An introduction to The Healthy Mind Platter (1/8)

Daily Life, Neuroscience, Theoretics

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The Dutch and the US government have the food pyramid – the diagram that’s been with us for decades that is supposed to remind people how to eat well. The model is called Choose my plate , is a big improvement.

However, there’s a different epidemic happening out there that’s getting less attention, perhaps because it is less obvious than the epidemic of obesity we’re experiencing. We’re entering an era of an epidemic of overwhelm. A time when too many people’s mental well-being is being stretched through multi-tasking, fragmented attention and information overload.

The trouble is, we are short on simple, clear information about good mental habits. Few people know about what it takes to have optimum mental health, and the implications of being out of balance. It is not taught in schools, or discussed in business. The issue just isn’t on the table. The result is that we stretch ourselves in ways that may have even bigger implications than an unhealthy physical diet.

Daniel Siegel and David Rock decided to explore a framework for understanding the ideal diet for our brain. They decided to coin this the “Healthy Mind Platter”. They do not refer literally to substances like glucose, which is an essential nutrient for the functioning of the brain, but to a set of everyday activities that on the whole, optimize “brain health”. Based on our literature review, we hypothesize that there are seven activities that each have different and beneficial effects on the mind that complement each other, providing together a well-balanced “mental diet” for optimal neurocognitive functioning and well-being. They propose that very much as in the case of food, people can do without some of these activities, but this lack of behavior will be associated with sub-optimal levels of functioning or ill-health. Further research is needed to determine the exact quantity and quality of each activity that is needed for optimal health, but we propose that each of these activities makes a unique and positive contribution to mental productivity and wellbeing.

As such, the objective of the Healthy Mind Platter is to propose a framework for creating and maintaining mental well-being, summarizing and integrating distinct strands of neuroscience and psychology research, so it can be used to inform communities such as schools, organizations, governments, and communities, as well as families and individuals, about best practices for promoting mental health.


Throughout the world, driven by advances in information technology and automation, our economy is gradually shifting to a knowledge- and service-driven economy, where increasingly the basic production factor of muscle power is being replaced by brain-power. Although often compared to a muscle, the brain’s anatomy and physiology is fundamentally different from those of muscles. Whereas a combination of exercise, rest and nutrition can be sufficient to produce physical strength and resilience, these are clearly not sufficient conditions for an alert, creative and resilient mind. In line with the principles and purpose of positive psychology, we want to move beyond studying and summarizing what is needed to avoid pathology, and make clear and useful what is needed to promote health. Though awareness of how an unhealthy diet can result in serious pathologies and epidemics, like obesity, is now being raised, many are hardly aware of the costs of an unhealthy mental diet, like massive losses in productivity, exhaustion, burn-out, and stress. explicating the constituent activities for a healthy mind is therefore timely and important, especially since developed countries are reaching the limits of economic growth.
One may daily observe on the news the catastrophic consequences of being deprived of food and basic housing, but society is relatively unaware of what happens when individuals or large communities are deprived of play (think of entire generations of children working under conditions of forced labor), good quality sleep (think of the vast amount of people regularly taking sleep medications), or satisfying time to focus and sustain clear attention without distraction (think of population groups suffering unemployment or underemployment, or the vast number of people who fill their time with junk media).

Most members of the general population know little about how the constant interruptions and distractions caused by communication devices and the bombardment of information and publicity sent out by the media impacts our mental well- being. They have minimal awareness of the negative effects of the sense of isolation and lack of relatedness that can occur in large cities that are built without regard for our need for a sense of community. Finally, what we have to gain as a species from the generalized practice of reflective practices is not readily apparent to the general population unaware of the research pointing to its positive impacts.

Consider the current state of how most people manage – cultivate and maintain – their mental well-being. We have all experienced the challenge of maintaining focus over prolonged periods of time, and know how it can cause fatigue. We all know that our attention is even more limited if we had little sleep the night before. With stress, the brain will disconnect more often from the task at hand, and we may find ourselves staring at the computer screen, experiencing a momentary state of reverie or trance. As soon as we become aware of our disconnection, we may want to return to the task, but we might feel an urge to stand up, go for a walk and get a snack. Basically, our brain is demanding a minimum level of physical motion and important nutrients in order to be able to operate well. On our way to the vending machine we may encounter a colleague, and although we are cognizant of the pile of work waiting for us on our desk, we connect with a bystander to exchange a chat and a joke.

