592 of 610 people found the following review helpful
on January 29, 2007
Contrary to what the title may suggest, this is not a training manual for the brain. The book is a fascinating and convincing account of recent discoveries in brain neuroplasticity (i.e. its `pliability') even into old age, and the amazing implications of such discoveries. Sharon Begley states, "Yes, the brain can change, and that means we can change." For those looking for a magic bullet, she adds that it is not easy. "Neuroplasticity is impossible without attention and mental effort."
Those who have worked in fields such as psychology, education, gerontology and various social services will no doubt have observed unexplained and seemingly miraculous events with their clients and students. This book gives answers to their questions. For example, working as an occupational therapist in gerontology a number of years ago, I was stunned when an elderly (and chronic) stroke victim suddenly raised her paralysed arm to bat a balloon in a lighter version of volley ball. There was an "aha" moment when I read the chapter "New neurons for old brains."
This book also gives credence to the Superlearning trend of a decade ago, which met with a great deal of scepticism at the time. There were those, like myself, who used it anyway, purely on instinct, and met with amazing outcomes we could not explain. Anecdotal, of course, but Begley's book gives the following example some weight: While in my sixties, I decided to test out on myself what I had successfully used on the children. I undertook papers at university after forty years break from education, but reducing the study time by two thirds (using the Superlearning protocol.) It worked far better than I had dared hope; the 'grandmother' amongst students a third her age achieving the 90th percentile. (I later helped 'learning disabled' adults achieve the same percentile.) I couldn't say how it worked; just that it did. Now Begley gives scientific reasons why.
I am sure that other readers will find similar places of déja vu in this book and be assured that they can repeat, again and again, what they previously thought was mere chance. Whether you are a parent seeking hope for a dyslexic child, or an older adult who does not want to end up in mental decline like your parents did, there is solid evidence that "we can change what we choose to change."
Intertwined in Begley's reports of neuroplasticity research (cataloguing the unbelievable intransigence of the 'hardwired brain' traditionalists) is the story of an interaction that has developed over the years between the Dalai Llama and a group of enlightened Western scientists. This is a beautiful account of an interrelationship that has, without doubt, benefited the world, albeit with little media attention.
My only surprise is that, although Begley refers repeatedly to the scientists' rejection of mind-brain dualism, she does not answer this with any of the impeccable research available on non-local mind - such as that of William Braud (whose research is documented meticulously in "Distant Mental Influence.") However, Begley's "Train Your Mind, Change YOur Brain" was published in the same week as Lynne McTaggart's "The Intention Experiment," to create what is essentially a dyad in consciousness literature: while McTaggart shows how we can influence our outer world, Begley shows how we can influence our inner world. One way or another, we can be empowered.
278 of 288 people found the following review helpful
Although this book is based upon the Mind and Life Institute's 2004 Conference with the Dalai Lama, this is not a book about Buddhism, but rather a study of neuroplasticity; addressing the question of whether or not the brain is fixed or flexible in its structure and capabilities. For years, we have been taught that the development and enhancement of the brain stops at a very young age and that it is not possible to change it. Recent studies, however, have shown that the brain can be re-wired through various cognitive techniques. While some of this research deals with the impact of meditation on brain structures, there is also very interesting material concerning the ways in which the brain accomodates for various disabilities such as blindness or loss of hearing.
If you are interested in the latest developments for treating dyslexia and depression, or in ways to prevent mental deterioration brought about by aging, this is an excellent place to look. This book demonstrates that you can teach old dogs new tricks and that you can combat genetic determinism through cognitive methods, rather than psychotropic drugs (not something that the makers of Prozac want you to know). Although the subjects explored are complex, Ms. Begley does a great job of keeping the book interesting without oversimplification.
104 of 105 people found the following review helpful
I've been practicing meditation and am a keen follower of mindfulness techniques for the last twenty years. I have believed in the transformative potential for meditation mediated neuroplasticity, which is the main theme of the book, for much of that time. I was also aware of the collaboration of H.H. the Dalai Lama with neuroscientists over the last few years to discover the nexus between science and Buddhism.
