One Simple Definition of Mental Health: Integration

Integrating the Parts of the Brain for Better Mental Health

anatomical human head
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The fields of psychology and psychiatry have done a good job defining mental illness, but what is mental health? This article offers an explanation of mental health.

What was missing in the field of mental health? 

Dr. Daniel Siegel is an innovative psychiatrist who has helped bring the ancient practice of mindfulness to mental health and has been a leader in the emerging field of interpersonal neurobiology.

In the early 1990's, he recognized a huge gap in the field of mental health, which was that it was lacking a definition of the mind and what mental health actually was. He noticed that professionals in the field were far too busy diagnosing more and more disorders, without an actual working definition of what we should all be striving for. Through his work over the years, he has come to fill this gap with his own definition of mental health and wellness.

Dr. Siegel's definition of mental health: integration

Dr. Siegel can summarize his definition of mental health in one word: Integration. Integration is when all parts of a system are working cooperatively together as a whole, to create something even greater than their individual parts. Integration in mental health is when all of the parts of our brains are working together in harmony. 

Integrating different parts of the brain

We often do not realize that our brains are composed of many different structures, each of which has its own role to play in its processing of information and energy around us.

Our left brain, for example, deals with logical and sequential things and helps us speak coherently and use language. Our right brain is more responsible for non-verbal aspects of our lives, such as our emotional selves. Delving deeper, there is the hippocampus of the brain, which helps with learning and memory, as well as the amygdala, which has to do with that fight-or-flight experience we have when we feel when we are in danger.

The anterior cingulate registers physical and social pain; the hypothalamus produces hormones that regulate functions such as sleep and appetite. More and more is being learned about the different structures of the human brain continuously as it is an extremely complex organ.

Integration is when all of the above parts, and countless others, are working together.

How does integration work?

When the brain is integrated, each part of it plays its individual role while contributing to the greater function of the whole. Siegel has likened integration to the harmony of a choir: Each singer has his or her part and can function as a soloist, but when combined with the larger choir, produces something much greater than the sum of its parts.

In his own words from his 2011 book, The Whole Brain Child, Siegel writes that integration is simply "linking different elements together to create a well-functioning whole," (p. 6). 

Siegel has written extensively on integration as it relates to both children's and adult's mental health.

He speaks of "horizontal integration," which refers to the right and left brain working together, as well as "vertical integration," which refers to newer, higher parts of the brain such as those responsible for thinking and planning, working together with the lower, more primal parts of the brain, such as those responsible for survival and instinct.

To read more from Dan Siegel, be sure to check out any of his numerous books, including The Developing Mind, Mindsight, Parenting from the Inside Out and Brainstorm, among others.


Siegel, D. J. and Payne Bryson, T. (2011). The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child's developing mind. Random House: New York.

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