Once again, our brain is automatically driving us to socialize even without our awareness or conscious intention, distracting us, and delaying the time before we return to work. Once we are back at our desk we may be able to focus again, but we seem to lack the necessary creativity to resolve the problem. None of the techniques known to us seem to help in producing a satisfactory solution. Frustrated by this impasse we may lean back in our chair, and suddenly remember the joke made by our colleague half an hour ago.

We internally laugh at the joke, and do not realize that thanks to this playful mental intermezzo, our brain is capable of having a sudden insight that will help us to solve the problem. in the case described above the person is basically stumbling from activity to activity, driven by the needs of the brain, without any level of awareness of why this chain of events is occurring. We may even return back home that night believing we had a productive working day, ignorant of the fact that the reason we are irritable is not because our spouse is being unreasonable, but because we are mentally exhausted.

Now consider how different things could be. What would happen if we were to start the day after a good night’s sleep with half an hour of reflective practice, taking advantage of the rested and centered mind to prioritize the activities of the day? We might consciously plan to take a break over lunch, allowing for down time or even a brief nap, and arrange for a tennis game with a friend right after work, thus combining connecting time and physical activity. When we arrive at work, we mindfully schedule the meetings of the day to alternate individual focus time with meetings with colleagues so as to have a day with variation in brain activity. The result might be that when we come back home we actually have sufficient reserves to connect and play with our children, completing the list of healthy activities for the day before dinner time. Following a healthy mind diet can provide us with the physical and mental well- being necessary to establish and maintain relationships with family, friends and colleagues, and efficiently realize the tasks and responsibilities at school, work, and in our communities.

In the next blogs we will provide the scientific foundations for the Healthy Mind Platter, synthesizing what we have learned from clinical work, behavioral research, affective and social neuroscience, and psychology.

First we will review the neuro-cognitive benefits of seven key activities (and there will be seven blogs about it, a new blog every 6 weeks):

Sleep Time
When we give the brain the rest it needs to consolidate learning and recover from the experiences of the day.

Play Time
When we allow ourselves to be spontaneous or creative, playfully enjoying novel experiences, which helps make new connections in the brain.

Time-In (meditation or reflective practice)
When we quietly reflect internally, focusing on sensations, images, feelings and thoughts, helping to better integrate the brain.

Down Time
When we are non-focused, without any specific goal, and let our mind wander or simply relax, which helps our brain recharge.

Connecting Time
When we connect with other people, ideally in person, or take time to appreciate our connection to the natural world around us, richly activating the brain’s relational circuitry.

Physical Time
When we move our bodies, aerobically if possible, which strengthens the brain in many ways.

Focus Time
When we closely focus on tasks in a goal-oriented way, taking on challenges that make deep connections in the brain.

We will explicate their relationships with outcome variables like creativity, health, and cognitive performance. second, we will present the Healthy Mind Platter (HMP) model, representing the complex relationships between the elements of the HMP as antecedents and moderators for the three variables: creativity, (mental) health and cognitive performance. This approach can serve both as a model with hypotheses for future research and a framework for brain health practice.

There’s no specific recipe for a healthy mind, as each individual is different, and our needs change over time too. The point is to become aware of the full spectrum of essential mental activities, and just like with essential nutrients, make sure that at least every day we are nudging the right ingredients into our mental diet, even for just a little time. Just like you wouldn’t eat only pizza every day for days on end, we shouldn’t just live on focus time and little sleep. Mental wellness is all about giving your brain lots of opportunities to develop in different ways.

The Healthy Mind Platter was created in collaboration by Dr. David Rock , executive director of the NeuroLeadership Institute and Dr. Daniel Siegel , executive director of the Mindsight Institute and clinical professor at the UCLA School of Medicine.

Source: The Healty Mind Platter

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