Book Review: Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain

Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain by Sharon Begley has a title that might lead one to believe it’s a how-to or self-help book. It is neither. Rather, it is the story of how researchers have uncovered the brain’s ability to change, even in adults. The book is set against the backdrop of discussions with the Dalai Lama, who also provides a brief foreword. The odd juxtaposition actually makes sense, since a key insight of Buddhist philosophy is that one can, by meditation and other techniques, change the way one’s mind works. Long derided by scientists, this belief now has growing support from neuroscience research.

Begley covers a lot of ground, citing a variety of animal and human research that has revolutionized the way we think about neuroplasticity and neurogenesis. In particular, she describes multiple studies that demonstrated how the brain rewires itself after a physical change, like the loss of a limb or a sense. One study by Edward Taub looked at the brain organization of string musicians, whose left hand fingertips (the ones used for fingering the strings) are exquisitely sensitive. These musicians showed far more cortical space devoted to the registering feelings from the fingers of their left hand than those of their right hand – clear evidence of the brain being altered by training and practice.

One interesting theme of the book is how resistant the neuroscience establishment was to accepting the idea of neuroplasticity. Far from greeting these studies with enthusiasm, most neuroscientists initially dismissed them as bad science, special cases, or misinterpreted data. It was only when repeated studies continued to demonstrate the ability of the adult brain to reorganize itself that the concept entered the mainstream. Scientists, it seem, are bound by the status quo as much as individuals in other lines of work.

The Dalai Lama’s involvement in neuroscience has been controversial enough. He is clearly open-minded about science and as far from dogmatic as possible. Begley even cites a statement by him which said, in essence, “When science proves something that conflicts with one of our beliefs, throw out that belief.” Nevertheless, many neuroscientists welcomed him to their world as much as they might have welcomed an African witch doctor.

The idea of brain plasticity is an extremely hopeful concept for mankind, and Begley communicates that in her writing. Instead of assuming that one’s brain can only decline as an adult, or that recovery from strokes, other brain trauma, or disorders like OCD and depression is impossible, we now know that brain change IS possible. Often, this can be accomplished using the brain’s own resources with a little external help, such as providing therapy to help a stroke victim’s brain rewire itself more rapidly.

If you want a manual on training your mind, Begley’s book is not it. If you want an encouraging picture of the promise of brain plasticity, and an understanding of how we arrived at our current state of knowledge, read Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves.

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Roger Dooley writes and speaks about marketing, and in particular the use of neuroscience and behavioral research to make advertising, marketing, and products better. He is the primary author at Neuromarketing, and founder of Dooley Direct LLC, a marketing consultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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