March 16, 2021

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How a new science reveals our
extraordinary potential to transform ourselves

by Sharon Begley
Ballantine Books, 2007
(i-viii, 283 pages)

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note = Numbers in parentheses refer to pages
    Quote = "Neuroplasticity occurs only when the mind is in a particular mental state, one marked by attention and focus. The mind matters. The question was, what power does it have over the brain?” by the author of this book, Sharon Begley (130)

    note = Essential Quotes for Context from Chapter One [See excerpt at end of this file] =

    [1] As Alan Wallace puts it, "Buddhism is not a religion; it is a philosophy. It is not some eastern version of Christianity or Judaism. Buddhism does not culminate in faith, as the Abrahamic traditions do. It culminates in insight." (from Excerpt)

    [2] "There are many strong parallels between the neuroscientific findings and the Buddhist narrative," says Francisca Cho, a Buddhist scholar at George Washington University. "Buddhism's is a story of how we are in pain and suffering and how we have the power to change that. The scientific findings about neuroplasticity parallel the Buddhist narrative of enlightenment because they show that, although we have deeply ingrained ways of thinking and although the brain comes with some hardwiring, we also have the possibility of changing. The idea that we are constantly changing means there is no intrinsic nature to the self or the mind, which is what Buddhism teaches. Instead, both self and mind are extremely plastic. Our activities inform who we are; as we act, so we shall become. We are products of the past, but because of our inherently empty nature, we always have the opportunity to reshape ourselves." (from Excerpt)

    [3] The discovery that mere thought can alter the very stuff of the brain is another natural point of connection between the science of neuroplasticity and Buddhism. Buddhism has taught for twenty-five hundred years that the mind is an independent force that can be harnessed by will and attention to bring about physical change. "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." (from Excerpt)

    [4] 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 mindset." (from Excerpt)

    [5] 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." (from Excerpt)
FORWORD by The Dalai Lama (vii-viii)

PREFACE (xi-xiii)


1) CAN WE CHANGE? — Challenging the dogma of the hardwired brain (3-25)

note = Most of this Chapter One is excerpted at end of this outline:
    [1] Hardwired dogma (5-11)

    2] Buddhism and science (11-15)

    [3] The Mind and Life Institute (19-25)
2) THE ENCHANTED LOOM — The discovery of neuroplasticity (26-48)

note = "When it came to neuroplasticity and the question of whether the adult brain can undergo dramatic change, scientists got it right before they got it wrong. The second half of the 19th century had seen a whirlwind of activity in brain mapping that, for sheer cartographic hubris, rivaled the 15th century expeditions to map the Earth. Scientists were determined to show that specific regions of the convoluted cortex performed different functions." (26)

3) NEW NEURONS FOR OLD BRAINS — Neurogenesis (49-72)
    [1] A family legacy (50-51)

    [2] Bird brains (51-56)

    [3] Enriched environments (56-59)

    [4] An animal-rights interlude (59-60)

    [5] Human neurogenesis (60-65)

    [6] Run! [65-69]

    [7] Neurogenesis and depression (69-71)

    [8] The changing self (71-72)
note = "As Gage told them, ‘The environment and our experiences change our brain, so who you are as a person changes by virtue of the environment you live in and the experiences you have.' Richie Davidson called that discovery point of intersection with Buddhism.' For science, as well as for ordinary people steeped in the traditions of Western religion and its notions of a soul and a self, the existence of neurogenesis — and the implication that the brain is both changeable and constantly renewed — poses a challenge. ‘How can we reconcile the sense of continuity or immutability and a relatively fixed notion of self with the notion that the brain is continuously turning over, cells dying, cells being born?' asked Davidson." (71)

note = "Buddhism has no such trouble. 'The question of how the self can remain intact despite neuroplasticity and neurogenesis is not a problem so far as Buddhism is concerned because of the idea of no self,' said Thupten Jinpa. The Buddhist concept of self is not simple. Some scholars say that the self is simply the continuum of mental consciousness. 'But even if you take that as the basis of designation of the self, that stream of mental consciousness also is in a constant state of flux,' said Alan Wallace. ‘So there is nothing stable there. Or in another school of Buddhist philosophy, they speak of the Allah Vzjana, the substrate or foundational consciousness. But even if you take that as the basis of the self, that, too, is in a constant state of flux. No matter what basis you have for the self, they are all in a state of flux. There is simply no basis at all that is static and therefore no possibility of the self as being static and immutable.' In stark contrast to the Judeo-Christian tradition, Buddhism therefore denies the existence of a fixed, unchanging, personal self or soul that imbues a living being for life and beyond." (71)

note = "In rejecting the concept of adman, the self was called in the Indian traditions of two thousand years ago, the Buddha emphasized the changeability of all beings and the sheer impossibility of defining, much less finding. a timeless and unchanging self. A Buddhist work called Questions of King Milinda, written around the second or 1st century BCE, offers an analogy. In this text, a monk named Nagasena compares humans to chariots, which are made of many elements — wheels and chassis and axle and seat and walls. But none of these elements can be said to embody the essence of the chariot. Similarly, a person can be viewed as an amalgam of five elements: the physical body, feeling or sensations, ideation or mental activity, mental formations or perceptions, and consciousness." (71-72)

note = "The five aggregates ‘are in a constant state of flux, never, never static even for a moment, and the self is simply imputed upon the basis of these psycho-physical aggregates,' Wallace pointed out. ‘There is no possibility, then, of the self being any less in a state of flux than that upon which it is imputed. The notion that somehow the self will be less mutable is completely an illusion.'" (72)

"Although consciousness comes closest to the idea of a self or soul, in fact it undergoes subtle shifts as each new sensation arrives and as each new thought is born and becomes a part of that consciousness. The Buddha believed that relinquishing the notion of self would free people from the attachments that lead to craving and thus suffering and that therefore prevent them from transcending the cause of suffering. The recognition of 'non-self,' in contrast, was a step toward an end to personal suffering." (72)

"Gage had demolished the dogma that the human brain leaves the womb with all the neurons it is ever going to have and that neurogenesis is a gift we left behind deep in the evolutionary past. The adult brain can add neurons to a structure crucial for memory and for retaining the sense of wonder, the sense that the world is bursting with novelty and surprise. It is said that half of what medical schools teach is wrong; the hard part is figuring out which half. With the discovery of human neurogenesis, the assertion that we are born with all the neurons we will ever have and that it is all downhill from there was finally outed as an assumption as gloomy as it is wrong. But the birth of new neurons is only one foundation for neuroplasticity." (72)

