Inside a Circle of Security
A Whiff of Oxytocin for Autism

Understanding the Brain Helps Heal the Heart

Daniel Siegel is the author of the very scientific "The Developing Mind," which explains the neuroscience of emotion for therapy professionals, and (with Mary Hartzell) "Parenting from the Inside Out," a user-friendly version for parents.

In this 2003 interview on Salon, Siegel explains why learning how the brain works can make it easier for us to relate better to others.

When people understand themselves via brain mechanisms, it actually alleviates a sense of shame and guilt,  opens the door to self-compassion, and guides them to a process of connection with their children that I never would have predicted would happen. For example, Mary [Hartzell] and I were teaching a course in her preschool. We talked about this amazing finding that the prefrontal cortex, this front-most part of the brain which is just behind your eyes, has been associated in cognitive neuroscience studies with processes like regulating the body and emotions, attuning to other people, being flexible, having empathy and self-awareness, being in touch with your intuition and morality, and losing your fears.

When you have a meltdown as a parent, you lose many of those nine functions, what we call the "low road." Your emotions become out of control. You're no longer attuned to your child, it's hard to remain in an empathic stance, you can't be flexible, you lose insight into yourself. Then you start having difficulty with your own old garbage, your fears come back. You lose your intuition and, sometimes, morality. When you're integrated, it's "the high road," and you have those nine functions present.

When we said this, a number of parents started to cry. One parent said, "Thank you so much, because I thought I was insane because of what I did with my child. You have now helped me understand that my brain is disconnecting inside of myself, and I'm acting in ways I don't want to act."

I've felt the same way. I was so excited to learn about how oxytocin allows us to bond with others -- and how the lack of it keeps us emotionally isolated -- because it explained issues I'd grappled with in my own relationships.

You don't need to get down to the neurochemical level to work out problems, either personally or via therapy, but for some of us, it's an illumination that can lead to change.