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Where's the payoff?
, March 11, 2007
This review is from: Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves (Hardcover)
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.
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