4) A CHILD SHALL LEAD THEM — The neuroplasticity of young brains (73-109)

5) FOOTPRINTS ON THE BRAIN — Sensory experience reshapes adult brains (110-130)


note = "Even as he kept refining constraint-induced movement therapy for stroke patients, Edward Taub had broader questions about the neuroplasticity of the adult brain. In the spring of 1995, he and his wife were visiting Germany to meet with some of his scientific collaborators. At dinner one night with Thomas Elbert of the University of Konstanz, Taub asked, is there any normal human activity in which you get a big increase in the use of one hand and not the other hand? Taub's wife, Mildred Allen, a lyric soprano who had been a leading singer at the Santa Fe Opera, piped up, ‘Oh, that is easy: the left hand of string players.' When a right-handed musician plays the violin, the four fingers of the left hand continuously dance across the strings, which is why they are called the fingering digits. The left thumb grasps the neck of the violin, undergoing only small shifts of position. The fingers of the right, or bowing, hand, make almost no true movements. If any part of the body was demanding more than its fair share of cortical space, then, it was the four digits of the fingering hand." "To see if this were so, Taub and his colleagues recruited six violinists, two cellists, and one guitarist, each of whom had played his or her instrument for seven to seventeen years. For comparison, they enlisted six non-musicians. Each volunteer sat still while a device applied light pressure to their fingers; it was sort of a static version of the fluttering-bird-wing device on which Michael Merzenich had trained monkeys. A magneto-encephalograph recorded neuronal activity in the somatosensory cortex. The spatial extent of the activity when, say, the left index finger was stimulated would indicate how much cortical ‘real estate' [tissue] had been zoned to receive feelings from that finger. There was no difference between the string players and the non-musicians in how much space the brain allotted to registering feelings from the digits of the right hand. But there was a substantial difference in how much brain space was zoned for the fingering digits, the scientists reported." (126)

note = "The cortical space devoted to registering feelings from the digits of the left :1nd in string players was much greater than that in the nonplaying controls. The difference was greatest in those who took up the instrument before the age of twelve. The study attracted a great deal of media attention, and to Taub's dismay, almost all of the reporters emphasized that last finding, that brains exposed very early to the demands of playing the violin undergo more extensive alterations than brains exposed later. Taub considered that unsurprising and almost trivial. The point, he said, was that the cortical area devoted to the fingering digits had expanded even in people who did not begin playing until they were adults. ‘Everybody knew' that the brain of a child is plastic, Taub said, so the finding that children's brains change when they repeatedly use their fingers to coax the right note from an instrument was to be expected. The real news, he said, was that ‘even if you take up the violin at forty [years of age], you still get use-dependent cortical reorganization." (127)

"To a stickler, of course, there was an equally possible conclusion to be drawn: that people who were born with more cortical space given to what would be the fingering digits in a string player had a natural head start, as it were, and were therefore more likely to gravitate toward playing a violin, 31' at least more likely to stick with it, than someone whose brain did not zone extra space for these fingers. But when taken in conjunction with what Merzenich had found in monkeys, that extra sensory stimulation expands the brain region that specializes in processing this tactile input; Taub‘s interpretation makes sense: the more you use fingers in a way that puts a premium on sensitivity, as when you play a violin, the more the brain responds by reallocating precious cortical space. That reallocation occurs even in musicians who take up the instrument after childhood, showing that use-dependent reorganization is not confined to the young brain. Regardless of when the musicians start, the more years of training, the larger the representation." (127)


note = "With the popularity of brain imaging, neural cartographers have identified not only the regions responsible for general functions such as seeing or hearing or feeling, but for almost ridiculously specific jobs, such as recognizing faces, playing Tetris, generating verbs, solving math problems, creating metaphors." (127-128)

"With such specificity, you would think the brain would be pretty resistant to rezoning, But it isn't. Dramatic changes can still occur when the input to the cortex changes drastically. Taub's violin players showed such ‘use-dependent reorganization,' as did Ramachandran's amputees. In the first case, an increase in sensory input to the fingers of the left hand, which get a tremendous workout dancing up and down the strings, causes the brain region that registers the sense of touch to those fingers to expand. In the second case, a decrease in sensory input — indeed, an elimination of it, in the case of amputation — lets the hand and arm areas of the somatosensory cortex be invaded by the adjacent face areas." (128)

"Although the first discoveries of the neuroplasticity of the adult brain came in studies of people who had lost a limb or suffered a stroke, there was no reason to think that the motor cortex or the somatosensory cortex — the regions of the brain that change in these cases — is unique in its malleability. As Taub was fond of saying, ‘It is all just neural tissue.' Given the discoveries about the plasticity of the visual cortex, as shown by studies of blind people in which this ‘vision' region hears or feels or processes language, it made sense to see whether it, too, could be reshaped in a way that would help patients." (128)

"In macular degeneration, the center of the retina — the fovea — becomes seriously impaired, leaving patients with no central vision. They have to rely exclusively on peripheral vision, with the result that reading, driving, and even recognizing people become difficult or impossible. At the cellular level, the damage to the fovea means that no electrical signals travel from the central part of the retina to the visual cortex." (128)

note = "The visual cortex, like the somatosensory cortex and the motor cortex. is not one big undifferentiated blob but rather an impeccably zoned neighborhood. It ‘contains a detailed map of visual space,' says Chris Baker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who presented the work to the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in 2004. Neighboring spots in the visual cortex respond to neighboring spots on the retina. Put another way, signals traveling from two specific spots on the retina reach spots in the visual cortex that mirror precisely their spatial relationship back where they came from. With the fovea out of commission, the region of the visual cortex that once received signals for central vision is like a quiet, empty lot devoid of activity." (128-129)

