Dr Dan Siegel’s Hand Model of the Brain

George Bull, Social Worker at the Connected Carers Team South Tyneside, explores Dr. Dan Siegal’s hand model of the brain and its use in social work practice.

In the Solution Focussed Therapy model of social work practice the core goal is to nurture the innate self-capacity for change and repair in individuals and families.  I strongly believe unless this is achieved the people we support are vulnerable to our repeat involvement as they perceive that their problems (which often perhaps inevitably recur in some way) can only be solved alongside the practitioner.

I’ll give you an analogy. Think of a car owner who does not know how to change a windscreen wiper blade. They will either struggle on with a wiper blade that leaves the screen murky or go to a garage and professionals will entirely repair and replace the wiper blade. They will do this for every car they own.  The other option is that at some point the car owner tries themselves to change the blade or is shown how to do it by another car owner who knows how to do it. They can then do it themselves forever!

The DIY job we seek to do as social workers is supporting people to change the patterns of behaviour that have led to the issue becoming fixed and other wise immovable.  Quite simply patterns of behaviour are cemented by the human brain that seeks to develop the best strategy available for survival. The optimal option being to seek to replay past successful strategies over and over.

A previously traumatized child or adult’s brain will recognize that it survived the traumatic experience and that the behaviours of shutting down, running away, or fighting worked. Survival is so paramount the brain cares not if the lifestyle and relationships for the person are severely impaired due to this strategy.

How can this hard-wiring be addressed?

Daniel Siegel the author of Mind Sight and the Child Brian has developed a simple and massively accessible model to support this “The Hand Brian Model”. (video at the bottom of the article)

This model offers social workers a very tactile and easy way to demonstrate to children and adults why and how their brain is responding with negative automatic behaviours like hitting out, shutting down, and addiction.

Siegal explains that the two competing areas are the downstairs (limbic system) and the upstairs (frontal cortex). By explaining this to an individual the social worker has lifted the bonnet of the car and is letting the person look beneath it perhaps for the first time.   This is the opposite of dumbing down. This is explaining neuroscience to children and adults to increase their understanding of their own bodies and behaviours.

This specific point of looking under the bonnet or inside their brain is where a small important change can happen, looking at your behaviours from the lens of being one step removed creates a transformative perspective namely meta cognition which is highly linked to healthy attachment and positive mental health and lifestyle.

The key point to stress is that limbic system fires first automatically and leads the person to damaging behaviours that will continue the issues they are struggling with. This is represented in the model by the thumb (see the video below). Only by slowing down and engaging the fingers, which represent the frontal cortex, by wrapping them around the thumb, can this powerful part of the brain be challenged and potential for change created.

By demonstrating the functions of the brain and by the using the body an instant and memorable connection is made increasing the chances of the model being used again after the session.   Just like a joke or an anecdote it is immediately accessible, social and totally memorable.

This I feel sets this model apart from many others I have seen. Children and carers remember and continue to use this over extended periods, and indeed explain and teach others about the model.

Social care professionals rarely use any brain science in their work as they feel they are not expert enough.  By keeping it simple and being confident in the basics social workers should aim to build this knowledge with children and families. After all its about their brains.

So, give it a try watch the video, put the model in your practice locker and I bet in the next few weeks of practice the opportunity will arise where it will be relevant.  At this point just remember don’t be like the garage! Do better by building knowledge, building capacity and revealing what is going on under the bonnet.

George Bull

George is Social Worker at the Connected Carers Team South Tyneside. He has been a social worker for 10 years working mainly in child protection and Early Help. He has lectured with Jamie Scorer at New College Durham, University of Sunderland and University of Northumbria in solution focused practice.

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