu­ri­ty. Siegel points out that our rela­tion­ships as adults can “reparent” us. For exam­ple, if some­one who was not giv­en a secure base in child­hood mar­ries some­one who was, research shows that that shaky per­son will grad­u­al­ly become more secure.

“Research absolute­ly demon­strates that if you take the time to make sense of what hap­pened to you, then you can free your­self up to devel­op your own sense of secu­ri­ty inside of you, and also have chil­dren who have a secure attach­ment to you,” says Siegel. It’s a hope­ful mes­sage: No mat­ter what hap­pened to us in child­hood, we nev­er stop growing.

– Daniel Gole­man, Ph.D., is the author of the best­sellers Emo­tion­al Intel­li­gence and Social Intel­li­gence. His web­site is Goleman’s full con­ver­sa­tion with Daniel Siegel can be heard as part of the audio series Wired to Con­nect: Dia­logues on Social Intel­li­gence, avail­able through More than Sound Pro­duc­tions.

We bring you this post thanks to our col­lab­o­ra­tion with Greater Good Mag­a­zine, a UC-Berke­ley-based quar­ter­ly mag­a­zine that high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altruism.


  1. Matthew on March 9, 2008 at 6:09

    Know­ing past influ­ences isn’t the same as cre­at­ing some­thing not lim­it­ed by the past. There’s a lot of beliefs to let go of.


  2. Alvaro on March 10, 2008 at 7:52

    Exact­ly. And I sus­pect that’s the mes­sage of sen­tences like “And just as our rela­tion­ships with our par­ents shape our neur­al cir­cuit­ry, so too can our adult rela­tion­ships help rewire us for con­nec­tion and security.”

    Even bet­ter than “let­ting go”, we can replace old habits by devel­op­ing new ones, which implic­it­ly makes us “let go” the old ones.

  3. Maria on March 13, 2008 at 7:26

    I think the key words in this piece are ‘grad­u­al­ly’ and ‘time’. While I can vouch the abil­i­ty to recon­sid­er child­hood expe­ri­ences, it is often a painful and dif­fi­cult process which might explain why we often hang onto the emo­tion­al ratio­nales we have for not changing

  4. Ruth Taylor on March 13, 2008 at 4:47

    I believe that our inter­per­son­al neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gy is con­tin­u­al­ly being formed and re-formed from ear­li­est infan­cy through­out our lives. The ear­li­er we become aware of this, the bet­ter our chances to social­ly recon­di­tion ourselves.

  5. I’ve always believed that we nev­er stop grow­ing and evolv­ing on our life’s jour­ney, and no mat­ter what hap­pened in the past, we can cre­ate a new life of our choice. It’s great to see that sci­en­tists have phys­i­cal evi­dence of such growth. Yes it takes time, patience, and courage but it can be done.

    Thanks for shar­ing this great info with the Car­ni­val of Heal­ing, post­ed on my blog Inten­sive Care for the Nur­tur­er’s Soul this week.


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SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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