9 Prefrontal Functions…let Mindsight be your guide
Dan Siegel is a philosophical and psychological wizard. If you want total control over your emotions and your social interactions, look no further.
What makes him so remarkable is the manner in which he is willing to step out and make positive declarations in the name of emotional health and mental well-being.
In this dire age when the experts refer to any definition of mind as a scientific error, Siegel operates on the fringe.
In a previous article, I discussed that retaking the battle ground of your emotional health begins by returning to the fundamentals.
Siegel isn’t shy regarding the fundamentals. In his judgment, the 9 major functions of the prefrontal cortex are indispensable to the development of what he calls “Mindsight.”
To him, this is the cornerstone of healthy emotional development.
“Mindsight is the way we can focus attention on the nature of the internal world. It’s how we focus our awareness on ourselves, so our own thoughts and feelings, and it’s how we’re able to actually focus on the internal world of someone else.”
What comes next are the functions necessary to completely take back control of your mental and emotional health.
The 9 Functions of the Frontal Cortex
1. Bodily Regulation
Bodily Regulation is all about taking TOTAL ownership for your thoughts and feelings.
S.I.F.T-ing is the process and practice of taking a time-in to really engage in mindfulness.
This exercise aims at mindful reflection and enables you to know, understand, and truly determine your Sensations, Images, Feelings, and Thoughts.
With continued practice and repetition you’ll gain the following invaluable skills:
Seigel defines “mind” as an “emergent, self-organizing, embodied, and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information.”
Thus, bodily regulation and all the remaining prefrontal functions will increase self-regulation within a relational context.
In other words, they’ll optimize your mind!
So, pay close attention.
2. Attuned Communication
Attuned: to bring into harmony; to make aware or responsive.
Attunement is the process of Interpersonal harmonization.
Have you ever had that feeling of deep rapport? Of really understanding someone, how they think, process information, and view the world? That’s attunement.
Attuned communication is the ability to leverage language (verbal and nonverbal) to create and honor this level of rapport.
This is the state where you “feel felt” by another. It’s the insight into their space, their view of the world, and in a sense, plugging into their consciousness.
This skill is frequently observed as an incidental phenomenon, but the truth is that through our language and behavior we can create this state intentionally.
3. Emotional Balance
Seigel defined emotional balance as the ability to stay clear and focused in any situation. The imagery he employs is extraordinarily insightful.
Imagine rowing down the river of wellness.
One shore bares the rocks of rigidity (left brian functionality) and the other shore the sands of chaos (right brain functionality).
“The left brain handles reading, writing, and calculations. Some call it the logical side of the brain. The right brain is more visual and deals in images more than words. It processes information in an intuitive and simultaneous manner.”
We’ve all met the left brain dogmatic Spockian people. To them, logic is the be all and end all.
Their specific view of the world is right and they cling to it even in the face of damning evidence; ironically rigidity isn’t very logical.
They are indeed extremely difficult people to please and seemingly impossible to develop a healthy partnership with. I call these folks the Rigid Ruffians.
Then you have your right brain vibe-led, one with the universe disciple. These people have a visceral ground and ride the emotional wave of every experience.
To them, there is no right way. The way is in fact no way at all. At first blush, they might appear very deep, even mystic.
Usually, however, they are lost in the absence of solid values and with little direction, flounder through life crisis after crisis with minimal fulfillment. I call them the Chaos Crusaders.
Pardon my awful illustration…
Now that we’ve examined the characteristics of the shorelines, let’s return to the river of wellness.
Emotional Balance is an integrated brain. You don’t drift too far to either shore.
When your life is defined by rigidity or chaos this is a red flag, or as Seigel calls it, ‘an emotional hijacking episode.’
It’s a telltale sign that you’ve allowed the emotional currents to push you ashore.
Rather than condemn yourself, let these unresourceful mental states become the oar in which you paddle back to the center and balance of wellness.
4. Response Flexibility
Viktor Frankl, godfather of existential therapy and prince of meaning, codified the understanding of Response Flexibility as if from the breath of God.
For example, he writes,
Or better yet, his pen exemplifies the zenith of libertarian free-will, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
In this tradition, Seigel remains in tune when he posits that Response Flexibility “puts a space between input and output, an important part of emotional and social intelligence. It allows us to weigh options before responding.”