"Other regions of the visual cortex seem to consider that an invitation. Like developers spying an underused parcel of land, they swoop in. Using fMRl to measure activity in the visual cortex, scientists had two volunteers with macular degeneration look at photos of faces, objects, and scenes in their peripheral vision and then their central vision. The damage to their fovea kept them from seeing anything straight-on, so when a photo was directly in front of them, they turned their heads to position it in their peripheral vision. ‘We found that the part of the brain that would only respond to central visual information in people with normal vision was now responding to peripheral visual information,' says Baker: the part of the brain that used to handle signals from the fovea was now handling those from the peripheral vision. It had not remained an empty, useless lot rut had been taken over by the next-door neighbors and rezoned for peripheral vision. This had occurred in people well into their adulthood. ‘The visual brain is modifiable even late in life,' says Baker. ‘The fact that brain reorganization occurs in people with macular degeneration suggests that we may be able to develop better strategies for rehabilitation of people suffering from this devastating disease.'" (129)

note = "It is important to emphasize what neuroplasticity is not: a glam name for the cellular changes that underlie the formation of memory and hence learning. New synapses, connections between one neuron and another, are the physical manifestation of memories. In this sense, the brain undergoes continuous physical change. But neuroplasticity goes beyond that. It produces wholesale changes in the job functions of particular areas of the brain. Cortical real estate that used to serve one purpose is reassigned and begins to do another. The brain remakes itself throughout life, in response to outside stimuli — to its environment and to experience. As Taub's violin players and stroke patients, and Pascual-Leone's Braille readers, and Ramachandran's amputees showed so dramatically, many brain systems retain well into adulthood their ability to respond to altered sensory inputs and reorganize themselves accordingly. ‘Plasticity is an intrinsic property of the human brain,' says Pascual-Leone, Whose work on blind Braille readers and blindfolded volunteers did so much to show that plasticity enables the visual cortex to soar far beyond its nominal destiny. ‘The potential of the adult brain to reprogram itself might be much greater than has previously been assumed,' he and his colleagues concluded in 2005." (129-130)

note = "As he sees it, neuroplasticity is evolution's way of letting the brain break the bonds ‘of its own genome,' escaping the destiny that usually causes one region to process visual input and another to process auditory input, one stretch of the somatosensory cortex to process feelings from the right index finger and another to process input from the thumb. Genes set up all that. But genes cannot know what demands, challenges, losses, and blows the brain will encounter, any more than parents can know what slings and are rows the child they send out into the world will meet. Rather than set strict rules of behavior, wise parents teach their children to respond to each situation that presents itself adapting their behavior to the challenges the meet. So, too, has nature equipped the human brain, endowing it with the flexibility to adapt to the environment it encounters, the experiences it has, the damage it suffers, the demands its owner makes of it. The brain is neither immutable nor static but is instead continuously remodeled by the lives we lead." (130)

"But there is a catch. These changes occur only when the person (or the monkey) is paying attention to the input that causes them. As we shall see, if I ran the fingers of your left hand over the strings of a violin while you were sleeping, and did it again and again, the region of the somatosensory cortex that registers sensations from these fingers would not expand. This was one hint, seen even in Michael Merzenich's early monkey experiments, that mental activity affects, and perhaps even enables, neuroplasticity. That is, neuroplasticity occurs only when the mind is in a particular mental state, one marked by attention and focus. The mind matters. The question was, what power does it have over the brain?" (130)

6) MIND OVER MATTER — Mental activity changes the brain (131-162)

7) NATURE THROUGH NURTURE — Turning on genes in the brain (161-182)

8) BLAMING MOM? — Rewired for compassion (183-211)

9) TRANSFORMING THE EMOTIONAL MIND — Challenging the happiness "set point" (212-242)

10) NOW WHAT? (243-254)


note = In speeches around the world, the Dalai Lama has argued that humankind needs a new basis for a modern ethics, one that appeals to the billions of people who adhere to different religions or to no religion, one that supports basic values such as personal responsibility, altruism, and compassion. Yet a scientifically literate person indeed, anyone who gives even a cursory glance at newspaper science stories may well react to that message with some skepticism. For modern science seems to be offering a radically different view of human responsibility.

Critics call this view neurogenetic determinism. It is the belief, ascendant from the early 1990s and propelled by the mystique of modern genetics, that ascribes inescapable causal power to the genes one inherits from one’s parents. Hardly a month went by in that decade without the announcement of another discovery of a gene “for” this or that behavior or mental illness, from risk taking to loss of appetite control, from violence to neuroticism as well as discoveries linking a deficit of one neurotransmitter with depression and of imbalances in another with addiction. Each connection that neuroscientists forged between a neurochemical and a behavior. and that geneticists made between a gene and a behavior, dealt another blow to the notion of an efficacious will. The discoveries paint an image of individuals as automatons, slaves to their genes or their neurotransmitters, and with no more free will than a child’s radio-controlled car. “My genes (or my neurotransmitters) made me do it” might as well be the current mantra. Invoking “a failure of willpower" to explain overeating or addiction or anger began to seem as outdated and discredited as applying leeches to the sick. (252)

note = “Neurogenetic determinism argues that there is a direct causal relationship between gene and behavior,” neurobiologist Steven Rose of the Open University explains. “A woman is depressed because she has genes ‘for’ depression. There is violence on the streets because people have ‘violent’ or ‘criminal’ genes; people get drunk because they have genes ‘for’ alcoholism.” (252)

"The validity of this view is more than an esoteric argument raging within the academy. If the source of our happiness and our despair, of our compassion and our cruelty, lies in the twisting strands of our DNA, then it is “to pharmacology and molecular engineering that we should turn for solutions,” Rose concludes. And if will is an illusion, then what is the basis for personal responsibility? If we are truly slaves to our neurotransmitters and to the neural circuits laid down in childhood by our genes, then the concept of personal responsibility becomes specious." (252-253)

"I hope that this book has shown that that if is empty. Instead, each step in that causal chain is far from deterministic. Because neuroplasticity and the power of mind and mental training effect changes in the very structure and function of our brain, free will and moral responsibility become meaningful in a way that they have not been for some time in the scientific West. The genes carried by Michael Meaney’s baby rats are altered by the behavior of the mother rat who raises them, with the result that the babies develop a strikingly different suite of behaviors and “personalities” (or the rat version thereof). So much for genes determining supposedly inborn traits such as shyness and timidity. The visual cortex in the blind children trooping into Helen Nelle’s lab does not see but, instead, hears; so much for genes being the driving forces behind the structure and function of the developing brain." (252-253)

