Book Review: “The Yes Brain” (Seigel & Bryson)

This book has strong resonance with “Reframed” by Stuart Shanker (Which I reviewed HERE), but it is written with families in mind. In “Reframed” the big takeaway is “See a child differently and you see a different child.” In “The Yes Brain” they write:

When we see our children’s behaviour as communication that’s letting us know which skils and strategies they still need to build and develop, then our responses can be more intentional and compassionate, not to mention effective. (pg. 80)

You would be interested in this book if:
1) You wanted a quick read on neuropsychology in parent-friendly language
2) You were interested in supportive language to have dialogue with your child(ren) and students
3) You were looking for a great read to pass on to parents to support them in raising their child(ren) without bubble wrapping nor snowplowing for them

Written by two Doctors who have authored a few books before, “The Yes Brain” is a quick read, providing child-friendly prompts that you can put into action immediately, providing strategies to support them, and asking provocative questions to the reader to support their understanding and application of neuropsychology into practice.

The “No Brain”

The no-brain is state of being that is reactive, and/or passive. It is a state of being that is non-reflective, non-adaptive, and dangerous. No brain is brought on through too much screen time without a balance of tangible-world interactions, over-scheduled activities without time for reflection on what brings “Eduaimonia” (a Greek term to describe a type of ‘joy’ that is full of meaning, connection and peaceful contentedness (pg. 10)).

“Let’s face it: in many ways kids are groing up in a No Brain world. Think about the traditional school day, full of rules and regulations, standardized tests, rote memorization, and one-size-fits-all discipline techniques…” (pg. 10)

So, how might we as parents and as educators support a more “Yes Brain” environment for our children and students?

The “Triangle of Wellbeing”

This image underscores how what is going on IN the mind is as important and as influential as what is going on WITH MINDS OF OTHERS. Recall in “Reframed” the concept of the “Interbrain”. This is the same idea: that there is an interplay of soothing, of calming, of limbic interactions between brains.

The Triangle of Wellbeing highlights the need for differentiation between brains and limbic systems. If we are undifferentiated, we are allowing that child to rely too heavily on us to get them through challenge, trauma and difficulty. As a result they do not develop strategies and practices to do so independently. If we are overly differentiated, the child will feel alone, unsupported and emotionally irrelevant.

The Triangle of Wellbeing is a way of understanding the balance that needs to be sought between these two extremes. We won’t get it right all the time, but just by trying, we are sending a strong message to those children about what they can practice and what they can achieve to support their emotional growth.

Green, Red, and Blue Zones

Recall in “Reframed” the Triune model of the brain, The Yes Brain uses this model as well. Understanding these zones, knowing how they work together, how our brains travel between these zones, and practices techniques to maintain and widen the window of tolerance in the Green Zone is “The Yes Brain” technique.

Equanimity doesn’t mean someone is always calm – it means that they’ve learned to ride the waves of their emotions with skill and agility. (pg. 76)

In the Green Zone, children are receptive, adaptable, reflective.

In the Blue Zone, children are timid, fearful and frozen.

In the Red Zone, children are explosive, fearful and reactive. There is no ‘chosing’ of behaviour, it is beyond their control.

The Yes Brain, and the practices therein, support widening the window of the Green Zone, and redirecting the emotional pathways to more positive and “green” behaviour. How we, as parents and educators, respond to these behaviours can support or undermine their attempts to stay Green. That is why this book is a great tool.

It is our deep love  for our children that we want to protect them, but their capacity will be greater if we allow that love to lead us to our own courage, so that we can feel strong enough to let them discover their own strength. (pg. 52)

How do we do this?

