Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain
By Sharon Begle
Ballantine Books, 2007; 284 pp.; $24.95 (cloth)
A teenage violinist-in-training labors in a practice room for months before her senior recital, perfecting the difficult fingering required to play a Bach partita. An elderly scholar who has lost his sight in a car accident slowly learns to read braille. A waitress closes the door of her bedroom after the kids are safely packed off to school to practice tonglen, breathing in the suffering of others and exhaling radiant compassion.
What do these three brave people have in common? They’re all doing something mainstream science considered impossible just a few years ago: modifying the structure and function of their brains through practice.
Until the mid-1990s, the prevailing view in medicine was that the nerve pathways in the adult brain are hardwired—“fixed, ended, and immutable,” as one of the early proponents of this model, the Spanish neuroanatomist Santiago Ramón y Cajal, put it in the early 20th century. After the initial generation and flourishing of neurons in the womb and in early childhood, things could only go downhill. When brain cells died, they would never be replaced, and the all-important networks of connection between neurons were set in stone once an individual reached maturity. If anything happened to these fragile bundles of tissue—such as the removal of a tumor, or a few too many beers—the abilities that formerly resided in the lost or injured neurons would never be recovered.
Even Ramón y Cajal recognized that there was something disheartening about his hypothesis. “It is for the science of the future,” he wrote, “to change, if possible, this harsh decree.” Now, happily, the science of the future has arrived, and by using brain-imaging technologies like fMRI and PET scans, along with good old-fashioned controlled experiments, neurologists have learned that Ramón y Cajal’s fixed-brain model was incorrect. In fact, the neural networks in our skulls are fluidly adaptive, constantly responding to trends in incoming stimuli and modifying themselves in light of our own behavior.
As the young violinist rehearses Bach for weeks on end, for example, the parts of her brain that respond to incoming sensory data from the fingers of her left hand grow larger and more richly interconnected. Subtle gestures of articulation that once seemed out of reach eventually become more like a reflex. In the case of the elderly scholar, the areas of his visual cortex no longer receiving input from his injured eyes will not just sit there idle. As he diligently attempts to learn braille, the unused neurons in his visual cortex will be recruited, as neurologists say, by other areas of his brain to help him decode the tiny bumps under his fingertips. The technical term for these processes of adaptation in the brain is neuroplasticity. Our nervous systems, it turns out, are much more resilient and capable of dealing with change than we thought.
But what about the waitress breathing on her cushion to help relieve the suffering of all sentient beings? Does the discovery of neuroplasticity suggest that cortical networks can also be rewired in the service of such lofty goals as enhanced mindfulness, increased compassion, and even a greater capacity for happiness?
According to a new book called Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain by Wall Street Journal science columnist Sharon Begley, the answer is an encouraging yes. Basing her narrative on an annual series of discussions between the Dalai Lama and brain researchers hosted by the Mind and Life Institute, Begley provides a thrilling account of recent breakthroughs in neurology that have profound implications for Buddhist practitioners and anyone interested in human potential and how the mind works.
It turns out that the opening passage of the Dhammapada—loosely translated from Pali as “We become what we think, having become what we thought”—is not just a potent description of karma but precisely accurate at the neurological level. After years of relegating mind to a black box that only philosophers dare open, brain scientists have come around to the notion that mind and (gray) matter are intimately intertwined, each shaping the other. As Begley relates, one researcher named Michael Merzenrich discovered that simply visualizing the act of playing the violin results, over time, in more brain tissue recruited to process sensory data from the fingers.
The act of meditating also triggers a cascade of neural events that have beneficial effects, as MIT neurologist James Austin details in his 2006 book, Zen-Brain Reflections. The brain waves of seasoned Tibetan and Rinzai meditators are more synchronized and coherent, researchers have found. The brains of longtime meditators also produce more gamma waves, which are associated with states of high-level insight. Meditating on compassion, Begley writes, “primes” the brain for noticing the suffering of others and taking action to relieve it.
Obviously, Begley is not the first popular author to build bridges between the lab and the meditation hall. Thirty years ago, a Harvard physician named Herbert Benson championed the cardiac-friendly benefits of breath awareness in a bestseller called The Relaxation Response. In training sessions at his clinic and in books like Full Catastrophe Living, Jon Kabat-Zinn has introduced thousands of people to Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, a secular update of ancient vipassana practices that has proven effective in easing a broad spectrum of ills, from chronic-pain syndromes to long-term depression.
Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain is occasionally hampered by Begley’s overwrought use of metaphors, as when she describes newly born neurons migrating into existing brain networks as “a pack of Zambonis barging into the delicate choreography of the Ice Capades.” But she does an excellent job of communicating the excitement and diligence of the researchers who gave us all a reprieve from Ramón y Cajal’s “harsh decree,” and who often had to persist in their search for truth despite withering skepticism from their peers.
One of the most vivid portrayals in the book is that of the Dalai Lama, who became fascinated with science as a boy after finding a telescope, a clock, two film projectors, and three automobiles on treasure hunts in the rooms of the Potala Palace. The Dalai Lama has had to face skepticism from his own peers—and also from scientists—in his tireless effort to make the teachings of Buddhism open to the truths uncovered in the lab, and his beginner’s-mind attitude toward brain science is particularly inspiring in a fundamentalist age when religion and science are often viewed as irreconcilable adversaries.
Buddhism has never been big on faith in concepts that are not borne out by real-world experience. The good news about neuroplasticity is that believing in the potential benefits of long-term practice requires even less faith than it did before. I asked one of the researchers profiled in Begley’s book, neurogeneticist Fred Gage at the Salk Institute in California, if he felt that Buddhists who sought encouragement for their mindfulness practices in the discovery of neuroplasticity were overinterpreting the data.
“By focusing your attention, you’re regulating the sensory information coming into your brain and influencing the electrophysiological activity occurring there. If you stimulate those circuits repeatedly, over long periods of time, the circuits will modify themselves,” Gage replied. “This is independent of Buddhism and issues of free will, and it’s even true of single neurons in culture. You don’t even have to ‘believe’ in it. It’s just how the brain works.”