I thought the book did a credible job of covering these areas, albeit in a non exciting way (at least for me).
I think the title is misleading. "Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain" implies the delivery of a actionable personal strategy , or at least the promise of action. Instead, the book delivers a fairly dry synopsis of the current state of science and the relative nature of that science to the Dalai Lama's conception of the interface of science and the ancient Buddhist system relying on insight derived through meditative practice. Those are two distinctly different foci for the potential reader who may be looking for different things based solely on the title.
One implies the book will deliver a personalized strategy. The other implies a review of the science and the amazing potential for all of us.
The book fails to deliver on the first, and is a reasonable guide to the second.
So to my evaluation of the book:
* Be sure you read the description carefully of the contents before you use the "1-click" button. Be sure this is what you want.
* If you want the science, this is a good overview.
* If you want something actually actionable immediately, research Amazon's listing and buy something written by John Kabat-Zinn or Thich Nhat Hanh and just begin with their simple suggestions. If you need something cognitive-based which will give you immediate techniques for transforming your thoughts into more useful directions, then buy "The Feeling Good Handbook" by David Burns.
The study of meditation and cognitive science by reading books about them means nothing in and of itself except for the pleasant diversion of satisfying intellectual curiosity. Unfortunately there is no free lunch in this life. Only direct action by practicing the techniques daily can deliver the actual reality of delivery the potential for neuroplasticity to make a difference in your own life. You actually do have to "Train Your Mind" to "Change Your Brain". Why not just take the step of actually doing it to conduct your own personal experiment rather that just reading the experiments of others?
So marketers: be mindful of the implied promise of your catchy titles. Be precise about what a book actually is about. Deception is not a fair technique to the potential reader who has access to the dreaded "1 click" button.
So to my ratings:
*delivers on the science and the promise
*doesn't deliver any action plan
* people who are interested in the science of this field
* those who for some reason need validation that meditation is useful
Not good for:
* someone searching for the actual transformative practices which can be implemented now. That requires more books or training.
So be sure the cost of the book meets your needs and expectations.
137 of 146 people found the following review helpful
on January 23, 2007
In this lucidly written, very readable and compact volume, science writer Sharon Begley explores the recent convergence of learning about the mind and the brain through two very different approaches: Western science, in particular neuroscience and medical studies of the brain; and Eastern (Buddhist) philosophy, including mental training via meditation. As the book explains, recent research has documented changes in the brain that were once held to be impossible, changes wrought by conscious, focused mental effort on the part of the brain's owner. This emerging science has opened up wide vistas of possibility, ranging from mitigation of mental disorders that originate in brain (dys)function, such as OCD or the after-effects of stroke, to improving one's character by becoming more humane and compassionate. This book makes you think humanity may have a future after all, despite so much current evidence to the contrary, if we are wise enough to harness this powerful new knowledge to expand the common goodness of people everywhere.
The book's central message is a little like the old joke about how many psychiatrists it takes to change a light bulb--mind/brain change comes to an individual who really wants to change, and has the will to exert the needed effort. But techniques of mental discipline can be learned, and with proper motivation we can truly "re-wire" ourselves, potentially to eliminate violent or selfish impulses, for instance. The Dalai Lama is one leader who has already grasped the significance of the new science of neuroplasticity. Let us hope many others can follow in his footsteps. I highly recommend this book, which is readily understandable even for those with a minimal scientific background.
149 of 165 people found the following review helpful
I must quote from this book which is a pivotal contribution to humanity.
". . . As late as 1999, neurologists writing in the prestigious journal Science admitted, "We are still taught that the fully mature brain lacks the intrinsic mechanisms needed to replenish neurons and reestablish neuronal networks after acute injury or in response to the insidious loss of neurons seen in neurodegen- erative diseases."
