I just love Dan Siegel. I read and reread his books often, especially Brainstorm: The Power of the Teenage Brain and Mindsight.
His writing is so approachable as he grapples with the complex science of neurology and the function of the human mind. I love his simple definition of mind:
The human mind is a relational and embodied process that regulates the flow of energy and information.
I am continually referring back to his theories and use his techniques often in my practice. I think the exercise below is a very good introduction to him and also an extremely beneficial technique to adopt! So read on and enjoy!
SNAG and The Healthy Mind Platter
Stimulate Neuronal Activation and Growth. When we do the seven activities that follow, we SNAG the brain toward growth and that growth is often in the direction of integration*.
The Healthy Mind Platter is a set of seven activities that promote optimal brain matter: Time-In; Sleep Time; Focus Time; Down Time; Play Time; Physical Time; Connecting Time.
Time-In is how we reflect on the inner nature of our mental lives and our bodily sensations. (If you have practiced Internal Family Systems, it’s time to check in on the Managers and Returned Exiles.)
It enables us to observe our feelings, thoughts, memories and beliefs and also to perceive our intentions, hopes, dreams, attitudes and longings. Time-in practiced regularly stimulates the growth of integrative fibres in the brain that help regulate attention, emotion and thinking. It also improves empathy and compassion.
The mindful awareness of Time-In not only supports your being present for whatever arises in your life - it also helps to maintain and repair cells and strengthen your immune system. Time-In develops a more resilient way of approaching life’s challenges because of these specific ways your brain will change.
Sleep Time: At least seven hours is needed to keep your brain at optimal level. Optimal for brain growth, memory consolidation of the day’s learning, insulin function, food metabolism, immune function, response to stress, mental functioning for effective abilities for focussing attention, thinking, remembering, problem solving, handling emotions and connecting with others. Without adequate sleep, each of these important neural, physiological and mental processes are in jeopardy of not functioning well.
Some tips for getting quality sleep. Not all of these will work for everyone so choose what works for you. It’s not a “To Do” list!
Turn off digital objects and electronic screens at least an hour before you go to bed.
If you have trouble falling asleep try turning down the lights a bit half an hour before you get into bed.
Try not to do work in bed. The bed should be for restful activities, not associated with work.
Be mindful that caffeine in cola, coffee or tea can keep some people up at night. This includes chocolate! Monitor the amounts you have and when.
A warm bath can help if you have trouble sleeping. It sets your body to a sleeping temperature and being enveloped in water is calm and relaxing.
Writing out the day’s events in a journal can help some people to not be worrying about things before they fall asleep. Journal writing has been known to increase immune systems and it can help to resolve issues in your life. However, some people find it too stimulating before bed, especially if using electronic equipment. Use a paper journal in the evening … whatever works.
The amount of continual sleep you get matters. So set up the evening accordingly, get a sleep routine!
Focus Time: The brain not only grows when we sleep but also when we focus our attention in a continuous way without frequent distractions. In fact, learning is the way our attention streams energy through our brain circuits, creating information in certain areas that become activated, and then linking those activated neurons with brain growth. That’s neuroplasticity: how the brain changes in response to experience!
The brain is built to focus on ONE THING at a time. Therefore, Focus Time refers to a period of time when we focus intently on one thing. This does not mean multitasking, such as reading a book while texting or surfing the web.
When you focus intently, you optimise neuro-plastic changes that are the basis for learning. Neurons that fire together, wire together. If we don’t have Focus Time on a regular basis, our brains stop doing what they were born to do – to always be learning and growing, and to make new connections throughout our lives. People who are not involved in some kind of life-long learning could potentially be on the road to stagnation. Adult educational courses, learning a new language or skill - even book clubs and other local discussion groups can go a long way to keeping our brains blooming!
