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Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: Not what I expected

February 16, 2011

Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain
Sharon Begley
Ballantine Books 2007 282 pages.

Scene: A literary agent’s office, or maybe a publisher’s.
Characters: Sharon Begley, her agent and her publisher.

SHARON BEGLEY: So I have this great idea for a book! All about neuroplasticicity and cognitive science. See there were all these scientific experiments on monkeys where they cut nerves and trained them to touch discs and…

OTHERS IN OFFICE: Neuro-what-now?

BEGLEY: Neuroplasticity! And so my book idea combines neuroscience about the brain, with Buddhist thought and teaching! The Dalai Lama loves science and loves talking to scientists. The way you think can activate different areas of your brain if you meditate. They used PET scans on monks!

PUBLISHER: Aha! Let me get on the phone with the self-help department! Hm, let’s work on the jacket copy- cutting edge science and the ancient wisdom of Buddhism have come together to reveal that, contrary to popular belief, we have the power to literally change our brains by changing our minds!'”

BEGLEY: Wait… what? No, this is science. I’m writing about experiments! Lots and lots of experiments! Joe Average Guy can’t learn to meditate from this book, or change HIS brain. Monks learn to change their brains after years of study! People in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy work one-on-one with therapists to change their brains. This isn’t a self-help book!

PUBLISHER gets phone call, starts counting money.

Yes. I’m being reductionist and cynical about the book. There were a number of things about it that delighted me. I love the idea that the Dalai Lama meets with scientists, and asks probing, curious questions about the science of the mind. I love the idea of these literal meetings of the mind, these conferences where everyone shares ideas, and respectfully tries to figure out how Buddhist understandings and scientific findings can be reconciled. I’m also just purely delighted by the idea of the Dalai Lama grinning about scientific discovery. (When he was a little kid, he took his train set and his watch apart, just to see how they work!)

But I’m not sure I was ready for a book focused on a survey of experiments. Rats, monkeys, stats, electrodes. Yes, these are important parts of neuroscience and the study of neuroplasticity. But, a bit dry to read about all at once when you weren’t expecting to. Much more interesting: the studies about human minds- brain damage and recovery, training programs that taught stroke patients to use their affected limb, attachment studies. And, of course, the studies of Buddhist thought and brains. I do love the integration of Buddhist religious doctrine with scientific belief and doctrine. I would love to read more along these lines. I was more interested in the details of bringing Buddhist monks into the lab, focused on the finer practical points of experiments fueled by these conferences at Dharamasala.

I think I know a few people who will like this book, my dear friend the Reverend Keri Bas, interfaith minister, is at the top of the list.
But I wish it were two different books: I want more of the Buddhist side, and less of a retread of the cognitive science lab animal experiments I’ve read about in other contexts.

For every book I read in 2011, I’m donating $1 to the New York Public Library.

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