"Neuroscientist Fred Gage, one of the researchers invited by the Dalai Lama to discuss the implications of neuroplasticity with him and other Buddhist scholars at the 2004 meeting, put the objections to the idea of a changing brain this way: "If the brain was changeable, then we would change. And if the brain made wrong changes, then we would change incorrectly. It was easier to believe there were no changes. That way, the individual would remain pretty much fixed."
"But the dogma is wrong. In the last years of the twentieth century, a few iconoclastic neuroscientists challenged the paradigm that the adult brain cannot change and made discovery after discovery that, to the contrary, it retains stunning powers of neuroplasticity. The brain can indeed be rewired. It can expand the area that is wired to move the fingers, forging new connections that underpin the dexterity of an accomplished violinist. It can activate long-dormant wires and run 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. Yes, the brain of a child is remarkably malleable. But contrary to Ramón y Cajal and most neuroscientists since, the brain can change its physical structure and its wiring long into adulthood."
"A few findings suggest that brain changes can be generated by pure mental activity: merely thinking about playing the piano leads to a measurable, physical change in the brain's motor cortex, and thinking about thoughts in certain ways can restore mental health. By willfully treating invasive urges and compulsions as errant neurochemistry--rather than as truthful messages that something is amiss--patients with OCD have altered the activity of the brain region that generates the OCD thoughts, for instance.
By thinking differently about the thoughts that threaten to send them back into the abyss of despair, patients with depression have dialed up activity in one region of the brain and quieted it in another, reducing their risk of relapse. Something as seemingly insubstantial as a thought has the ability to act back on the very stuff of the brain, altering neuronal connections in a way that can lead to recovery from mental illness and perhaps to a greater capacity for empathy and compassion."
"The discovery that thinking something produces effects just as doing something does is a fascinating consonance with Buddhism," says Francisca Cho. "Buddhism challenges the traditional belief in an external, objective reality.
Instead, it teaches that our reality is created by our own projections; it is thinking that creates the external world beyond us. The neuroscience findings harmonize with this Buddhist teaching."
"Buddhist narratives have another consonance with the discoveries of neuroplasticity. They teach that by detaching ourselves from our thoughts, by observing our thinking dispassionately and with clarity, we have the ability to think thoughts that allow us to overcome afflictions such as being chronically angry. "You can undergo an emotional reeducation," Cho says. "By meditative exertion and other mental exercises, you can actively change your feelings, your attitudes, your mind-set."
"Indeed, Buddhism believes that the mind has a formidable power of self-transformation. When thoughts come to the untrained mind, they can run wild, triggering destructive emotions such as craving and hatred. But mental training, a core of Buddhist practice, allows us "to identify and to control emotions and mental events as they arise," says Matthieu Ricard. Meditation, the most highly developed form of mental training, "is about coming to a new perception of reality and of the nature of mind, about nurturing new qualities until they become integral parts of our being.
If we place all our hopes and fears in the outside world, we have quite a challenge, because our control of the outside world is weak, temporary, and even illusory. It is more within the scope of our faculties to change the way we translate the outside world into inner experience. We have a great deal of freedom in how we transform that experience, and that is the basis for mental training and transformation."
Although this is not a "Buddhist" book, I can genuinely personally attest from my study of Buddhism and the positive mind changes that I have experienced by incorporating "right mindfulness and loving compassion" which has significantly transformed what used to be depression, insecurity, and nervousness, into so much more inner peace. As a result, my brain (thinking) became more focused, and aligned with positive intention.
This is an OUTSTANDING book, and a deep, engaging read for anyone interested in positive transformation, and mind functioning at its peak. FANTASTIC in all regards!
Barbara Rose, Ph.D. author of If God Hears Me I Want an Answer! and Know Yourself
87 of 96 people found the following review helpful
on January 20, 2007
I'm a board-certified cognitive behavioral therapist and I'm so glad that Sharon Begley wrote this book. I will recommend it to my fellow therapists as it has even broader application than my own book BRAINSWITCH OUT OF DEPRESSION which is more specific to depression. I've had great success training people to re-wire their brains to quickly get out of the pain of depression by using simple mind exercises to switch their neuronal activity from the feeling part of the brain (the subcortex) to the thinking part of the brain (the neocortex). So I can personally attest to the feasibility and practicality of what Begley writes about.
