In Train Your Mind, Change your Brain, Sharon Begley recounts the history of "neuroplasticity," or the ability of the brain to grow new neurons and rewire itself, which neurologists and psychologists recently believed impossible. Begley, 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. As entertaining as it is edifying, this unlikely page turner will both fascinate you and make you more optimistic about your brain's capacities.
Begley frames her story around the Mind and Life Institute meeting of 2004, 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 Dharmasala, 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 find indications that the brain rewires itself, the establishment rejects the ideas by not publishing the work in prestigious journals and rejecting funding grants. The investigators kept going and chip 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 are felled, until it becomes official: even adults can achieve physical changes in their brains.
The Dalai Lama was pleased to hear the news of neuroplasticity. 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 research, and the study of Buddhist monks which resulted from the exchanges between the Dalai Lama and scientists, open up intriguing possibilities. Some studies Begley reports have shown that with the right kind of training, not only dyslexic children but also the elderly can beef up their auditory cortex and become better at language. 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 bring memories of being cared for to mind.
Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain is an excellent popular overview of brain science, and furthermore is a joy to read. Begley never uses more technical jargon then necessary and regularly reminds the reader of seminal findings talked about earlier in the book. Her use of metaphors and similes is both helpful and entertaining. For instance, she reports that in the deaf, 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 and island of vegetarians" (p. 84). (Naturally this turned out not to be the case.)
Does the book have something practical to offer? Maybe. One scientist suggested a mental fitness might culture might arise out of this research, just as the culture of physical fitness did out of studies of the heart. There's a catch, however. Begley does not dwell on the issue, but it is clear that sustained training of attention 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 meditating all day to get to that point, though.
Considering that the baby boom generation has created demands in every phase of life, if a culture of metal fitness develops, particularly for aging brains, 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.)