Train Your Mind. Change Your Brain

 Sharon Begley

  1. 275 pp. Ballantine Books, New York.

 

It has taken the scientific world decades to accept the evidence that the brain is not hardwired. This dogma has only been successfully challenged when the mountain of evidence that had accumulated over decades forced the acceptance that the brain and mind interact in such ways that they influence and change each other. Yes our minds, that is, our thoughts can change the very structure of our brain.

Simply described this book illuminates the events of a week-long meeting held in Dharamsala,2004 when the Dalai Lama invited a handful of neuroscientists and Buddhism scholars and practitioners to discuss this new science and the commonalities and revelations that this science and Buddhism share. This book arose as an account of that week but it goes far beyond a descriptive account because of the writing skill of Sharon.

This is simply a fantastic book, especially for those that are interested in the obstacles and challenges to this new developing neuroscience in expanding our understanding that we now know that the brain is ‘plastic’. That is, plasticity refers to a structure weak enough to yield to an influence. Yes, the brain yields. Even though neuroplasticity was presented as early as 1890, it was ignored, on the basis that a psychologist, not a neurologist postulated the idea.

From the 1930s onwards scientific experiments one-by-one commenced the progressive accumulation of knowledge in the field of neuroplasticity. Even so, many if not most these scientists, especially in the early decades, were dismissed or negatively sanctioned by the so-called scientific community, as the overriding incorrect dogma of the brain being hardwired continued to stifle our understanding of the malleability of the brain, even into 1999. Sharon writes:

“The brain can indeed be rewired…It can activate long-dormant wires and rune new cables like an electrician bringing an old house up to code, so that regions that once saw can instead feel or hear. It can quiet circuits that once crackled with the aberrant activity that characterizes depression and cut pathological connections that keep the brain in the oh-god-something-is-wrong state that marks obsessive-compulsive disorder. The adult brain, in short, retains much of the plasticity of the developing brain, including the power to repair damaged regions, to grow new neurons, to rezone regions that performed one task and have them assume a new task, to change the circuitry that weaves neurons into the networks that allow us to remember, feel, suffer, think, imagine, and dream…the brain can change its physical structure and its wiring long into adulthood” (8).

I don’t think I am a nerd, but this is exciting to me, as is the field of neuroplasticity. But it comes alive because of Sharon’s amazing ability to thread the scientific history, discoveries and the understanding of Buddhism. If you suspect that these 2 worlds would collide then you would be wrong. As the Dalai Lama writes in the Forward “We have reached a watershed, an intersection where Buddhism and modern science become mutally enriching, with huge practical potential for human well-being” (ix).

You might be tempted to think that this book would be boring, but don’t. This is just not the case. I found myself intrigues and focused as Sharon adeptly narrates accurate accounts with such flair for keeping the reader interested and engaged, like a ‘who-done-it’, I couldn’t put the book down. This is a valuable book, particularly if you’re are interested in understanding how neuroplasticity has gained credibility in the late twentieth century or if you are interested in how neuroplasticity and Buddhism align and have opened up a greater understanding of both.