From Human-iac to Brain-iac and Back!

Published March 2, 2021, The NASAP Newlsetter (Connection), Erik Mansager, PhD

I enjoy reading Dan Siegel and deepening my understanding of our interpersonal neurobiology (IPNB). Currently I’m finishing a re-read of his work, The Mindful Therapist (2010). What a clever and useful book it is for learning about our capacity for mindfulness and how to apply it in therapy.

I’ve always appreciated Siegel’s creativity. He offers several clever ways to understand “personality proclivities” and “patterns of developmental pathways” what Adlerians might see as the stuff of Life Style.  Siegel is second to none in explaining neurologically how we move from notion to motion – from the “neural firing” of subjective experience (movement from an “open plane of possibility” to “plateaus of probability” and often automatically into “peaks of activation”) or how we can apply “the wheel of awareness” to break up these “proclivities and propensities”  [check out Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence (].

I have favorites among his “mindful-simplifications. Imagine: our infant neuro-propensity can be compared to the pattern formation of rain drizzling on a window:

Here comes the first few drops – all separated and sticking to the glass. Then more arrive ... UNTIL(!) one of them randomly runs down the window forming a rivulet. Sure-enough, as more rain arrives there’s no more hesitation. Instead, the rivulets set the pattern and the propensity of the drops is to follow the established rivulet.

And so, it is (kind of) with our neuro connections, those that “fire together, wire together” not unlike the rivulets on a window. The repetitious firing of neuronal “rivulets” can describe various “states” we find ourselves in. If these states become repetitious enough, the propensities make up our patterned thinking, feeling and behaving, and we call them “traits.”

The point of The Mindful Therapist is that the troublesome varieties of these traits can be dealt with by mindfully applying the aids mentioned above – meditational varieties linked to the Wheel of Awareness.

Good stuff.

But, with deeply burdened clients, I’m left knowing just how difficult it is to help them find their way.  Neuronal modification, no matter how clearly Siegel explains it, is no simple process. Or so said a colleague on this topic in Tucson at the 2019 NASAP conference. The colleague was beside himself lamenting the inherent difficulty of modifying our clients’ neuropathways! “How am I to understand brain neurology well enough to help my clients change?!” he lamented.

Difficult? Yes! But not, well … brain science. The path to mind modification has been with us since our species has been walking upright – or maybe before.

We talk!

With words and gestures we develop a relationship – and interpersonally, we modify one another’s outlook on life. After all, that’s the “I” in “IPNB”! Siegel reminds us not to lose sight of the power of interpersonal sharing while re-educating ourselves about all the “brain basics.”

We need not focus on changing brains as much as we need to focus ourselves on developing a healing relationship. The embodied mind will follow, modify, and heal – neuroplasticity is its thing.

Siegel teaches this via the many ways of mindfulness. What I find missing – hinted at but still undiscovered – is that there is purpose behind our neuro wiring. The metaphorical mental rivulets that start when we are infants and children and remain active in our adult lives, do so for a reason. Yes, happenstance and overuse is part of the story; and not revising our histories when we have new experiences is a human proclivity, to be sure. But it is not altogether accidental that we don’t revise. Nor are our mental, emotional and physical propensities all that amenable to undoing – even by means of the disciplined activity of mindfulness.

I’m certainly in agreement that no healing occurs without preparing the mind – even developing one’s theory of mind. And, speaking of which, I’ll go into the different ways Siegel and Adler use the word, “intentional” next time, but I want to pose the thought, “When someone does something (or nothing), it’s not for no reason.”

This was Adler’s idea, anyway. And he offered a plan other than Dan Siegel’s for getting after this phenomenon. It is compatible with IPNB for sure. Still, might there be more to healing than mind modification and knowing in an integrated way our capacity to sense energy and information flow?

If Siegel’s organizing principles are neurologically oriented in a “triceptive” way to brain, mind and one another, Adler’s keen Understanding of Human Nature (1998) starts and stays with the interpersonal – and stands or falls to the notion of a unified personality. He didn’t have the access we do to the wonderful neuro-news available nowadays – although he accurately described limbic region functioning and a fair amount of the attachment process. [More on these topics to come.]

These two thinkers, Seigel and Adler – today’s brain-iac and our very own human-iac – have much in common. In upcoming columns I’ll take a shot at some of this as well as what can still be considered Adler’s singular contributions to our healing field.



Adler, A. (1998). Understanding human nature. Center City, MN: Hazelden.

Siegel, D. J. (2010). The mindful therapist. A clinician’s guid to mindsight and neural integration. New York, NY: Norton.