International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves

by Sharon Begley

Introductory Essay by Michael Ruse

This extremely well-written book by leading science writer Sharon Begley seeks to show the parallels and points of contact between modern-day work on the brain, particularly that showing the brain to be an ever-changing and adaptable organ, and the thinking and practices of Buddhism, particularly as exhibited by the current Dalai Lama, a strong supporter of inquiries into the connections between modern brain science and the religion that he represents.

Writing in a way that is partly historical and partly analytic, Begley sets the background of the Dalai Lama’s interest in and encouragement of the science-religion interaction. She points out that (unlike aspects of Christianity) Buddhism has no tradition of opposition to empirical inquiry and its findings. Train your Mind, Change your Brain begins with a brief history of brain science and the dogma that, once past childhood, the brain is unchangeable. She shows how (in the 1970s) this dogma started to crumble as experiments on monkeys discovered powers of adult-brain development, powers as significant as they were unexpected.

Begley moves next to discuss the ways in which brains can be taught new tricks, and makes much of the need for stimulating environments. She sees here a major parallel with Buddhism. Central to its theory is the developing self, the conviction that all things including consciousness are in a state of transition, of change until, finally, one reaches the point of rejection of self, the ultimate condition beyond suffering and craving of non-being.

Everyone accepts the plasticity of the young brain, and how people who become handicapped with respect to one cognitive or sensory function (let us say sight) can compensate in miraculous ways (through hearing and touch and so forth). Begley expands on this by presenting some fascinating experiments on adults (for instance making people temporarily blind) showing just how quickly their brains respond to the situation and compensate. She also offers the example of stroke patients whose brains have been trained to compensate for losses associated with physical damage.

A critic might object that a major reason why there is no conflict between science and Buddhism is that (unlike Christianity) Buddhism has had so very little to say about areas (like the brain) where there might be points of dispute. Begley argues that this is somewhat superficial, that in fact Buddhism has much of importance to say, particularly in its rejection of the mechanistic Cartesian, mind-brain dualism that permeates so much classical thinking on the subject. She argues that modern science demands a more anti-reductionistic, integrative point of view, and that this is precisely the position of Buddhist thinking on the subject – no less than the physical organ, the mind is engaged in active causation. This leads to an important discussion about the emotions and about how we are not caught in a deterministic trap, but can cultivate and develop such feelings as compassion and caring, as well as freedom from depression and suffering.

Begley ends with some broader issues, particularly the relevance of the work (and the parallels between science and religion) to such issues as the nature and foundation of ethics. She suggests that although much remains to be done, the first steps suggest that we may be on the verge of a new conceptualization of humankind and its relationship to self, others, and the world.