note = Something as slight as a reminder of someone who once loved and cared for them is enough to trigger a circuit, presumably involving both memory and emotion, so that the people Phil Shaver studied do not merely feel compassion but act on it to help a suffering person. Neuroplasticity and the ability of the brain to change as a result of mental training step between genes and behavior like a hero in front of a speeding locomotive. If the brain can change, then genes “for” this or that behavior are much less deterministic. The ability of thought and attention to physically alter the brain echoes one of Buddhist's more remarkable hypotheses: that will is a real, physical force that can change the brain. Perhaps one of the most provocative implications of neuroplasticity and the power of mental training to alter the circuits of the brain is that it undermines neurogenetic determinism. (253)

note = The Buddhist understanding of volition is quite different from the notion that humans are tethered to their genes or to hardwired neural circuitry. In Buddhist philosophy, one’s choice is not determined by anything in the physical, material world, including the state of one's neurotransmitters or genes (not that traditional Buddhism had any inkling that brain chemicals or DNA even existed). Instead, volition arises from such ineffable qualities as the state of one’s mind and the quality of one’s attention. The last of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths also invokes the power of mind, arguing that although life is suffering, and suffering arises from cravings and desires, there is a way out of suffering: through mental training and, specifically, the sustained practice of meditation. (253-254)

note = The conscious voluntary act of thinking about one’s thoughts ["metacognition"] in a different way changes the very brain circuits that do that thinking, as studies of how psychotherapy changes the brains of people with depression show. Such willfully induced brain changes require focus, training, and effort, but a growing number of studies using neuroirnaging show how real those changes are. They come from within. As the discoveries of neuroplasticity, and this self-directed neuroplasticity, trickle down to clinics and schools and plain old living rooms, the ability to willfully change the brain will become a central part of our lives --- and of our understanding of what it means to be human. (254)

APPENDIX (255-261)

NOTES (263-275)

INDEX (277-283)

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AUTHOR NOTES = Sharon Begley is the senior science writer at ST A T, the life sciences publication of The Boston Globe . Previously she was the senior health and science correspondent at Reuters, the science editor and science columnist at Newsweek, and the science columnist at The Wall Street Journal . She is the author of Can't Just Stop: An Investigation of Compulsions and Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain and the co-author of The Emotional Life of Your Brain (with Richard J. Davidson) and The Mind and the Brain (with Jeffrey M. Schwartz).

SUMMARY = In this fascinating and far-reaching book, Newsweek science writer Sharon Begley reports on how 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.

BOOK DESCRIPTION = Science writer, Sharon Begley, reveals that the brain is capable of altering its structure and function, and even of generating new neurons, a power we retain well into old age. Recent pioneering experiments in neuroplasticity — the ability of the brain to change in response to experience — demonstrate that the brain can adapt, heal, renew itself after trauma, compensate for disabilities, rewire itself to overcome dyslexia, and break cycles of depression and OCD. And as scientists are learning from studies performed on Buddhist monks, it is not only the outside world that can change the brain, so can the mind and, in particular, focused attention through the classic Buddhist practice of mindfulness.

With her gift for making science accessible, meaningful, and compelling, Begley illuminates a profound shift in our understanding of how the brain and the mind interact and takes us to the leading edge of a revolution in what it means to be human.

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PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY REVIEW = The Dalai Lama, Buddhist monks and some of the world's leading neuroscientists all gather once a year at a conference on the latest discoveries in neuroplasticity: the study of how the human brain can change itself. (This is the second book the subject due out in March, along with Norman Doidge's The Brain That Changes Itself). This remarkable conference serves as the center of Wall Street Journal science columnist Begley's account of neuroplasticity. Until recently, the reigning theory was that neurons in the brain didn't regenerate. Begley walks readers through the seminal experiments showing that in fact new neurons are created in the brain every day, even in people in their 70s. With frequent tangents into Buddhist philosophy, Begley surveys current knowledge of neuroplasticity. Most interesting is a series of experiments with Buddhist adepts who have spent over 10,000 hours meditating. What these experiments show is tantalizing: it might be possible to train the brain to be better at feeling certain emotions, such as compassion. No less interesting are the hurdles the scientists face in recruiting participants; yogis replied that if these scientists wanted to understand meditation, they should meditate. Despite the title, the book holds no neuroplasticity tips, but it is a fascinating exploration of the ways the mind can change the brain.

LIBRARY JOURNAL REVIEW = Wall Street Journal science columnist Begley reports on a meeting on neuroplasticity held by the Mind and Life Institute, an organization under the patronage of the Dalai Lama that encourages dialog between Buddhism and modern science. Neuroplasticity is the theory that brain cells and structures can be physically changed by life experiences during adulthood. While the book comes with introductions by heavy hitters — a foreword by the Dalai Lama and a preface by Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence) — most general readers will be left wondering what the fuss is all about. Neuroscientists may have been envisioning the adult brain as incapable of change, but this belief has never been as firmly lodged in the general consciousness. Begley does a workmanlike reporting job though not one engaging enough to convince the average reader to stick with this book. For academic and large public libraries. – Mary Ann Hughes, Neill P.L., Pullman, WA.

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[1] There are two great things about this book. One is that it shows us how nothing about our brains is set in stone. The other is that it is written by Sharon Begley, one of the best science writers around. Begley is superb at framing the latest facts within the larger context of the field... This is a terrific book. – Robert M. Sapolsky, author of Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers.

[2] Excellent... elegant and lucid prose... an open mind here will be rewarded. – Discover magazine.

[3] A strong dose of hope along with a strong does of science and Buddhist thought. -- The San Diego Union-Tribune.

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The northern Indian district of Dharamsala is composed of two towns, lower Dharamsala and upper. The mist-veiled peaks of the Dhauladhar ("white ridge") range hug the towns like the bolster on a giant's bed, while the Kangra Valley, described by a British colonial official as "a picture of rural loveliness and repose," stretches into the distance. Upper Dharamsala is also known as McLeod Ganj. Founded as a hill station in the nineteenth century during the days of British colonial rule, the bustling hamlet (named after Britain's lieutenant governor of Punjab at the time, David McLeod) is built on a ridge, where hiking the steep dirt path from one guesthouse to another requires the sure-footedness of a goat and astute enough planning that you don't make the ankle-turning trek after dark and risk tumbling into a ravine.

Cows amble through intersections where street peddlers squat behind cloths piled with vegetables and grains, and taxis play a game of chicken with oncoming traffic, seeing who will lose his manhood first by edging his car out of the single lane of the town's only real thoroughfare. The road curves past beggars and holy men who wear little but a loincloth and look as if they have not eaten since last week, yet whose many woes are neatly listed on a computer printout that they hopefully thrust at any passerby who slows even half a pace. Barefoot children dart out of nowhere at the sight of a Westerner and plead, "Please, madam, hungry baby, hungry baby," pointing vaguely toward the open-air stalls that line the road.

