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292 of 350 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Where's the payoff?, March 11, 2007
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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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Showing 1-10 of 17 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Nov 11, 2007, 9:38:51 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 11, 2007, 10:26:14 AM PST
All your points are valid yet I don't find them worth degrading the book's star rating. Sure some of the research is old but the conference that birthed this book was a conversation between scientists and monks. That's clear from the beginning. Considering the audience, reiterating research that an avid follower already knows is inevitable. It seems to me that your giving the book only three stars comes from personal frustration rather than from judging the book by its own merits and intended audience. It might be old news for you but revolutionary to most people.

Science is not just about the latest research but the body of knowledge that is built up piece by piece over years. If you follow mind research then you also know that we are prone to holding tight to our existing beliefs. A book, like this, that outlines the cumulative research in the field represents a vital step in a long term campaign to bend the consensus of the larger community. That it doesn't represent the absolute bleeding edge is inevitable. If you want that - then subscribe to the field's research journals.

Yes, we do need brain scans to believe that musicians use their brains differently than basketball players. We need all the hard evidence available. Some may take it as a matter of faith that the brain adapts its structure. I can attest from my own graduate studies in psychology that the plasticity of the brain does not represent the majority viewpoint. Think of all the money spent on psychopharmesutical research. Think billions. Now consider how the vested interests of the drug companies and the foundations they give money to might be threatened by the idea that mental exercise might vastly decrease or sometimes eliminate the need for drugs. Think of how the adversising by drug companies shapes the majority worldview.

Now, is there a place for a well written book that provides a background for the field of neuroplasticity? Is it worth more than three stars?

Posted on Dec 4, 2007, 11:49:12 AM PST
i love norge says:
Evelyn, lighten up!

Posted on Dec 14, 2007, 12:19:57 PM PST
drjlj says:
With all due respect, Uyemura is apparently more interested in displaying what she believes to be her own superiorior intelligence rather than reporting objectively on her subject. Unfortunately for journalism, this is too common and does not provide a service to a potential reader. This book is an important bridge between science and the interested lay reader.
Jerry L. Jacobson, Ph.D.

Posted on Dec 29, 2007, 2:44:14 PM PST
You have excellent points! But we here in the West are NOT entirely enlightened on how to harness our own minds. If we were, when we wouldnt have nearly the issues of greed, addiction (be it drug, alchohol, sex...), and power with which we seemed to be plagued. Many who are involved in high level, competitive sports or musical performance, or scientific endeavors have a small understanding to what you are inferring. However, this "new" scientific discovery is much better proof for us "physical science" minded Westerners.... and will likely be the spark to ignite new thinking over here.


Posted on May 15, 2008, 9:15:58 AM PDT
She says:
Do we really need an 8 paragraph opus review that repeats the same point again and again in different ways?

Posted on Jun 8, 2008, 9:32:28 PM PDT
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

Posted on Jun 21, 2008, 10:30:27 AM PDT
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 5, 2009, 8:46:38 PM PST
Well I am sure a late comer to these postings. Granted, Michael McKee, "Where's the payoff?, March 11, 2007
By Evelyn Uyemura" was a bit over-the-top with her review, and she may have thought that she was writing for the New York Times, however, I have to admit that I personally took exception to YOUR portrayal of me and others like me in your opening paragraph... "Considering the audience, reiterating research that an avid follower already knows is inevitable." I am guessing that you were attempting to give credit to us all for having the knowledge with which she imparting on us. Your condesending word choice painted a different picture.

All of that aside, the review did what I needed it to do - it indicated that it is not the resource that I need for my purpose. I have a 13 year old bipolar son. He has been on mood stabilizers and antipsychotic meds (among others) since he was four years old. I know that this sounds horrible. I know. We lived and are living it. I changed his diet and did everything under the sun for 2 years before resorting to medication. He was ejected from daycare and attacked other children. His mood would change as if someone flipped a light switch. At any rate, two years ago, for health reasons I implored his doctors to wean him form the meds, hoping that his brain chemistry had perhaps matured, or changed, and he could finally be without medication. It was not to be so. Without all of the tragic details, a police fficer witnessed him assaulting me and took him off to a crisis center. From there he ended up in a childrens' psych hospital. This was the continuation of two unspeakable years off of medication. He wasn't in the hospital for 2 years (only 10 days that times, 10 of the longest days of my life), but we finally were forced to put him back on lithium to have him released to our custudy, or lose custody!

Two years and 70 (Seventy) pounds later, here I am, trying to find any alternative to keeping my poor son on medication. He is stable, but he can't go through life with this weight problem hanging around his neck like a death sentence. The poor kid has a heart of gold, but the world is a mean place when you are 50 pounds overweight! If I can learn this method of retraining your brain and then teach it to him, what a miracle it would be. So everyone out there, stop critiquing each other, review the material at hand, and let's help each other!

desperate mom of Alex

Posted on Mar 3, 2009, 6:07:40 AM PST
S. Rindge says:
I am most appreciative of your comments. A friend had mentioned she was thinking of purchasing the book to assist in ongoing fear based thoughts she has. I will suggest that she not purchase this book.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 6, 2009, 2:50:29 PM PDT
J. Wang says:
I honestly don't know if this would help, but have you heard of Daniel Amen's books? I saw his work on PBS and it might offer some help.
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