Book Review: Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain by Sharon Begley

by Nancy Fontaine,, March 24, 2007

New York, USA -- Neuroplasticity is nothing less than the ability of the brain to grow new neurons and rewire itself, which neurologists and psychologists until recently believed impossible. Sharon Begley, as science columnist for The Wall Street Journal, takes a subject that could have been dry as dust or, conversely, simplified into self-help slogans, and turns it into a riveting story. Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain is as entertaining as it is edifying. This unlikely page turner fascinates, and suggests optimism about your brain's capacities.

Begley frames her story around the 2004 Mind and Life Institute meeting, whose subject was neuroplasticity. The Mind and Life Institute was formed in 1990 as a way for the Dalai Lama, leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile and spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, to both learn more about science and integrate it into Buddhism. Every few years, prominent scientists are invited to Dharamsala, India, to make presentations to the Dalai Lama, who discusses their findings with them.

Alternating between the scientists speaking to the Dalai Lama and a more general narrative, Begley begins at the beginning and lays out clues like in a detective novel. When the pioneers of the field found indications that the brain rewires itself, the establishment rejected the ideas by refusing to publish the findings in prestigious journals and rejecting funding requests. The investigators kept going and chipped away at the status quo, adding up studies of animals and people, discovering such things as why the blind have more acute hearing and amputees still feel their missing limbs. One-by-one, the tenets of the unchanging brain were felled, until it became official: even adults can achieve physical changes in their brains.

The Dalai Lama was pleased with this discovery. Buddhism has a sophisticated system of psychology, and the discovery of neuroplasticity matches beautifully with the Buddhist view that "mind" can influence the physical brain. The one sticking point that the Buddhists and the scientists had to let lie was exactly what "mind" is. The Buddhists believe it is something separate from the physical brain; the scientists believe that "everything is brain," that is, all mental activities can be accounted for by physical firings of neurons in the brain.

This body of research, which now includes the study of Buddhist monks, opens up intriguing possibilities. Some studies Begley cites have shown that with the right kind of training, not only dyslexic children but also the elderly can beef up certain brain functoins and overcome their language deficits. The monks demonstrate the other end of the spectrum. Placed in the MRI machine and told to meditate on compassion, their brains showed intense activity in the areas associated with happiness. In-between the two extremes, ordinary people were found to be more compassionate when asked to recall memories of being cared for.

Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain is an excellent popular overview of brain science, and also a joy to read. Begley never uses more technical jargon then necessary and regularly reminds the reader of seminal findings discussed earlier in the book. Her use of metaphors and similes is both helpful and entertaining. For instance, she reports that in the case of deaf people, neurons in the brain's auditory area were expected to wither and die from lack of use, "making it as quiet as a butcher shop on an island of vegetarians" (Naturally this turned out not to be the case.)

Does the book have something practical to offer? Maybe. One scientist suggested a mental fitness culture might arise from this research, just as the culture of physical fitness emerged from studies of the heart. There's a catch, however. Begley does not dwell on the issue, but it is clear that sustained training in attentiveness is required to rewire the brain. The Buddhist monks who agreed to be tested did show remarkable abilities. They had dedicated years of their lives to meditation to get to that point, though.

Considering the aging baby boom generation and the demands this group has created in every phase of life, if a culture of metal fitness develops, it won't surprise me. Being a boomer myself, I'm all for it. I just hope I don't have to become a bodhisattva to reap the benefits. (For a Western take on mental training, see Scientific American, "The Science of Lasting Happiness", April 2007.)
We Need Your Help to Train the
Buddhist AI Chat Bot
(Neural Operator for Responsible Buddhist Understanding)

For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your name in the payment slip. Thank you.

Dear Friends in the Dharma,

We seek your generous support to help us train NORBU, the word's first Buddhist AI Chat Bot.

Here are some ways you can contribute to this noble cause:

One-time Donation or Loan: A single contribution, regardless of its size, will go a long way in helping us reach our goal and make the Buddhist LLM a beacon of wisdom for all.

How will your donation / loan be used? Download the NORBU White Paper for details.

For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your purpose of payment (loan or donation) in the payment slip. Thank you.

Once payment is banked in, please send the payment slip via email to: Your donation/loan will be published and publicly acknowledged on the Buddhist Channel.

Spread the Word: Share this initiative with your friends, family and fellow Dharma enthusiasts. Join "Friends of Norbu" at: Together, we can build a stronger community and create a positive impact on a global scale.

Volunteer: If you possess expertise in AI, natural language processing, Dharma knowledge in terms of Buddhist sutras in various languages or related fields, and wish to lend your skills, please contact us. Your knowledge and passion could be invaluable to our project's success.

Your support is part of a collective effort to preserve and disseminate the profound teachings of Buddhism. By contributing to the NORBU, you become a "virtual Bodhisattva" to make Buddhist wisdom more accessible to seekers worldwide.

Thank you for helping to make NORBU a wise and compassionate Buddhist Chatbot!

May you be blessed with inner peace and wisdom,

With deepest gratitude,

Kooi F. Lim
On behalf of The Buddhist Channel Team

Note: To date, we have received the following contributions for NORBU:
US$ 75 from Gary Gach (Loan)
US$ 50 from Chong Sim Keong
MYR 300 from Wilson Tee
MYR 500 from Lim Yan Pok
MYR 50 from Oon Yeoh
MYR 200 from Ooi Poh Tin
MYR 300 from Lai Swee Pin
MYR 100 from Ong Hooi Sian
MYR 1,000 from Fam Sin Nin
MYR 500 from Oh teik Bin
MYR 300 from Yeoh Ai Guat
MYR 300 from Yong Lily
MYR 50 from Bandar Utama Buddhist Society
MYR 1,000 from Chiam Swee Ann
MYR 1,000 from Lye Veei Chiew
MYR 1,000 from Por Yong Tong
MYR 80 from Lee Wai Yee
MYR 500 from Pek Chee Hen
MYR 300 from Hor Tuck Loon
MYR 1,000 from Wise Payments Malaysia Sdn Bhd
MYR 200 from Teo Yen Hua
MYR 500 from Ng Wee Keat
MYR 10,000 from Chang Quai Hung, Jackie (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from K. C. Lim & Agnes (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from Juin & Jooky Tan (Loan)
MYR 100 from Poh Boon Fong (on behalf of SXI Buddhist Students Society)
MYR 10,000 from Fam Shan-Shan (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from John Fam (Loan)
MYR 500 from Phang Cheng Kar
MYR 100 from Lee Suat Yee
MYR 500 from Teo Chwee Hoon (on behalf of Lai Siow Kee)
MYR 200 from Mak Yuen Chau

We express our deep gratitude for the support and generosity.

If you have any enquiries, please write to: