Brain Symposium Explores the Life of the Mind

Christine Donnelly

June 21, 2013

A pioneer in the emerging field of interpersonal neurobiology served up “a healthy mind platter” at Punahou School’s fourth annual Brain Symposium that emphasized positive relationships as a key to learning, resilience and well-being.

Dr. Daniel Siegel, a prolific author whose books include “The Whole-Brain Child,” and “The Developing Mind,” guided educators and parents through a primer on “internal education” designed to help children and adults alike strengthen their minds and live fuller, more meaningful lives.


Siegel, whose interdisciplinary field seeks to understand the mind by focusing on how the brain develops, is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California-Los Angeles’ School of Medicine, where he is on the faculty of the Center for Culture, Brain and Development. He is the co-director of UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center and executive director of the Mindsight Institute, which offers online courses that cultivate well-being based on methods grounded in science.

Over the course of three keynote lectures at the symposium June 12 – 13, 2013, Siegel spelled out ways to help children achieve the kind of focused attention that underpins social and emotional intelligence. He summed up the research as a “healthy mind platter” of seven daily essential activities for optimal brain development throughout a lifetime.

Time In: Internal reflection, such as meditation, trains the brain to focus and strengthens regulatory circuits that govern attention, thinking, emotion, behavior and impulse control. Siegel described one study that found meditation was more effective than medication in treating attention-deficit (hyperactivity) disorder. “You should practice this yourself and teach it to your kids,” Siegel said, before leading a breath-awareness exercise during one talk. “This is not a relaxation exercise, it’s a mind gym.”

Connecting Time: Interacting in person with other people and with the natural world activates and reinforces brain activity. “Neuroscience shows that we’re not just shaped by our connections, we’re created by them,” he said. He encouraged teachers to relate to students on a personal level to ignite learning, or as he put it, “inspire to rewire.” He was even more direct to parents, saying: “Your relationship with your child will shape the structure of your child’s brain.”

Focus Time: Concentrating fully on a single, complex task with a goal in mind challenges the brain to make deep connections. Put down the gadgets and focus on one thing at a time.

Physical Time: Aerobic exercise strengthens the brain in numerous ways. This activity can be alone, in groups or as part of school athletic programs.

Play Time: Spontaneous, creative time spent enjoying new experiences builds neural pathways. “I’m not talking about organized sports here. I’m talking about goofing around, just having fun, being accepted for who you are.”

Down Time: Relaxing and letting the mind wander helps the brain recharge.

Sleep Time: Appropriate rest is necessary to consolidate learning. At a brain-based school, he said, “students get less homework and more sleep. School starts later in the morning.”

Making time for each activity every day “does more than improve academic performance and test scores, although it does that too,” said Siegel. “Even more important is that it supports well-being and stability for a lifetime. Isn’t that what we want for all our kids?”

Presented by Punahou’s Institute for Teaching, Learning and Instructional Innovation (ITLII), the 2013 Brain Symposium brought together educators from public and private schools for important professional development and collaboration. Along with Dr. Siegel, the symposium featured presenters speaking about study skills and executive function, mathematics, literacy and the neuroscience of decision-making. Siegel’s public lecture, presented at Dillingham Hall on June 12 in conjunction with the symposium, was supported by the Lara Jane Taylor Learning Resources Endowed Fund.


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