Practitioners of NLP call this the Law of Requisite Variety. This is defined as
“The system/person with the most flexibility of behavior will control the system. The individual with the highest amount of flexibility of behavior will have the most influence on the system. That basically means that the more choices you have, the more freedom you will feel, and the better the quality of life you can have.”
Recall, Seigel defines “mind” as an “emergent, self-organizing, embodied, and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information.”
Regulation by definition is adjustment and adaptation. It’s the capacity to take the incoming energy and information and, subsequently, adapt and adjust accordingly, based upon contextual and relational factors.
Elsewhere I’ve defined emotional well-being as the ability to adapt and adjust to conditions. Response Flexibility adds a little meat to my recipe.
First, it’s value driven. That is, since mind is a relational process it needs to always take others into consideration when surveying options. Its goal must be to find mutually beneficial solutions.
Thus, anyone who claims psychology is value neutral is deceiving themselves, for the very processes they utilized to derive such a conclusion is value laden.
Second, this process is extremely intentional. A decent analogy is gardening.
The Garden Analogy
How many drive-by seedings have you witnessed? The gardener purchases a plot of land, packs their car with various types of seeds, then drives by the land tossing the seeds from the window. Not common, right? Why? Because it would yield an extremely minimal harvest. And, it’s stupid.
Rather, you see strategy, a blueprint composed of numerous plots, diverse seeds, all placed in well separated areas to inhibit barriers to growth. You’d likely see a variety of scaffolding and construction to best serve whatever plant is blooming in its lot.
Moreover, you’d likely see the gardener daily, tending to plants, diligently keeping out critters and pesky weeds, and nourishing the would-be vegetation.
Why? Because this would provide the best outcome!
I hear far too often that people operate well under pressure. They usually refer to times in college when they crammed an entire thesis last minute and crushed it.
Or, a presentation for work that when burning the midnight oil was unveiled as a masterpiece the subsequent day.
But is that life? No. Life is like a garden and you can’t cram a garden last minute. There are certain laws and principles at work that cannot be negated or manipulated last minute.
The mind, too, follows these principles by virtue of its relational base. In order to cultivate the skill, flexibility, attunement, and compassionate connection with the world around you, the mind requires thoughtful and intentional responses.
5. Fear Modulation
Modulation: the exertion of a modifying or controlling influence on something.
In this case, that which needs tempering is fear.
Siegel views the brain as an “anticipation machine.”
It’s constantly engaging sensory data filtered through past experiences.
Perception is therefore a blend of what we are sensing now (feeling) and what we’ve previously learned (shortcut/generalization).
Not all shortcuts are created equal. Some serve us, others are less resourceful.
Modulation is similar to attunement, in the sense that it’s often used to refer to musical instruments. It’s the process of changing from one musical key to another.
In like manner, we are going to be modulating our fear to the tune of reality, not to the tune of past experiences and future expectations based upon inadequate generalizations.
Understanding the mechanics of perception will enable you to manage them and allow you to respond to the world around with more effectiveness and confidence.
Awareness is the scalpel for re-sculpting the brain and reorganizing these shortcuts to remove the deficits.
A useful adaptation in the past shouldn’t translate into a future prison, particularly when the context is different – what got you here won’t get you there!
This is where Mindsight’s Tripod of Reflection comes in handy:
- Openness: release preconceptions of what should be and don’t try to make things how you want them to be.
- Observation: perceive ourselves experiencing an event.
- Objectivity: resist being swept away by thought or feeling; all just mental activity, not reality – awareness of awareness.
Seigel demands that the process of self-supportive, non-judgmental, nonviolent self-reflection begins by “cooling off.”
Almost akin to a decompression chamber that an astronaut transitions through when returning from space back into the spacecraft.
We need to go through a specific intermediate state: automatically processes – cooling down – self-reflection.
The point being to develop more functionally, wherein our responses to life transform from insecurity to security, ignoring to listening, avoiding issues to confronting problems, and from shame and guilt to value and self-worth.
This window of fear begins to close the more our responses become habit. As this skill is developed you’ll notice that life offers broader, clearer, and unobstructed options, or what Siegel calls the “plain of possibilities.”
