An Interpersonal Neurobiology Approach to the Mindful Brain, Mindsight, and Mental Health

This lecture will provide an overview of the emerging new field of Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB) to explore the fundamental mechanisms underlying mental health.   IPNB draws on a wide range of scientific, contemplative, and artistic disciplines to provide an interdisciplinary view of the human mind and the development of well-being.  After assessing the training of over 90,000 mental health practitioners from a broad range of professions around the planet, over ninety-five percent have been found to have never received even one lecture defining the mind or mental health.  The opportunity to define these two fundamental aspects of a psychotherapist’s work is a major focus of IPNB.

IPNB offers a scientifically based, clinically useful definition of the mind as having the core feature of being both embodied and relational as it regulates the flow of energy and information.  Taking the step of defining this regulatory function reveals that the monitoring and modifying of energy and information flow at the root of regulation are skills that can be taught—in families with secure attachment and in psychotherapy and other educational settings that promote the ability to see and shape the internal world.  This capacity, called “mindsight”, enables the individual to not only perceive their own and others’ internal mental lives with more clarity, but it also illuminates how they can alter this inner world toward health.  Health from an IPNB point of view is defined as integration.  Integration is a basic mechanism whereby elements of a system are differentiated or specialize and then are linked or connected to one another.  Imagine a choir that sings in harmony with each singer differentiated her voice and then linking with other members of the ensemble.  Harmony is the outcome of integration.  It is vibrant, alive, flexible, and energized.  These are all manifestations of integration.    Yet when a system is not integrated, it moves toward chaos, rigidity, or both. 

An examination of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) through this new perspective reveals that each of the symptoms of the various disparate syndromes is an example of chaos, rigidity, or both.  From this viewpoint, we are now in a position through the lens of IPNB to offer a clear definition of the mind and of mental health—rather than just having a list of a series of seemingly unrelated disorders.  From an IPNB perspective, the DSM is actually a description of examples of impaired integration.   We can now have a working view of mental health and its impairments.   A wide array of recent research supports this notion that psychiatric dysfunction, from trauma to from inherited vulnerabilities, emerge from the mechanism of impaired integration.

One example of a profoundly integrative process is mindful awareness.  A range of studies reveals that the intentional practice of mindful awareness leads to both functional and structural changes in the brain that cultivate integrative neural functioning.  IPNB illuminates at least nine functions that emerge from the neural integration of the middle aspects of the prefrontal region of the brain, a set of functions that range from body regulation and attunement to insight, empathy, and morality.  Eight of these nine functions are also found in the development of children with secure attachment.  And more recently, wisdom traditions from around the world have affirmed that their teachings from thousands of years of practice are parallel to these nine middle prefrontal functions.  IPNB sees this overlap of neural integration, mindful awareness, secure attachment, wisdom traditions, and likely mental health itself as all sharing the common fundamental mechanism of integration.  This lecture will review these exciting new discoveries and ancient practices in exploring the IPNB view of the mindful brain and its implications for the process of psychotherapy.