I picked up a copy of Daniel Siegel’s book Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human (2017) to read and supplement my ongoing preoccupation with human consciousness. Siegel’s writing is the source of considerable frustration. Now about 90 pp. into the book (I am considering putting it aside), he has committed several grammatical errors (where are book editors these days?), doesn’t really know how to use a comma properly, and doesn’t write in recognizable paragraph form. He has a bad habit of posing questions to suggest the answers he wants to give and drops constant hints of something soon to be explored like news broadcasts that tease the next segment. He also deploys a tired, worn metaphor that readers are on a journey of discovery with him, embarked on a path, exploring a subject, etc. Yecch. (A couple Amazon reviews also note that grayish type on parchment (cream) paper poses a legibility problem due to poor contrast even in good light — undoubtedly not really Siegel’s fault.)

Siegel’s writing is also irritatingly circular, casting and recasting the same sentences in repetitious series of assertions that have me wondering frequently, “Haven’t I already read this?” Here are a couple examples:

When energy flows inside your body, can you sense its movement, how it changes moment by moment?

then only three sentences later

Energy, and energy-as-information, can be felt in your mental experience as it emerges moment by moment. [p. 52]

Another example:

Seeing these many facets of mind as emergent properties of energy and information flow helps link the inner and inter aspect of mind seamlessly.

then later in the same paragraph

In other words, mind seen this way could be in what seems like two places at once as inner and inter are part of one interconnected, undivided system. [p. 53]

This is definitely a bug, not a feature. I suspect the book could easily be condensed from 330 pp. to less than 200 pp. if the writing weren’t so self-indulgent of the author. Indeed, while I recognize a healthy dose of repetition is an integral part of narrative form (especially in music), Siegel’s relentless repetition feels like propaganda 101, where guileless insistence (of lies or merely the preferred story one seeks to plant in the public sphere) wears down the reader rather than convinces him or her. This is also marketing 101 (e.g., Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Budweiser, etc. continuing to advertise what are by now exceedingly well-established brands).

What really galls me, though, is the standard scientist’s siren song, touting hypothetical benefits to individuals and society following research, understanding, mastery, and implementation:

If we could offer a specific answer to the question of what the essence of mind is, provide a definition of mind that takes us beyond descriptions of its features and characteristics, such as consciousness, thought, and emotion, we might be able to more productively support the development of a healthy mind in our personal lives as much as we might cultivate mental health in families, schools, places of work, and society at large. If we could find a useful working definition of mind, we’d then become empowered to illuminate the core elements, able to support the way we conduct our human activities, not only in our personal lives, but with one another, and with our ways of living on this planet we share with all other living beings. [p. 6]

Nothing too grandiose, right? This sounds quite a lot like the behaviorists of the middle 20th century who thought to engineer a perfect society out of incentives and conditioning toward “right” behavior. B.F. Skinner is probably the best known among them. Of course, this approach toward the diversity of human behaviors and value systems presumes that agreement could be reached as to what “right” behavior might be, which is a fool’s errand. Further, it conceptualizes the problems of society as essentially engineering problems, a mistake under which many (e.g., Silicon Valley software engineers) continue to labor even today. Siegel appears to believe we can slay the dragon initially through careful definitions and then through some sort of practice of mental hygiene.

Utopian dreams don’t normally bother me. As ideologies, they inevitably founder on implementation, which prove either far too complex to reduce to a set of rules, laws, recipes, or instructions (an algorithm in essence) or prove far too easy to circumvent. What’s even worse than mere failure is taking the teachings of presumably honest, forthright psychologists such as Siegel and turning them toward nefarious purposes. In effect, Siegel and others gave away the keys to the kingdom to whoever might wish to seize control of the minds of the public. Indeed, modern propaganda (using the euphemism “manufactured consent”) was birthed by Edward Bernays rather quickly on the heels of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theories. Marketers of various goods and services were quick to imitate. Casinos are also known to employ all manner of subtle psychology to separate gamblers from their stakes.

The public rebelled in the 1960s when subliminal advertising was revealed but otherwise accepted without much compunction that influencing and channeling one’s thinking and consumer choices are widespread practices. After every positive effect of subtle understanding of the mind (especially perception) follows myriad negative influences, more commonly recognized as brainwashing. Thus, in an information environment debased through constant ideological harangues and destruction of epistemological foundations, thought leaders (so called), influential experts, and conmen become, quite literally, the thought police. Our ridiculous media habits, handheld screens stuck to the ends of our noses with scarcely a pause, abet mind controllers by awarding them undue albeit unfocused attention. Collective outrage over colonization of our minds and the abject awfulness and inanity of the ideas implanted do not nullify the sheer force of repetition (e.g., tear down/build the wall).

Siegel offers some worthwhile observations in his book. For instance, he is quite clear that the mind/brain connectome extends well beyond the skull and skin of the individual to society and the environment. While there is no evidence of a collective consciousness (in spite of the existence of the term), we nonetheless share an extended cognitive network comprised of preexisting ideas and in-the-moment behaviors synced and coordinated at a surprising level of sophistication. This ubiquitous, involuntary conformity with each other is precisely the way bad actors exploit us for their own purposes. Siegel does us no favors pulling back the curtain and showing them how. (I’ll admit that this horse has exited the barn, the genie is loose, the cat’s out of the bag, etc., but still.)

  1. Edith Angelo says:

    Why spend so much time dissing a book Before you have even read all of it? Pretty pompous of the author I think

    Edith Angelo Sent from my iPhone

    • Brutus says:

      Thanks for your comment. I presume you mean that I’m being pompous, not the author of the book I’m criticizing. My criticisms are not intended to be a full book review. I’ve posted plenty of those in the past, labelled in the title “Review.” Instead, having read a sufficient portion of the book to form an opinion and experience frustration and annoyance, I’m blogging about it (as bloggers are wont to do). There is no need to wait until I read its entirety, if indeed I persevere over my frustrations.

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