In his words, “The middle prefrontal cortex has GABA connections to the limbic system, and will inhibit the fear response (amygdala).” Thus, intention and attention are key drivers into shifting the fear response.
In short, the more you confront your fears armed with values and purpose, the less they restrain you.
Couple this skill with an understanding that most fears are past experiences projected into the future as anxious anticipation, and not only will fears radically decrease but your ambition will skyrocket.
In other words, the world becomes your oyster.
“Allows us to map the minds of others and see through their eyes,” says Seigel. “We can sense others’ intentions and what things mean to them.”
The goal? A larger window of tolerance.
A greater degree of empathy naturally follows healthy modulation of fear.
Apprehending that the majority of emotional difficulties has to do with information that has been deleted, distorted, or be generalized, marks a new era in our state of consciousness.
No longer can you merely make such remarks as “they will never like me.”
What information is missing here?
For instance, who are they?
Why never? Surely you can conceive of some scenarios where they like you!
Moreover, who is this phantom ‘me’? Is not this version of self just based upon past experiences and mental shortcuts that likely had adaptive value when they were formed but no longer serve you?
What exactly about you won’t they like?
Do you dislike certain qualities of people you love? Why is this a make-or-break deal?
One you see that the majority of people think like this, using faulty information to inform their feelings, you start to be extremely compassionate with yourself and intensely empathetic towards others.
The acronym C.O.A.L. is useful here.
Tom Dutz, author of NLP Comprehensive Guide, is a curiosity crusader, he writes as if it’s the lynchpin to radical success and emotional peace.
For example, he said,
I recall when my youngest was an infant, she was sick frequently – sleep wasn’t a popular opinion of hers.
As was her pattern, she again awoke in the middle of night screaming. Of course, I quickly tended to her and attempted to calm her down. Nonetheless, my attempts were futile.
This inner rage began to blossom within me.
As I stood rocking her, I felt loads of shame for embodying this emotion. It was completely involuntary, but it was present nonetheless.
Yet, with this rage I became curious.
I remember asking myself tons of questions as I stood they’re soothing her, looking for the missing information that informed my feelings.
Why am I experiencing this unpleasant emotion? What should I possibly expect from a sick baby? Her only way to communicate her discomfort to me was by crying, this alerted me to spring to action to help meet her need, what was bad about this? Was my expectation that she would handle herself as an adult and take care of herself? Hell, do even adults do that?
I remember an experience I had spending time with sick children in the hospital. Even if they were terminal, when the symptoms subsided, they came out and played.
But adults don’t do this, when the symptoms subside they either anxiously await their return or ruminate over how terrible their life is.
If adults can barely handle themselves emotionally why do I have this unreasonable expectation that a baby would? Obviously this expectation was unconscious, but it was there or else I wouldn’t be feeling the rage.
Then the insight saturated me, she’s acting precisely as a baby should. It would be even more horrifying if she couldn’t communicate her pain at all! I had a normal healthy baby on my hands. Thank God for that!
It may sound silly, but immediately my rage diminished. Moreover, as the calm washed over me, guess who else it washed over? The baby. She immediately responded to my new emotional state.
This is how the interpersonal world works! Every encounter with another person always includes a heavy dose of them responding to your emotional state. Why? Because it manifests in your facial expressions, your words, all your nonverbal and behaviors.
In large part then, we control the world around us and it all starts with curiosity.
So, get curious about the missing information and identify with the intel missing in those around you – this is the skill of empathy.
I alluded to insight in the previous function, in my mind’s eye I envision insight like a new pair of glasses that shifts the way we see the world, in greater clarity and purpose.
George Pransky is an insight extraordinaire, his entire work on healthy relationships is systematically built up on it. He writes,
A change of heart has the following characteristics: It takes a person from a negative, evaluative stance to an appreciative stance.
It creates such a complete change in perspective that the person has trouble relating to the way he saw things only minutes earlier.
It can happen any time, without warning. People are often surprised by it. A change of heart is preceded by a moment of truth.”
However, Mindsights understanding of the phenomenon of insight is a bit more nuanced.
“Insight,” says Seigel, “Permits us to make ‘me-maps’ to perceive our own minds. We’re able to connect past, present and future through the nexus of ‘self’ as constructed through the prefrontal cortex.”
