Articles

Discover Journaling’s Positive Effects on the Brain, with Dr. Dan Siegel

Rebecca Kochenderfer

08/09/2019

Dr. Dan Siegel

Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine

As journalers, we know that a well-tended writing practice inspires clarity and feelings of well-being. As it turns out, there is a scientific explanation for why this is so.  Journaling.com spoke recently with Dr. Dan Siegel, a renowned thinker in the field of mindfulness, about how autobiographical writing helps people integrate their right and left brain hemispheres and provides a sense of clarity and calm. It’s a tremendous privilege to welcome him to Journaling.com.

Dr. Siegel is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and the founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA. He is also the Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute. Dr. Siegel is the author of five New York Times bestsellers including his newest book Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence.

You can find out more by listening to our interview or read below to see highlights from our talk.

The Power of Autobiographical Writing

Autobiographical writing can be thought of as a portal that leads to deeper self-awareness. Researchers suggest this form of expression may result in outcomes that are different than other modes of self-reflection such as talking with friends or a therapist.

Dr. Siegel points to the work of Dr. James Pennebaker whose groundbreaking research shows that expressive writing stimulates activity on both sides of the brain. It’s believed this is because the acts of thinking and feeling stimulate different regions of the brain than the acts of writing and typing do.

To illustrate Pennebaker’s findings, Dr. Siegel offers this example. Someone wanting to write about their adolescence in order to make sense of a significant event would first consult their autobiographical memory registered in the right side of brain. The right half of the brain, Dr. Siegel explains, includes “memory of self in time.”

Now suppose that person wants to do more than just remember that event. Suppose they want to explore and contextualize that moment in time. The drive to process and contextualize a story, Dr. Siegel notes, relies on the brain’s left hemisphere.

The process Dr. Siegel describes invites both hemispheres of the brain to perform their specialized functions. Both halves of the brain collaborate to make sense of an experience.

Mindfulness training helps us to formulate a coherent narrative and that understanding and awareness of patterns in one’s life provides an increase of mindful awareness.

Dr. Dan Siegel

The Benefits of Integrating Both Hemispheres of the Brain

Well-being, which Dr. Siegel describes as health, happiness, and a sense of purpose and meaning, can be achieved through right brain left brain integration.

Integration, as described by Dr. Siegel, is the act of establishing a meaningful link between two different things. In simpler terms, he explains that integration is unlike a fruit smoothie in which items are blended to make a new whole. Instead, integration is a fruit salad where separate parts remain separate and identifiable, but are made into something different and desirable.

In the case of the brain, Dr. Siegel notes that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Just like families, classrooms, schools, and nations, he says, our brains achieve improved well-being as a result of integration.

Autobiographical reflection through journal writing creates this integrated state between the left hemisphere, which has the drive to make sense of things, and the right side of the brain which stores “engrams or neural representations of experiences encoded through memories.”

Dr. Siegel observes that when integration is achieved people become:

  • flexible
  • adaptive
  • resilient over time
  • stable
  • energized

Dr. Siegel has observed that when people process and find meaning through writing, the brain becomes integrated and the individual is able to move through their life with greater calm and clarity.

Mindfulness

Much of Dr. Siegel’s research entails examining the connection between autobiographical reflection and mindfulness.

The word mindfulness is used in different ways by different people.  For his purposes, Dr. Siegel describes mindfulness as a focus on:

  • the cultivation of an open caring awareness.
  • an acceptance of what’s presently happening even if it’s hard or painful to hear.
  • turning attention away from preexisting biases that remind us of what we wish things were.

Integrate Mindfulness and Your Personal Narrative

Some of the meditative traditions from which mindfulness was derived consider the personal narrative a negative distraction that counters mindfulness. But Dr. Siegel challenges this idea.  He suggests that mindfulness training helps us to formulate a coherent narrative and that understanding and awareness of patterns in one’s life provides an increase of mindful awareness.

Cultivate Wisdom

Dr. Siegel refers to academic research on wisdom to make an interesting point. In more than one study, researchers have visited different towns worldwide to ask, “Who are the wisest people in your village or town?”

 In all cases the knowledgeable community members were noted for their

  • self-awareness. 
  • understanding that a meaningful life centers not only on what is happening inside of oneself, but it is also about helping others and asking the question, how can I be of service to others?

Dr. Siegel connects the dots to show that journaling is an invitation to cultivate our own wisdom. The clarity that journaling provides helps us achieve new levels of integration which allows our connection with other people and with nature to grow.  

In closing, Dr. Siegel provided a resource tool that he designed called the Wheel of Awareness which could be used to enhance your journaling practice.  Dr. Siegel describes this tool as a “visual metaphor for the integration of consciousness.” You are invited to download a copy. When you visit Dr. Siegel’s website you can sign up to receive a free downloadable Wheel of Awareness PDF with a written guided meditation. There you’ll also gain access to three separate Wheel of Awareness guided audio meditations led by Dr. Siegel.

Your Action Plan

Journaling.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.

Rebecca Kochenderfer

Founder of Journaling.com

About Rebecca Kochenderfer

Rebecca Kochenderfer is Journaling.com’s founder and host. She is the author of Joy Journal, an uplifting collection of journaling tips and techniques. Rebecca is honored to hold this space for the journaling community to connect, thrive, and grow. Fellow journalers can connect with Rebecca at  [email protected] or on Facebook and send her questions and stories about their own journaling experience. For press and advertising inquiries contact here.