In October 2004, Wall Street Journal science editor Sharon Begley attended a meeting in an improbable location on a seemingly equally improbable topic. At the Dalai Lama’s private compound in Dharamsala, India, leading neuroscientists and Buddhist philosophers met to consider “neuroplasticity.” The conference was organized by the Mind and Life Institute as part of a series of meetings, beginning in 1987, for brain researchers and Buddhist scholars to share insights into the workings of the mind and brain. The 2004 meeting set out to answer two questions: “Does the brain have the ability to change, and what is the power of the mind to change it?”
In Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves, Begley reveals the results of that unlikely meeting, while making accessible the rapidly emerging science of neuroplasticity. Although the title might suggest otherwise, Begley’s book is not a manual on brain exercises or the power of positive thought. Instead, it is a lively, largely scientifically accurate, and eminently readable view into the brain’s capacity for malleability. Moreover, the book makes it obvious why the two seemingly disparate cultures of neuroscience and Buddhism share a mutual interest, as well as have much to learn from each other.
Neuroplasticity encompasses all of the things that nerve cells can do (or that can be done to them) to change the structure and/or function of the organ in which they are embedded, the brain. Examples include the brain’s ability to Begley takes readers on a journey through how neuroscience’s view of the brain’s capacity for functional reorganization has evolved. add new nerve cells (neurogenesis), change the efficiency by which one neuron talks to another at sites of chemical communication (synaptic plasticity), and remap functional connections to allow for the outputs (axons) of one set of neurons to invade territory vacated by another set of axons. All of these processes, which take place in full force while the brain is initially assembled in utero and during the early years of life, are now known also to occur, to some degree, throughout the life span. This latter type of neuroplasticity is at the heart of the meeting held in Dharamsala and of Begley’s book—not just the nuts and bolts of how brains effect this plasticity, but its implications for who we are today (vs. yesterday) and our potential to become something else tomorrow.
The interface of Western science and Buddhist philosophy provides the context for considering these implications. In order to build a bridge between the two disciplines, Begley takes readers on a journey through how neuroscience’s view of the brain’s capacity for functional reorganization has evolved. She highlights the theories and discoveries of many of the field’s leading investigators. Included are the famous late-nineteenth-century psychologist William James; the father of cellular anatomy of the nervous system, Santiago Ramón y Cajal; and modern experimental neuroscientists such as Nobel laureates David H. Hubel, M.D., and Torsten N. Wiesel, M.D., who elegantly demonstrated the sensitivity of cerebral cortical neurons to visual experience during “critical periods” of early brain development. Begley implicitly makes the point that the emphasis on such limited windows of opportunity for functional brain reorganization may have contributed to researchers’ initial reluctance to embrace the growing body of evidence for neuroplasticity in the mature brain.
But then she goes on to describe a growing list of research that demonstrates this neuroplasticity, such as the discovery by Michael Merzenich, Ph.D., and Jon Kaas, Ph.D., that the part of the cerebral cortex that processes tactile information is altered after training or when sensory input from a part of the body is removed. The case for lifelong neuroplasticity becomes even more compelling as Begley reports the identification by Fred H. Gage, Ph.D., of neurogenesis in the brains of adult mammals. The reader will be intrigued to learn that many of the insights into the capacity for adult neuroplasticity came from unexpected quarters. For example, lifelong neuronal renewal was first established in songbirds, and the initial observations of human adult neurogenesis came from cancer patients who underwent chemotherapy with drugs that serendipitously allowed visualization of newly generated neurons when their brains were examined by microscope upon autopsy.