Neuroplasticity is nothing less than the ability of the brain to grow new neurons and rewire itself, which neurologists and psychologists until recently believed impossible. Sharon Begley, as science columnist for The Wall Street Journal, takes a subject that could have been dry as dust or, conversely, simplified into self-help slogans, and turns it into a riveting story. Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain is as entertaining as it is edifying. This unlikely page turner fascinates, and suggests optimism about your brain's capacities.
Begley frames her story around the 2004 Mind and Life Institute meeting, whose subject was neuroplasticity. The Mind and Life Institute was formed in 1990 as a way for the Dalai Lama, leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile and spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, to both learn more about science and integrate it into Buddhism. Every few years, prominent scientists are invited to Dharamsala, India, to make presentations to the Dalai Lama, who discusses their findings with them.
Alternating between the scientists speaking to the Dalai Lama and a more general narrative, Begley begins at the beginning and lays out clues like in a detective novel. When the pioneers of the field found indications that the brain rewires itself, the establishment rejected the ideas by refusing to publish the findings in prestigious journals and rejecting funding requests. The investigators kept going and chipped away at the status quo, adding up studies of animals and people, discovering such things as why the blind have more acute hearing and amputees still feel their missing limbs. One-by-one, the tenets of the unchanging brain were felled, until it became official: even adults can achieve physical changes in their brains.
The Dalai Lama was pleased with this discovery. Buddhism has a sophisticated system of psychology, and the discovery of neuroplasticity matches beautifully with the Buddhist view that "mind" can influence the physical brain. The one sticking point that the Buddhists and the scientists had to let lie was exactly what "mind" is. The Buddhists believe it is something separate from the physical brain; the scientists believe that "everything is brain," that is, all mental activities can be accounted for by physical firings of neurons in the brain.