Down Time: Every day we can have some downtime to enable our minds to unwind and our brains to sort themselves out. Down Time is when we have no plans, nothing we are trying to accomplish, nothing that needs to be done. During this time our brain seems to recharge its batteries, allowing the mind to intentionally take a break. This is different from unintentional mind-wandering during tasks. This is designated time to just chill out. Relax and unwind. Give yourself permission to do this intentionally, with no set goals.
Play Time: The spontaneous exploration of life with others in an engaging, pleasurable and non-judgemental way is crucial for a healthy and fulfilling life no matter what our age. Giving ourselves the time and the permission to engage in fun and foolish activities by ourselves or with others, where we are simply creating new and unexpected ways of being - that’s the basis of creativity and innovation. That’s the pleasure of presence and connection. So, start playing! Join a theatre/impro group, dust off your rollerblades or skateboard, dance around the house. No rules: a time when laughing and creating and goofing around are accepted and you are engaged and silly and having a great time, without judgement, without a winner or loser. That’s Play Time!
Physical Time: Sometimes we feel as if we are just a big brain floating through life. Exercise helps to remind us we have a body attached -arms and legs, hands and feet - and hips! Moving your body doesn't just feel great - grows your brain, and enhances neuroplasticity. We remember more, we grow more connections in the brain and solidify others. Through exercise we promote the bonding of mind and body. We listen to our body and this creates important linkages as our emotions and certainly feelings live in the body, not just the mind.
Physical Time is not only important for brain functioning but also imperative for good mental health. When you exercise you have to stay focussed on the movement and therefore focussed on the moment. This gives your brain a break from continual worrying thoughts about future and past events. Be it going to the gym, lifting weights, pilates, yoga, tai chi or going for a vigorous walk, you will feel better, your brain will grow better and you will become more fit and healthy.
Connecting Time: Numerous research studies reveal that making time to connect with others makes our lives more meaningful and fulfilling. When we have supportive relationships, we are not only happier, we are healthier and live longer! Other studies show that when we are out in nature, we feel more grounded and our moods are more stable. So, Connecting Time is when we connect to other people and to the planet.
Try to remember the qualities of Connecting Time with '3G-2P'. 3G stands for the Gratitude we have for being alive on this precious planet, the Generosity we can bring to others in connecting with them, and the Giving Back we can practice each day as we serve the well-being of others. We bring Gratitude, Generosity and Giving Back 2 other People and the Planet!
As mammals, we are programmed to connect. It is important to our survival. When we work together in these supportive ways, the collective intelligence created is much more powerful than the solo person trying to beat others. When we connect with other people in positive ways, wishing others to be happy and successful at what they do, to have joy and health in their lives, we bring a compassionate stance that supports something called “empathic joy” – getting joy from another’s well-being.
On a simple level, connecting time means taking time to be with friends and family, hopefully face to face. When we communicate digitally we miss a lot of important brain functions like non-verbal communication, touch, smell etc.
And the planet? Taking time in nature can shape our moods, help us focus and give us a feeling of renewal and pleasure. Get out to a park or nature reserve, walk and look at the trees, smell the bush, feel the sun or at night look up at the stars and moon and breathe. We come from the planet and nature is our original home, so reconnect with it!
Connecting with the planet can also mean taking care of it. Doing something simple like picking up litter while walking in the bush or park. Even better, join a group like Friends of Merri Creek or take part in working bees in your local area. Find ways at home to reduce waste and be mindful about the energy we use.
Connecting Time can help us feel the undeniable truth that we belong to a larger whole than just the body we live in. We may walk with our own two feet on this planet, but we are not alone. The Earth is our common home - other people our tribe and all living beings our relatives.
* Integration: Five separate areas of information flow and are coordinated and balanced by the prefrontal cortex: The cortex, the limbic area, the brainstem, the body proper and the social world. When these separate sources of information flow are linked together, we call that “integration”. Integration is assisted by building awareness and insight into this flow of energy and information through linking different aspects of our inner and interpersonal worlds into a more harmonious and functional whole. Integration is what creates the master function of self-awareness, reflection, planning, decision making, empathy and morality.