One example of a “me-map” is the generalizations and mental shortcuts we create that enable us to move with ease within our surroundings.
That being said, intuitively we know: the map ain’t the territory!
All of us have an inflated opinion of our personal views and beliefs; no exceptions. To grow, however, is to challenge these biases.
M. Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Traveled, acknowledges the importance of refining our map we he remarks
“The more clearly we see the reality of the world, the better equipped we are to deal with the world. The less clearly we see the reality of the world— the more our minds are befuddled by falsehood, misperceptions and illusions—the less able we will be to determine correct courses of action and make wise decisions. Our view of reality is like a map with which to negotiate the terrain of life. If the map is true and accurate, we will generally know where we are, and if we have decided where we want to go, we will generally know how to get there. If the map is false and inaccurate, we generally will be lost.”
When we’ve worked so hard over so many years to create a map that we believe represents the world, we tend to ignore information that would suggest we need to redraw our map. We become defensive. Often we don’t even passively ignore this information. We go further. We denounce it or crusade against it. We feel that people who listen to it are idiots, and we are the only ones who see the truth. Rather than change our map, we often try to (mentally) destroy the new reality and those that subscribe to it.
This is self-deception though and not exactly congruent with healthy emotional and spiritual living.
The only way we can ensure our map is correct and accurate is to expose it to the criticism of others. There might be a better answer than the one you have. We need an outside view. Otherwise, we live in a closed system. The tendency to avoid being challenged is a characteristic of human nature.
Another example of a “me-map” is mindfulness or awareness. Admittedly this is simply knowledge or awareness of one’s map and how it’s fleshed out in day-to-day interactions.
Some define awareness in a more esoteric sense, such as De Mello.
The faces of people, the shapes of trees, a bird in flight, a pile of stones, watch the grass grow. Get in touch with things, look at them. Hopefully you will then break out of these rigid patterns we have all developed, out of what our thoughts and our words have imposed on us. Hopefully we will see. What will we see?
This thing that we choose to call reality, whatever is beyond words and concepts.
This is a spiritual exercise—connected with spirituality—connected with breaking out of your cage, out of the imprisonment of the concepts and words.“
More pragmatically Seigel defines it in the parameters of metacognition:
“Mindfulness is a form of mental activity that trains the mind to become aware of awareness itself and to pay attention to one’s own intention.”
The goal is to live life on purpose! To accomplish this you must become aware of the autopilot feature that you largely run on.
If you pay attention, you’ll discover a host of ingrained behaviors, habitual responses, and emotional loops, that are largely unconscious patterns that govern damn near everything you think, feel, and do.
Insight is the key to restructuring your autopilot so it’s less force of will to meet your needs, goals, and wants. This is essentially learning to sail dead center the river of wellness.
8. Moral Awareness
An inescapable attribute of humanity is our social nature.
Not one second of our day are spent outside of this interpersonal sphere.
Even when we break into the unconscious mind and insightfully examine our mental shortcuts, the criteria we use to mend what’s defective is of essence moral.
Why? Because all value judgements assume this relational base. Revisit Siegel’s definition of mind, it’s unequivocally social. Thus, morality is purely judgments made in relation to others.
It’s wise to perform a value elicitation here and then. Know what drives you. Namely, in your innermost being demands what you “ought” to do.
If you fail to honor this demand you’ll discover your life is rife with incongruence.
In NLP Incongruence is “times when you feel conflicted about a goal or a situation. You can also feel incongruent about a more pleasant conflict, like when part of you wants to go to the mountains and part of you wants to go to the beach. More important is when incongruence reveals a conflict in our values. Imagine, for example, that your boss told you that you need to be more aggressive with a certain customer. Yet, to you, being aggressive means being pushy, and being pushy violates your values and your sense of who you are.”
Incongruence is when your values demand one course of action and you actively do otherwise.
You’ll find when you’re in a state of incongruence you’re in a unresourceful state of conflict that to a great extent makes you incompetent and unresourceful.
Honoring your values entails maximum awareness, culpability for one’s actions, compromise and negotiation, as well as optimal collaboration.
Admittedly, your values will change as you mature, thus awareness is crucial!
Lawrence Kholbergs moral stages of development give us a brilliant overview of vertical moral growth.
