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.)
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