The Schedule:

Too much activity can lead to lack of reflection. Too little can lead to lack of motivation. Follow our children’s  unique needs is important. However, we can take a look at our schedule for them and ensure that there are elements of

  • Sleep time
  • Physical time
  • Focus time
  • Down time
  • Play time
  • Time-in time
  • Connecting time

This fits with what  leaders at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory say about needing to alter their recuiting process. Previously, emphasis was on hiring the graduates with the best grades from the “best” schools in the country, but they began to notice that many of these young adults weren’t necessarily very good at problem solving. (Pg. 54)

The way children use their time should be intentionally diverse. Each of these different “times” listed above serve a purpose for the development of social skills, intellectual skills, and emotional skills.

Help “REFRAME” Success

The child psychologist and author Michael Thompson shares that he’s heard from many kids and teenager that their parents care more about their grades than they care about them. The overall focus is on a fixed destination rather than on the journey of discovery, more about the outcome than the effort. No wonder we see so many adolescents with rising levels of anxiety and depression, and fewer connected relationships to help moderate these feelings. (pg. 66)

As educators in independent schools in particular, we know that this is true in an alarming number of cases. We know, as well, that this resonates with the concepts of “Growth Mindset”, and the work of David Epstein in his book Range, and the work of Lisa Damour in Under Pressure.

“The Yes Brain” provides great reflection questions for parents (and educators) as well as provocations for our children – even providing a comic strip to read to them.

SIFT: Sensations, Images, Feelings and Thoughts

We can raise our own awareness before we take action. SIFT is a strategy that aligns really well with Marc Brackett’s work in “Permission to Feel“.

Insight comes from from SIFT-ing through these assorted forces and paying attention to them. When we do that, we gain power over them, so that even thought they may still affect us, they won’t do so withour our awareness, and we can work hard to guide those impulses, rather than letting them run roughshod over our lives… (pg. 106)

In this section of the book, I really like their strategy of becoming a spectator to your own self. That is, as a strategy, when you can recognize SIFTs getting the better of you, you simply take a spectator version of yourself floating outside the situation.  “The spectator [is not] held captive by the all the emotion and pandemonium… Their job is to simply witness what’s going on…They don’t judge or condemn or find fault…” (pg. 108) The role of the spectator, I would add, is to just be curious about the situation.

Learn “How -To Empathy”

We know this to be true, that empathy is a skill. There is a science to support empathy training.

The goal is to help wire our kids’ brains in such a way that is orients them, at a deep level, to other people and their feelings. We want to engage our children’s neural circuitry in a manner that encourages them to think about and feel concern for the people around them. (pg. 140)

We do this by using the strategy SNAG: “Stimulate Neuronal Activation and Growth”. In other words, the neurons that fire together, wire together. When we are young, we operate with the Emotional Egocentric Bias (EEB) – that the way we see and experience the world is necessarily the way others see and experience it. (pg. 145).  Part of growing up, and good educators will say this about their schools, is to develop the capacity to overcome this EEB.

In fact, you will now notice that much of the work in DEI is about overcoming the EEB – how do we open ourselves up to a diversity of perspectives, how might we see the lives that others are leading and have lead, that support a broader understanding and compassion for others?

The Right Supramarginal Gyrus in the brain plays an incredible role here. “When the rSMG doesn’t perform properly – or, as in the case of children, when it hasn’t had time to develop –  a person is more likely to project their own feelings and circumstances onto others.” (pg. 146) But through use, through exercising the rSMG it can develop, become stronger, and as a result build empathy. When a study was done in schools, “…students of teachers who had participated in  this ’empathy training’ which came at essentially no cost to the district, were half as likely to be suspended!” (pg. 146)

We can support our students and children by exercising their rSMG by getting them to ask questions like “Why did they respond like that?”, and “What are they feeling that would make them behave like that?”. Getting curious around the inner lives of others is instrumental in understanding our own selves and that of others.

I really enjoyed this book as a parent. It is a quick read, and very relatable. They have great resources within to share alongside your children. If you don’t have time for a deep dive into neuropsychology like “Reframed”, “Permission to Feel” or “Deep Diversity”, this is a good option.


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