Dr. Dan Siegel speaks on the “Biology of Belonging”

by Joan Yenawine
January 19, 2023 — When did you first realize that there’s an “in group” and an “out group?” Second grade? Or maybe the first day of kindergarten?

According to Dr. Dan Siegel, the “in vs. out” dichotomy likely begins for humans before our cells divide for the first time.

“Single cell organisms define themselves by what's inside and what's outside…. So, this inside vs. outside stuff, is really, probably billions of years old. It's from the beginning of life.”

This insight and others were brought to light during Critical Conversations, a speaker series created by the New Roads School in partnership with participating public, private, charter, and parochial schools. The Winsor School is a participating sponsor, and faculty, parents, and alums were in the audience (via Zoom) on Thursday, January 19.

The conversation was moderated by Luthern Williams, formerly director of diversity at The Winsor School and now head of school at New Roads School, as well as Mario Johonson, director of health and wellness at New Roads School.

As they explored the innate biology that drives humans to both identify and differentiate themselves from other, they didn’t shy away addressing negative consequences, including racism, antisemitism, sexism, and homophobia.

So, how can schools, educators, or communities disrupt this natural “in group/out group” construct?
Dr. Siegel says the first step is simply to name it.

“This is what it means to be human. Let's not pretend it's not there, and that I don't have ‘in groups’ or ‘out groups.’”

Perhaps the second step is to develop another innate human ability, something Dr. Siegel calls “Mindsight.”

“I made up the term Mindsight [to describe] the capacity of a human being to sense the inner mental life inside your body. And we call that insight. When it’s inside another human being, we call that empathy. And for a kind of integrative process, where you're bringing kindness and compassion in your connections with other people or even with yourself. So [Mindsight] is those three things: insight and empathy, plus integration.”

At The Winsor School, creating a sense of belonging for every student is paramount, says Head of School Sarah Pelmas. “We do our best to make belonging an outcome. In our sports teams, our choral groups, our robotics teams, students must navigate the highs and lows together, sharing experiences that foster what it means to belong.”

According to Dr. Siegel, the goal of integrating people with differences isn’t to create a homogenous identity; it’s about creating a group that can contain multitudes.

“The key thing about integration is, it's not blending… you don't lose the distinct or differentiated qualities of the components,” said Dr. Siegel. “So, we're not talking about, you know, a smoothie, we're talking more like a fruit salad. You really want to have differences.”

One way to nurture empathy in diverse people is to give them opportunities to see their shared humanity. Dr. Siegel likened his idea to giving a child an “identity lens,” one that’s flexible enough to see themselves up close and then adjust to see “the wide angle of all human beings.”

“I think something very practical that we can do is to teach the identity lens… Okay, you're human. Now. Let's stretch our identity lens. So, you realize that you had that in group/out group distinction. Now you just make it expand… I think it's something that can be taught and would make a huge difference.”

He cautioned that moving toward this new ideal, where we recognize difference as well as commonalities, will not be a straight path.

“But if we set a directionality together, I think we can do this. And it's going to take open conversations and awareness… We can get out of what you might call ‘business as usual,’ — which includes all these pandemics and racism, misinformation and even environmental destruction — and come to what activist Joanna Macy calls ‘a great turning.’ A great turning toward one another, rather than moving away from each other.”

For the final question of the conversation, Luthern Williams asked perhaps the most important question:

“What’s at stake for human beings and our planet if we don't have this ‘turning?’”

For this, Dr. Siegel had a simple, compelling, and one-word answer:

Learn more about the Critical Conversations speaker series, sponsored in part by The Winsor School.

Following each Critical Conversations event, community members will have the opportunity to reconvene for Theory Grounded in Practice dialogue and breakout discussions. After the January 19 event with Dr. Siegel, join the follow up discussion on Thursday, January 26 at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time.