32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on September 29, 2007
This book is based in part on an Oct.2004 meeting bewtween the Dalai Lama & a group of western neurologists & psychologists to discuss the mutability of the human brain. The main positives of this book are that it is meticulously researched, & yet concise.
But, despite the title it is not a self-help book. One should not expect any life altering experiences. This is a history of neuro-plasticity, a cerebral trait discovered by neuro-scientific experiments some twenty years ago. The books central message is that the brain/mind can change when we want it to. The techniques of mental discipline can be learned, & our negative traits reduced. Here eastern philosophy & meditation meets western neuro-science. When the reader is interested in the latest developments for treating dysfunction & depression, or in the mental deterioration brought by aging this is a good place to start.
Basically, the adult brain retains much of the plasticity of the developing brain, to change the circuitry that weaves neurons into the networks that allow us to think, feel, dream, remember, & suffer. Some findings show that changes can occur by certain mental activities: like learning a language, or playing a musical instrument. To a degree, the neuro-science does blend with the buddhist belief that our reality can be created by our own thoughts & projections.
I have learned that meditation can truly help alter ones feelings, especially in dealing with grief & depression. The book explains in detail how various experiments, training methods, & therapies can change the adult brain. It has shown a remarkable ability to cope with unexpected changes, like blindness, recovering from a stroke, etc. The crucial changes in the brain can willfully overcome neural problems like dyslexia, etc by changing its own circuitry.
However, the book does not actually answer all of the questions it poses. I was also a bit taken back that the Dalai Lama would condone animal testing? His statment that the larger human community would benefit from the experiments felt expedient to me. Still, this is a four star book for all the data it contains.
287 of 345 people found the following review helpful
The starting point of this book is a conference held in Dharamsala India under the auspices of the Dalai Lama in which leading Western scientists inform the Dalai Lama of their discoveries. The Dalai Lama has been eager to understand western science since he was the child we met in Seven Years in Tibet. The conference being reported on here was focused on neuroscience, and both the reporter/author and the Dalai Lama, as well as the scientists, are excited at the points at which Buddhism and science agree: that training the mind can actually make changes in the mind/brain.
What makes the story rather underwhelming, however, is that despite the fact that neurology supposedly just discovered this, almost everyone else has always figured that if you train your mind intensely, it, well, it gets trained. In other words, it changes. But, Begley reminds us over and over--we didn't know it could change the physical *brain*! Well what else would it change? Is it really revolutionary news that violinists who practice for 6 hours a day for 20 years have actual differences in their actual brains, and not just in some non-physical thing called the mind? Is it really a remarkable discovery that blind people not only pay more attention to aural input, but that this means that the part of their brain that pays attention to aural input is different?
The funny thing is, the scientists, being non-dualists, assume that the brain is where all the action is, while the Buddhists, being non-dualists, assume that the subtle mind is where all the action is. And the average westerner, being a dualist, is the only one surprised that something presumably non-physical (mental attention) can change something physical (the brain.) If either the scientists or the Buddhists is correct in their pre-suppositions, then there is no news. (The mind changes the mind. No surprise. The brain changes the brain. No surprise there either, is there?)
Begley also reminds us several times a chapter that her long detailed summaries are paraphrases of what was being directed at the Dalai Lama. But apart from the reminders of what he said occasionally (Yes, we also believe that), this is basically a review of the scientific literature on neuroplasticity. I am hardly an expert on this subject, but I had already read several of these reports previously. The story of the Silver Springs monkeys who were subjected to deaffrentation (nerve-severing) of an arm in order to demonstrate that their brains would change as a result has been told before (though probably not to the Dalai Lama. It was a bit of a shock to be told that a Buddhist would suggest that this kind of cruelty is acceptable as long as it benefits humans.) And I had already read Jeffrey Schwartz's work on using the mind to overcome OCD. So that research isn't exactly cutting edge news either.