Stages of Moral Development
Level 1 (Pre-Conventional)
- Obedience and punishment orientation
(How can I avoid punishment?)
- Self-interest orientation
(What’s in it for me?)
(Paying for a benefit)
Level 2 (Conventional)
- Interpersonal accord and conformity
(The good boy/girl attitude)
- Authority and social-order maintaining orientation
(Law and order morality)
Level 3 (Post-Conventional)
- Social contract orientation
- Universal ethical principles
The further you traverse through these stages the stronger and healthier your relationships become and the more competent you become emotionally.
Let me further unpack this material to give you a better grasp of the climb.
Egocentrism (preconventional) – this view cannot see past itself. The world revolves around I, me, mine, and more. If something goes wrong it’s either entirely someone else’s fault or entirely my own. It’s either against me or proceeding from me. We can call this the “either/or position.” Not much meaning in this sphere, one is basically at the mercy of circumstance. One becomes the dog tied to the cart, a product of a merciless fate; a victim.
Ethnocentrism (Conventional) – this view begins to see others. The world now revolves around us, in a sense. I start to see how my actions affect others. This is the arena of personal responsibility and community action. This position is very tribal and is a great manufacturer of cliques. We are no longer at the mercy of the cart, instead our cart becomes better than your cart. It reeks of independence, breaking the chains of what came before us. One becomes either inferior or superior; a constant power struggle.
Worldcentrism (postconventional) – this view is connected to others. I begin to revere diversity and the idiosyncrasies that define us. My sense of self is broader, and I find my fulfillment invested in the world around me. Additionally, all the five basic needs: survival, love and belonging, power, autonomy or freedom, and fun, can be satisfied, which I call “emotional fulfillment.” One no longer envisions a cart but is instead enjoying the ride with whoever the other passengers may be.
When we fail to achieve emotional fulfillment we seek to find it in artificial substitutes and inauthentic connections.
At any rate, all of us fall within one of these stages. Per Ken Wilber, we can add a fourth one:
Kosmocentrism, which is basically the highest ideal we could possibly embody. But for our purposes let’s stick with the three.
Stephen Covey breaks them down into a similar continuum. He operates from dependence (you), independence (I), and interdependence (we).
Thus we see a specific trajectory, the developmental stages of freedom follow these lines.
- Freedom from restrictions (clearing away unnecessary restrictions) – egocentrism.
- Freedom to act in accordance with human nature (find the right restriction per nature) – ethnocentrism.
- Freedom for the other (grounding identity in the “other”) – worldcentrism.
This may seem overly cerebral, but remember, our focus is integration of both hemispheres of the brain. This leads us to the final piece.
It’s critical that you learn to listen to your “gut knowledge.”
This type of knowledge often gets a bad reputation, but this is only if it’s interpreted in the same manner as head knowledge.
Why must feel-good emotions be “good” and feel-bad emotions be “bad” in the sense of utility?
How against all odds and thousands of years of teaching to the contrary have we arrived at this preposterous conclusion?
Shakespeare may have been on to something when he remarked,
Along these lines, I’m willing to argue that any good or so-called bad emotion should be understood as a guidance system.
Something to be leveraged and befriended rather than avoided.
If I experience physical pain, I can trace the sensation to the source which in turn gives me information on how to treat it. The body wants to be in good health – it will keep you up to speed if you listen to it.
Similarly, the mind desires to be in good health and it will keep you well informed if you tend to it.
George Pransky hits the nail on the head when he observed,
“Moods are the constant shifts in perspective built into our experience of life. Our thinking and therefore our perceptions of life are a function of mood changes. Our thoughts are more optimistic, lighthearted, and wise when we are in a high mood…
Often people think of feelings as things to work through or deal with. But feelings were meant to be a barometer to help us maintain our emotional equilibrium. Feelings provide our moment-to-moment experience of life. They tell us the extent to which our perceptions are distorted by our moods and thought systems”
So, begin to listen to your body. It has more to communicate than you realize.
Now Start Practicing
There you have it, the 9 facets of emotional wellness.
Siegel’s Mindsight has one agenda: zero in on each of these 9 dimensions and optimize.
If you don’t want to read Siegel’s masterpiece, simply begin to focus on the 9 factors, and you’ll find your way.
Just remember the two most important things you can do on a daily basis: start and continue.