From the flagstoned terrace of Chonor House, one of the guesthouses, all of Dharamsala spreads out before you. As soon as the sun is up, the maroon-robed monks are scurrying to prayers and the holy men crouched in back alleys are chanting om mani padme hum ("hail to jewel in the lotus"). Prayer scarves fluttering from boughs carry the Tibetan words May all sentient beings be happy and free from suffering. The prayers are supposed to be carried by the wind, and when you see them, you think, Wherever the wind blows, may those they touch find freedom from their pain.

Although lower Dharamsala is inhabited mostly by Indians, residents of McLeod Ganj are almost all Tibetan (with a sprinkling of Western expatriates and spiritual tourists), refugees who followed Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, into exile. Many of those remaining in Tibet, unable to flee themselves, have their toddlers and even infants smuggled across the border to Dharamsala, where they are cared for and educated at the Tibetan Children's Village ten minutes above the town. For the parents, the price of ensuring that their children are educated in Tibetan culture and history, thus keeping their nation's traditions and identity from being erased by the Chinese occupation, is never seeing their sons and daughters again.

McLeod Ganj has been the Dalai Lama's home in exile and the headquarters of the Tibetan government in exile since 1959, when he escaped ahead of Chinese Communist troops, which had invaded Tibet eight years earlier. His compound, just off the main intersection where buses turn around and taxis wait for fares, is protected around the clock by Indian troops toting machine guns. The entrance is a tiny hut whose physical presence is as humble as the guards are thorough. From its anteroom, large enough for only a small sofa, dog-eared publications in a wooden rack, and a small coffee table, you pass through a door into the security room, where you place everything you want to bring in (bags, notebooks, cameras, tape recorders) on the X-ray belt before entering a closet-size booth, curtained at both ends, for the requisite pat-down by Tibetan guards.

Once cleared, you amble up an inclined asphalt path that winds past more Indian security guards draped with submachine guns and lounging in the shade. The sprawling grounds are forested with pines and rhododendrons; ceramic pots spilling purple bougainvillea and saffron marigolds surround the widely spaced buildings. The first structure to your right is a one-story building that houses the Dalai Lama's audience chamber, also guarded by an Indian soldier with an automatic weapon. Just beyond is the Tibetan library and archives, and farther up the hill, the Dalai Lama's two-story private compound, where he sleeps, meditates, and takes most of his meals. The large structure to the left is the old palace where the Dalai Lama lived before his current residence was built. Mostly used for ordinations, for the next five days its large main room will be the setting for an extraordinary meeting. Brought together by the Mind and Life Institute in October 2004, leading scholars from both the Buddhist and the Western scientific traditions will grapple with a question that has consumed philosophers and scientists for centuries: does the brain have the ability to change, and what is the power of the mind to change it?


Just a few years before, neuroscientists would not even have been part of this conversation, for textbooks, science courses, and cutting-edge research papers all hewed to the same line, as they had for almost as long as there had been a science of the brain.

No less a personage than William James, the father of experimental psychology in the United States, first introduced the word plasticity to the science of the brain, positing in 1890 that "organic matter, especially nervous tissue, seems endowed with a very extraordinary degree of plasticity." By that, he meant "a structure weak enough to yield to an influence." But James was "only" a psychologist, not a neurologist (there was no such thing as a neuroscientist a century ago), and his speculation went nowhere. Much more influential was the view expressed succinctly in 1913 by Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the great Spanish neuroanatomist who had won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine seven years earlier. Near the conclusion of his treatise on the nervous system, he declared, "In the adult centers the nerve paths are something fixed, ended and immutable." His gloomy assessment that the circuits of the living brain are unchanging, its structures and organization almost as static and stationary as a deathly white cadaver brain floating in a vat of formaldehyde, remained the prevailing dogma in neuroscience for almost a century. The textbook wisdom held that the adult brain is hardwired, fixed in form and function, so that by the time we reach adulthood, we are pretty much stuck with what we have.

Conventional wisdom in neuroscience held that the adult mammalian brain is fixed in two respects: no new neurons are born in it, and the functions of the structures that make it up are immutable, so that if genes and development dictate that this cluster of neurons will process signals from the eye, and this cluster will move the fingers of the right hand, then by god they'll do that and nothing else come hell or high water. There was good reason why all those extravagantly illustrated brain books show the function, size, and location of the brain's structures in permanent ink. 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 neurodegenerative diseases."

That is not to say that scientists failed to recognize that the brain must undergo some changes throughout life. After all, since the brain is the organ of behavior and the repository of learning and memory, when we acquire new knowledge or master a new skill or file away the remembrance of things past, the brain changes in some real, physical way to make that happen. Indeed, researchers have known for decades that learning and memory find their physiological expression in the formation of new synapses (points of connection between neurons) and the strengthening of existing ones; in 2000, the wise men of Stockholm even awarded a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of the molecular underpinnings of memory.

But the changes underlying learning and memory are of the retail variety --- strengthening a few synapses here and there or sprouting a few extra dendrites so neurons can talk to more of their neighbors, like a household getting an extra phone line. Wholesale changes, such as expanding a region that is in charge of a particular mental function or altering the wiring that connects one region to another, were deemed impossible.

Also impossible was for the basic layout of the brain to deviate one iota from the authoritative diagrams in anatomy textbooks: the visual cortex in the back was hardwired to handle the sense of sight, the somatosensory cortex curving along the top of the brain was hardwired to process tactile sensations, the motor cortex was hardwired to devote a precise amount of neural real estate to each muscle, and the auditory cortex was hardwired to field transmissions from the ears. Enshrined from clinical practice to scholarly monographs, this principle held that in contrast to the ability of the developing brain to change in significant ways, the adult brain is fixed, immutable. It has lost the capacity called neuroplasticity, the ability to change its structures and functions in a fundamental way.

To some extent, the dogma was understandable. For one thing, the human brain is made up of so many neurons and so many connections--an estimated 100 billion neurons making a total of some 100 trillion connections--that changing it even slightly looked like a risky undertaking, on a par with opening up the hard drive of a supercomputer and tinkering with a circuit or two on the motherboard. Surely that was not the sort of thing nature would permit and, in fact, something she might take steps to prevent. But there was a subtler issue. The brain contains the physical embodiment of personality and knowledge, character and emotions, memories and beliefs. Even allowing for the acquisition of knowledge and memories over a lifetime, and for the maturation of personality and character, it did not seem reasonable that the brain could or would change in any significant way. 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."