I kept waiting for the payoff. Ok, so bizarre and basically cruel experiments were done on monkeys back in the 80s. And ok, only slightly less cruel therapies were done on stroke victims (tying down their good arm to force them to use their useless arm, in order to teach new brain areas to function. What fun that must be!) And ok, Schwartz thought that using your mind to overcome OCD is less cruel than forcing people to confront their phobias (He was squeamish about forcing germ-phobic people to touch dirty toilets--as well he should be!)
But now what? The whole point of Buddhists and their mind training is that we can become better than just normal. And the conclusion is--yeah, that should work. Well monks and meditators already knew that, and they have demonstrated it to their own sastisfaction for hundreds and thousands of years. The idea that you don't *really* know this to be true until you euthanize a bunch of monkeys and see the change in their brain cells is the problem with scientism.
Do we need brain scans and autopsies to believe that musicians use their brains in ways that are different from the ways basketball players use theirs? Do we have to measure brain waves before we can accept that a monk who meditates to generate compassion is going to react differently than a guy straight out of Marine boot camp?
This book is not only not a self-help book, as the title might suggest, it is not even a description of any actual therapeutic procedures. Its purpose is to convince us that what we do with our minds affects our brains. If you need convincing, have at it with this book.
39 of 45 people found the following review helpful
on February 19, 2007
Is it really impossible to "teach an old dog new tricks"? Is it true that our brains are incapable of growth and change in adulthood? Is our happiness limited at a pre-determined "set point"?
With Train Your Mind Change Your Brain, expert science journalist Sharon Begley challenges these past truisms and outdated scientific paradigms by discussing:
-- The new science of neuroplasticity, the brain's capacity to change
-- The brain's ability to heal and renew after severe injury and debilitating illnesses such as strokes
-- How training the mind can reduce mental illness such as depression and obsessive-compulsive
-- How Buddhist practices such as meditation give us hope for training our mind to change our
brains in order to achieve higher happiness and improved emotional and social intelligence
I enjoyed the author's coverage of neuroplasticity and was amazed at how medical science has conducted government-funded brain research--through repeated and inhumane experimentation on animals, particularly monkeys and rats. Yes, animal rights activists will cringe at the author's honest portrayal of the animal subjects which contributed to this research; yet, I appreciated her unbiased candor in sharing the results of these studies.
The book is organized into 10 chapters. The writing is matter-of-fact and logical, using medical jargon and higher-level grammar not easily accessible to the average reader seeking a quick and entertaining read. The title is misleading since the reader may believe that the material discusses specific tools and techniques to train the mind for change and growth. It doesn't.
In reality, this is a well-documented summary of previous studies, experiments, and research on the mind's ability to influence brain development. The last quarter of the book actually addresses the link with Buddhism and the practice of mindfulness through meditation. It is not a "how-to" for training the mind, but rather a startling and hopeful look at harnessing the power of our minds in order to create a compassionate and healthier world.
The book is a useful resource for academics, medical students, and change consultants interested in learning more about the science of neuroplasticity and evidence to support the fact that we really can teach an old dog new tricks.
Armchair Interviews says: Sharon Begley is the science columnist for the Wall Street Journal and was formerly a senior editor at Newsweek magazine for twenty-five years.
35 of 41 people found the following review helpful
on February 4, 2007
Sharon Begley does a worthy job of opening the mysteries of neurobiology to common understanding. She invites us to see more clearly how we think and feel, to look below the surface at how we "know" what we know. Rather than approach the subject as a concern of epistemology and philosophy, she uses hard science as the basis for her writing and reflecting.
For me, the implications of her book are deeply exciting. If understanding neuroscience can help each of us with our personal transformation, if we live in a society created through our own individual daily choices and actions, then the author offers us a path toward social transformation through self transformation (which is the premise of my own studies on the power of global thinking).
Sharon Begley's book is more important than teaching us how seratonin and endorphins affect our emotions. Her book helps us realize that what happens inside our skulls directly shapes what happens on our planet.