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Psychological Wellness Research

Wisdom of the Triangle of Well-Being

(Portions of an article Kirke wrote for The G.A.I.N.S. Quarterly)

Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB) defines well-being in a practical manner that is useful within schools. Dan Siegel, in his forward to Bonnie Badenoch’s (2008) new book, Being a Brain-Wise Therapist, states: “Interpersonal neurobiology embraces the perspective of a triangle of well-being. The three points of this figure are made up of relationships, the mind, and the brain” (p. xxi). He goes on to describe how these three irreducible elements causally and bi-directionally impact each other. Brain activity creating mind activity; mind activity creating physical changes in the brain; mind and brain activity affecting our relationships; and in turn, our relationships affecting the mind and the physical structure of the brain (Siegel, 2007). What a profoundly simple, solidly-researched foundation upon which to build a school and develop creative educational interventions.

Applying the IPNB triangle supports innovation in schools, because historically only one-third of the triangle, the mind, has been the focus of education. Schools have been thought of as places where knowledge is dispensed. Until recently, a surprising number of educators knew little about the brain and considered the interpersonal relationships so prominent in any school as a distraction to the real work of educating the mind. When teachers and administrators understand the three points of the triangle and the goal of integration, they often quickly see the implications. For example, the director of our school is often heard saying to students and parents, “Connection heals,” and goes on to explain the triangle.

Teachers know that students come to their classrooms with different strengths and weaknesses, and modify their teaching with a view to the implications of this information for brain, mind, and relationships. Strengths, rather than weaknesses, can and probably should be used to decide which point of the IPNB triangle is the best entry for an intervention with a student. To explain, I’ll use the true example of a very intelligent student challenged with Asperger’s Syndrome, and the classic relationship weaknesses associated with it.

Many professionals in the field of education and psychology would advocate helping him with his relationship weakness by having him leave class to attend a social skills group led by the school psychologist. His cognitive (mind) strengths might be dismissed because he quickly grasps complex concepts and easily earns high grades. However, this school uses the results of research with adults completed by the Gallup organization as a touchstone. The research indicates that successful adults focus on improving their strengths and work around their weaknesses or improve them only until they are just “good enough” (Clifton, Anderson & Schreiner, 2006). The strength focus led us away from developing a separate social skills group to include this young man and other students. In other words, we did not focus on his weak “relationship point” on the IPNB triangle. Instead, we focused on his strong “mind point” of the triangle and decided to teach him about the “brain point” as a way to help him with his “relationship point.”

Instead of starting a social skills group, this psychologist taught the Anatomy and Physiology Class once a week. Using IPNB concepts, the teacher engaged this student’s eager mind so he could learn how the brain is physically changed by his relationships with others. The classroom discussions involved mirror neurons and right- hemisphere to right-hemisphere communication. The student spoke spontaneously of his relationship with a friend, and we converted his examples into the relationship’s possible beneficial effect on his brain’s biology. Through this approach, he rapidly grasped the importance of close human relationships in a manner that fit with his strength, yet also helped with his weakness.

As the class continued, he discussed his growing connection with his friend with classmates during school, and with me individually in the school hallways. It became clear that he was using his mind to learn factually about the brain, and these facts were helping him understand his relationship and his connection with his friend. This example ends with his graduation speech in early June. Using his intellectual strength, he drew a parallel between Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey and his high school journey, warmly thanking his teachers and his friend, something that would not have happened in the past.

For still more information consider joining G.A.I.N.S. Global Association of Interpersonal Neurobiological Studies) www.mindgains.org