The doctrine of the unchanging human brain has had profound ramifications, none of them very optimistic. It led neurologists to assume that rehabilitation for adults who had suffered brain damage from a stroke was almost certainly a waste of time. It suggested that trying to alter the pathological brain wiring that underlies psychiatric diseases, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and depression, was a fool's errand. And it implied that other brain-based fixities, such as the happiness "set point" to which a person returns after the deepest tragedy or the greatest joy, are as unalterable as Earth's orbit.

But the dogma is wrong. In the last years of the 20th 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.

The revolution in our understanding of the brain's capacity to change well into adulthood does not end with the fact that the brain can and does change. Equally revolutionary is the discovery of how the brain changes. The actions we take can literally expand or contract different regions of the brain, pour more juice into quiet circuits and damp down activity in buzzing ones. The brain devotes more cortical real estate to functions that its owner uses more frequently and shrinks the space devoted to activities rarely performed. That is why the brains of violinists devote more space to the region that controls the digits of the fingering hand. In response to the actions and experiences of its owner, a brain forges stronger connections in circuits that underlie one behavior or thought and weakens the connections in others. Most of this happens because of what we do and what we experience of the outside world. In this sense, the very structure of our brain --- the relative size of different regions, the strength of connections between one area and another --- reflects the lives we have led. Like sand on a beach, the brain bears the footprints of the decisions we have made, the skills we have learned, the actions we have taken. But there are also hints that mind-sculpting can occur with no input from the outside world. That is, the brain can change as a result of the thoughts we have thought.

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.

It is this aspect of neuroplasticity --- research showing that the answer to the question of whether we can change is an emphatic yes --- that brought five scientists to Dharamsala this autumn week. Since 1987, the Dalai Lama had opened his home once a year to weeklong "dialogues" with a handpicked group of scientists, to discuss dreams or emotions, consciousness or genetics or quantum physics. The format is simple. Each morning, one of the five invited scientists sits in an armchair beside the Dalai Lama at the front of the room used for ordinations and describes his or her work to him and the assembled guests --- in 2004, a couple of dozen monks and monastery students, as well as scientists who had participated in previous dialogues. It is nothing like the formal papers scientists are accustomed to presenting at research conferences, where they barrel through their findings to a rapt (they hope) audience. Instead, the Dalai Lama interrupts whenever he needs a clarification, whether for a point of translation (the scientists speak in English, which the Dalai Lama understands well, but a casually thrown-off scientific term such as hippocampus or BRDU will prompt a hurried tête-à-tête with one of his interpreters) or because one of the scientific findings reminds him of a point of Buddhist philosophy. The morning is punctuated by a tea break, during which the Dalai Lama either stays in the room for informal conversation with the scientists or takes a breather, and everyone else decamps to a huge adjacent room for tea and cookies. In the afternoon, the Dalai Lama and the Buddhist scholars he has invited respond to what the scientist has presented that morning, explaining what Buddhism teaches about the topic or suggesting further experiments to which Buddhist contemplatives might lend their minds and brains.

This time, the scientists were those working at the frontiers of neuroplasticity. Fred Gage, of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, works with laboratory animals; he has made seminal discoveries in how the environment can change their brains, in ways applicable to people. He also led a study on human subjects, demolishing the dogma that the adult brain does not generate new neurons. Michael Meaney, from Montreal's McGill University, has toppled the idea of genetic determinism. Also working with lab animals, he showed that the way a mother rat treats her babies determines which genes in the baby's brain are turned on and which are turned off, with the result that the genes with which it is born become merely an opening gambit on nature's part: the animal's traits --- fearful or shy, neurotic or well adjusted --- are shaped by maternal behavior, something that also has relevance for people.

Helen Neville, of the University of Oregon, has done as much as any scientist to show that brain diagrams depicting what region does what should be printed in erasable ink. In work with people who are blind or deaf, she discovered that even something as seemingly fundamental, as hardwired, as the functions of the visual cortex and the auditory cortex can be completely overturned by the life someone leads. Phillip Shaver, of the University of California at Davis, is one of the leaders in the field of psychology called attachment theory. He discovered that people's sense of emotional security, based on their childhood experiences, has a powerful effect not only on their adult relationships but also on seemingly unrelated behaviors and attitudes such as their feelings about people who come from different ethnic groups and their willingness to help a stranger. For these four scientists, it was their first trip to Dharamsala and their first meeting with the Dalai Lama.

Richard Davidson was the veteran of these dialogues. More than that, however, his research on the science of emotions had grown to include studies of Buddhist contemplatives, men who devote their days to meditation. The Dalai Lama had helped arrange for Buddhist monks and yogis to trek all the way to Davidson's lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison so he could study their brains. His work was beginning to show the power of the mind to change the brain. He would orchestrate the meeting, introducing each of the scientists for their morning presentation and leading the discussion each afternoon.

"Of all the concepts in modern neuroscience, it is neuroplasticity that has the greatest potential for meaningful interaction with Buddhism," Davidson said.


Although science and religion are often portrayed as chronic opponents and even enemies, that misses the mark for science and Buddhism. There is no historic antagonism between the two, as there has been between science and the Catholic Church (which put Copernicus's work on the Index of forbidden books) and, lately, science and fundamentalist Christianity (which, in the United States, has used the wedge issue of creationism to argue that science is "just" another way of knowing). Instead, Buddhism and science share the goal of seeking the truth, with a lowercase t. For science, truth is always tentative, always subject to refutation by the next experiment; for Buddhism --- at least, as the Dalai Lama sees it --- even core teachings can and must be overturned if science proves them wrong. Perhaps most important, Buddhist training emphasizes the value of investigating reality and finding the truth of the outside world as well as the contents of one's mind. "Four themes are common to Buddhism at its best: rationality, empiricism, skepticism, and pragmatism," says Alan Wallace, who spent years as a Buddhist monk in Dharamsala and elsewhere before turning in his robes to become a Buddhist scholar and who is a longtime participant in the dialogues between scientists and the Dalai Lama. "His Holiness embodies these. He often says with delight that if there is empirical evidence that contradicts something in Buddhism, 'Into the garbage!' He is quite adamant that Buddhism has to yield to rational argument and empiricism."

