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The Hand Model of the Brain

Daniel Siegel’s Hand Model of the Brain uses the hand to illustrate two different states of mind we might go between throughout the day as we communicate with others.  The thumb represents the limbic system of the brain and is responsible for the emotions we feel.   The fingers symbolize the prefrontal cortex and is the brain center where logical thinking takes place.  

When the fingers are closed over the thumb, the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system are in contact and work collectively to find a balance between reason and emotion.  This united approach encourages interactions that are sensitive, thoughtful, and unselfish. Even in times of disagreement, two people in this mind set can remain calm and seek to understand each other’s points of view.   

High levels of stress and emotion, however, can cause us to flip the lid.  This is illustrated by the fingers lifted off the thumb and pointed upward.  With the connection severed between these two systems, the limbic system takes sole control of our ability to communicate with others.  The brain becomes highly emotional as the prefrontal cortex is no longer able to keep the limbic system in check.  As a result, facts are often distorted, problems are blown out of proportion and things are said that we later regret.    

It is important to be mindful throughout the day when we flip our lid.  It is equally important to have strategies in place that help restore the connection between fingers and thumb and reestablish the balance between our reasonable and emotional centers of the brain. These strategies generally focus on calming down our minds and relieving the stress that was responsible for flipping the lid in the first place.  Examples of such strategies are: 


Challenge yourself to think of the hand model throughout your day.  As you communicate with others, question whether you are calm and thinking rationally, or if you have flipped your lid and your emotions have taken control of what you say.  At times where your lid is flipped, use tactics such as taking a break and performing square breathing to calm your mind before continuing the conversation.  As you do this, you will find an increased ability to communicate in ways that are calm and more productive.

Dan Muster, DNP Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner

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