Consonances between Buddhism and science were recognized as early as 1889, when Henry Steele Olcott argued in Buddhist Catechism that Buddhism is "in reconciliation with science," that there is "an agreement between Buddhism and science as to the root idea." Olcott based this on the fact that Buddhism, like science, teaches "that all beings are alike subject to universal law." By this reasoning, says José Ignacio Cabezón, a former Buddhist monk and now a scholar of religion and science at the University of California --- Santa Barbara, "Buddhism and science are in agreement because they subscribe to the view that there are natural laws that govern the development of both persons and the world." In 1893, at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, part of the World's Columbian Exposition, Buddhist leader Anagarika Dharmapala of Sri Lanka spoke passionately of how Buddhism, not Christianity, could bridge the chasm that for centuries had divided science and religion. He based his hope on Buddhism's status as a nontheistic tradition, one with no creator god and with "no need for explanations that went beyond that of science, there being no need for miracles or faith," Cabezón explains. As Alan Wallace puts it, "Buddhism is not a religion; it is a philosophy. It is not some eastern version of Christianity or Judaism. Buddhism does not culminate in faith, as the Abrahamic traditions do. It culminates in insight."

Some scholars have gone so far as to proclaim Buddhism the "Religion of Science." As the Sri Lankan scholar K. N. Jayatilleke argued in his essay "Buddhism and the Scientific Revolution" in the late 1950s, Buddhism "accords with the findings of science" and "emphasizes the importance of a scientific outlook" in that "its specific dogmas are said to be capable of verification." Like science, Buddhism is "committed to critically (and not dogmatically) establishing the existence of universal laws," José Cabezón says.

Which is not to deny that some silliness swirls around efforts to find consonances between science and Buddhism. Through the decades, there have been claims that Buddhism is science, that the Buddha was the founder of psychology, that Buddhism discovered the size of elementary particles and of the universe, that modern physics merely confirms what Buddhist sages knew centuries ago. But while such assertions are over the top, a growing number of neuroscientists are at least open to the notion that Buddhism has something substantive to say about the mind. If so, then Buddhism and science both stand to benefit from their interaction. "Science stands to gain by being pushed to consider mind or consciousness nonmechanistically, or by having to confront extraordinary inner mental states that are not normally within the purview of its investigations," says José Cabezón. "Buddhists stand to profit by gaining access to new facts concerning the material world (body and cosmos) --- facts that have lain outside of traditional Buddhist speculation due to technological limitations."

The discoveries of neuroplasticity, in particular, resonate with Buddhist teachings and have the potential to benefit from interactions with Buddhism. The reason gets to the very core of Buddhist belief. "Buddhism defines a person as a constantly changing dynamic stream," says Matthew Ricard, a French-born Buddhist monk. A veteran of the scientific dialogues with the Dalai Lama, he is anchoring the "Buddhist side" of the 2004 meeting.

Even scholars who were not involved in the meeting --- but who have followed the dialogues closely --- point out the consonances between Buddhist teaching and the idea, and potential, of neuroplasticity. "There are many strong parallels between the neuroscientific findings and the Buddhist narrative," says Francisca Cho, a Buddhist scholar at George Washington University. "Buddhism's is a story of how we are in pain and suffering and how we have the power to change that. The scientific findings about neuroplasticity parallel the Buddhist narrative of enlightenment because they show that, although we have deeply ingrained ways of thinking and although the brain comes with some hardwiring, we also have the possibility of changing. The idea that we are constantly changing means there is no intrinsic nature to the self or the mind, which is what Buddhism teaches. Instead, both self and mind are extremely plastic. Our activities inform who we are; as we act, so we shall become. We are products of the past, but because of our inherently empty nature, we always have the opportunity to reshape ourselves."

The discovery that mere thought can alter the very stuff of the brain is another natural point of connection between the science of neuroplasticity and Buddhism. Buddhism has taught for twenty-five hundred years that the mind is an independent force that can be harnessed by will and attention to bring about physical change. "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 mindset."

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."

And why does the Dalai Lama hope to contribute to scientific understanding, whether by engaging in these dialogues with researchers or by encouraging Buddhist monks to lend their brains to science? "His Holiness believes that today's dominant worldview is the scientific one, and he wants to keep Buddhism growing and developing by engaging with science," says Thupten Jinpa, a Tibetan Buddhist scholar who earned a Ph.D. in religious studies from Cambridge University in 1989. The Dalai Lama's primary English translator and a collaborator on several of his books, Jinpa directs the Institute of Tibetan Classics, in Montreal, editing and translating Tibetan texts. "His Holiness," he says, "hopes to inspire a younger generation of Buddhist scholars to engage with science. But also, he is personally curious."


That curiosity dates from his youth. The boy who would become the fourteenth Dalai Lama was born on July 6, 1935, the fifth of nine children in a family of subsistence farmers who used cattle to plow their barley fields on the high Tibetan plateau in the northeastern province of Amdo and to pound grains out of tough husks. At the age of two, Tenzin Gyatso was recognized, after a nationwide search, as the reincarnation of the thirteenth Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso, who had died in 1933. He was formally installed as the head of state of Tibet on February 22, 1940. Science was unknown in his world, and when he looked back on his youth seventy years later, the only technology he recalled was the rifles carried by local nomads.

Between lessons in reading, writing, rote memorization of Buddhist rituals and scriptures, and Buddhist philosophy, the young Dalai Lama amused himself by embarking on sporadic treasure hunts in the one thousand rooms of Potala Palace in the capital of Lhasa. The palace held what he termed "assorted oddities" belonging to his predecessors, especially the thirteenth Dalai Lama. In a poignant foreshadowing of the current Dalai Lama's own desperate escape from Tibet after the Chinese invasion, the thirteenth Dalai Lama had fled Tibet in 1900, when word came that the armies of the last Chinese emperor were poised to invade. He spent a brief time in India, long enough to awaken to how the world beyond Tibet was charging ahead into the new century. Upon his return to Tibet, he established several political and social reforms, including mail service and secular education, as well as technological ones: a telegraph system and Tibet's first electric lights, powered by a small generating plant. He also brought back to the palace a fascination with mechanical objects, including those given to him by a British political officer posted to nearby Sikkim, Sir Charles Bell.

So when the 14th Dalai Lama explored the palace's chambers, he came upon an old brass telescope, a mechanical clock, two film projectors, a simple pocket watch, and three automobiles --- all of which had been carried across the mountains in pieces from India, on the backs of donkeys, mules, and porters, since there were no roads fit for cars across the Himalayas or, indeed, anywhere in Tibet beyond Lhasa. The clock especially intrigued him. It perched atop a sphere that made a complete rotation every twenty-four hours and was covered with mysterious patterns. One day, paging through his geography books, the Dalai Lama realized that the drawings on the sphere were a map of the world, and the globe's rotation showed the sun's apparent movement from east to west across the sky. Other tokens of technology came the Dalai Lama's way as gifts. In 1942, a group of Americans presented him with a gold pocket watch. British visitors gave him a train set and a pedal car.

"There was a time, I remember very clearly, when I would rather fiddle with these objects than study philosophy or memorize a text," the Dalai Lama wrote in his 2005 book The Universe in a Single Atom. "They hinted at a whole universe of experience and knowledge to which I had no access and whose existence was endlessly tantalizing." (1-16)

note = [Most of pages 16-19 omitted]


note = [Most of pages 19-23 omitted]

Tibetan. She cautioned him that science has a long history of “killing” religion and thus might threaten the survival of Buddhism. He should not befriend these people, she warned. He thought otherwise. Recalling that first Mind and Life meeting years later, he says, he “leapt at this idea."He saw the dialogues with leading scientists as an opportunity to learn about the latest scientific thinking, of course, but also as part of his mission to open Tibetan society and culture to the modern world. He therefore ordered that science be part of the curriculum in the children’s schools and even in the monastic colleges, whose focus is classical Buddhist thought and whose students are all monks-in-training. ‘If as spiritual practitioners we ignore the discoveries of science, our practice is also impoverished,’ he later wrote. The Dalai Lama has become much more than the leader of the Tibetan people, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, and the head of the Tibetan government in exile. He is also an international icon; symbol of forgiveness, enlightenment, peace, and wisdom; able to attract throngs to the “teachings” he offers in locales from New York’s Central Park to the holiest sites of Buddhism in India. To a small but growing group of scientists, he is also a bridge between the world of spirituality and the world of science, someone “whose expertise in mental training might offer western science a perspective that has been lacking in its investigations of mind and brain.”

That brought him an invitation to address the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in 2007 and more controversy than he counted on. Some five hundred members signed a petition protesting his appearance, arguing that religion has no place at a scientific conference. (Many of the leaders of the protest were Chinese-born scientists, which fueled rumors that the protest was more political than scientific.) Even the Dalai lama recognized the seeming incongruity of his association with neuro- science. “So what is a Buddhist monk doing taking such a deep interest in neuroscience?“ he asked rhetorically. He offered an answer in his most recent book. ‘Spirituality and science are different but complementary investigative approaches with the same greater goal, of seeking the truth,’ he wrote. Specifically, he told the neuroscientists, although Eastern contemplative practices and Western science arose for different reasons and with different goals, they share an overriding purpose. Both Buddhists and scientists investigate reality: “By gaining deeper insight into the human psyche, we might find ways of transforming our thoughts, emotions and their underlying properties so that a more wholesome and fulfilling way can be found.” lt is little wonder that neuroplasticity, the topic of the 2004 meeting organized by the Mind and Life Institute, resonated with the Dalai Lama. He is intrigued that the Buddhist understanding of the possibility of mental transformation has parallels in the plasticity of the brain.

“The Buddhist terms in which this concept is couched are radically different from those used by cognitive science, but what is significant is that both perceive consciousness as highly amenable to change,” he has written. “The concept of neuroplasticity suggests that the brain is highly malleable and is subject to continual change as a result of experience, so that new connections between neurons may be formed or even brand new neurons generated.” And as he Wrote in his 1998 bestseller The Art of Happiness, “The wiring in our brains is not static, not irrevocably fixed. Our brains are also adaptable.” Not static. Not fixed. Subject to continual change. Adaptable. Yes, the brain can change, and that means that we can change. lt is not easy. As we will see, neuroplasticity is impossible without attention and mental effort. At the risk of invoking an old joke, in order to change, you have to want to change (whether or not you are a lightbulb). But if the will is there, the potential seems immense. Depression and other mental illnesses can be treated by enlisting the mind to change the brain, not by flooding it with problematic drugs. A brain afflicted with dyslexia can change into one that reads fluently, merely by repeatedly changing the sensory input it receives. A brain with no special ability in sports or music or dance might be induced to undergo a radical rezoning, devoting more of its cortical “real estate” [space] to the circuitry that supports these skills.

The Dalai Lama has thrown his personal and official resources into supporting research into neuroplasticity because it resonates so well with Buddhism’s wish that all sentient beings be free from suffering. lt is not so farfetched a goal: a brain whose existing circuitry leads to suspicion and xenophobia might, through disciplined effort and commitment to self improvement, be rewired to respond with compassion and altruism‘ Because the science is so new, the limits of neuroplasticity are largely unmapped. But there is no question that the emerging science of neuroplasticity has the potential to bring radical changes, to both individuals and the World, raising the possibility that we could train ourselves to be kinder, more compassionate, less defensive, less self-centered, less aggressive, less warlike.

This world of possibilities opened up by the discoveries of neuro- plasticity is why scientists and Buddhist scholars met that autumn in Dharamsala. Just a word about the organization of this story. The five researchers who met with the Dalai Lama have made seminal contributions to the revolutionary science of neuroplasticity. Their stories are told in chapters 3. 4, 7, 8, and 9. But it’s impossible to grasp the extent of the brain’s power of neuroplasticity without knowing about other discoveries; those are described in chapters 2, 5, and 6. I began by quoting Ramon y Cajal’s view that “the nerve pathways are something fixed, ended, and immutable." Most scientists who quote Ramon y Cajal stop there. But in fact, Ramon y Cajal continued, “It is for the science of the future to change, if possible, this harsh decree.” As we will now see, it did. (24-25)

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RECOMMENDATION: You can re-read this summary according to a reinforcement schedule, such as a few hours later and a few days later and then several times in the next week or two. This strategy can help you take advantage of the power of the spaced-repetition method of memorization. Such deep introspection can strengthen your willpower and increase your self-esteem by changing your adaptable self-identity.

You Are Your Adaptable Memory!

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