The Changing Brain: A Review of Two Books about Neuroplasticity

by Susan Cooper, Windbridge Member and Community Advisor

All sorts of fantastic, remarkable, and hopeful brain adaptabilities were being explored by some inquisitive folks more than 400 years ago!  We can thank Descartes once again for slowing the scientific acceptance of reality.  It turns out that only recently have we returned to this subject and we now know that our “immaterial” thoughts do indeed have an impact on brain structure just as mind/body relationships impact so much of our lives.

Two books are competing for my “favorite” read about neuroplasticity at the moment:

The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge, MD (

Train Your Mind Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves by Sharon Begley (with a forward by the Dalai Lama and a preface by Daniel Goleman) (

The Doidge book is/was a New York Times Bestseller and Doidge was featured on PBS’s The Brain Fitness Program.  He is a psychiatrist and researcher on the faculty at the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research.  Begley is a science writer for Newsweek magazine, and her book reports on how cutting-edge science and the ancient wisdom of Buddhism have come together to reveal that we have the power to physically change our brains by changing our minds and behaviors.

The old Cartesian distinction between the mind and the brain (matter)—and the resulting idea in mainstream medicine and science that brain anatomy was fixed—is falling apart as the “power of positive thinking” gains scientific credibility.  Because the belief was that the brain could not change, Doidge claims that “human nature, which emerges from it, seemed necessarily fixed and unalterable as well.”  Now, however, a new array of possibilities for human adaptability is emerging.

Doidge reports the scientific discoveries in fascinating story after story of scientists, doctors, and patients who, without operations or medications, have made use of the brain’s ability to change.  Over the years, he has met many brain scientists working at the cutting edge who have shown that the physical structure of the brain changes with the activities and thoughts it performs… if one part fails, then other parts take over.  One scientist enabled a person blind from birth to see; another showed that thinking, learning, and acting can turn our genes on or off; and another was helping people who had had strokes years before and had been told they would never recover to change that diagnosis.  And get this: If you exercise to increase muscular strength 5 days a week for 4 weeks (doing fifteen maximal contractions, with a twenty-second rest between each) you will increase strength by 30%, but if you only imagine doing this—for the same periods—you will increase strength by 22%!  Imagination is funny, indeed!

Begley’s book reads like a detective novel.  It is the tenth book in a continuing series reporting on the dialogues arranged by the Mind and Life Institute (see  Here, she reports on collaborations between neuroscientists, psychologists, philosophers, the Dalai Lama, and contemplatives (monks who have meditated for up to 55,000 hours in their life-times!!).  It speaks loudly and clearly to potential:  We have inner powers and we are in control of them!

The Dalai Lama, in his forward to this book, says, “I am grateful… to Sharon Begley for her artful work presenting this material accurately and attractively.  I am optimistic that the exciting discoveries related here have great potential to contribute positively to the betterment of humanity and the way we may develop our future.”  I, too, especially as I age, am grateful to Sharon Begley for this book about a hopeful new science that will allow me to stay young—at least mentally.

It was in 1986 that the first Mind and Life Conference took place in Dharamsala and was attended by people who encouraged initial dialogues between Buddhism and modern science.  It would appear that although these fields arose out of different historical, cultural, and intellectual backgrounds, they have an amazing amount in common.  Based on the teachings of the meditation adepts, the Dalai Lama wanted to know, from the scientists, if the mind could really change the brain.  Buddhism tells us that that any ‘fixed constraints’ can be overcome—through the right training.  The Dalai Lama was ready to “change Buddhism” if the scientists could disprove these beliefs.

William James, in 1890, said “organic matter, especially nervous tissue, seems endowed with a very extraordinary degree of plasticity.”  But his opinion didn’t count—he was not a neurologist.  In 1913, Ramon y Cajal, a Nobel Prize winning Spanish neuroanatomist, made it clear to his audience that “in the adult centers the nerve paths are something fixed, ended and immutable.” And this was the statement that scientists chose to believe for the next 90 years: the adult brain is hardwired, fixed in form and function, we are stuck with the hand we were dealt….no new neurons and no new functions…period.  As late as 1999, the journal Science reported that the current teaching was that neurons could not be replaced and neuronal networks (after injury, with aging, or in disease) could not be reestablished.  That is, the basic layout of the brain (as diagramed in anatomy textbooks) could not be changed.

But, now, we know otherwise.  Rehabilitation for adults who suffer brain damage from a stroke works!  Psychiatric diseases such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and depression can be cured.  And, although the adult brain is not as plastic as a child’s, it is much more adaptable than was ever thought.  In the last few years of the 20th century, discovery after discovery proved that brains have stunning powers of neuroplasticity.  They can be rewired simply through the actions we take, our thoughts and behaviors, and in the experiences we have in the outside world.  The size of different regions and the strength of connections can all change based on the actions we have take, the lives we lead, and the thoughts we think.

Ancient Buddhist training emphasizes the value of investigating reality and finding the truth of the outside world as well as the contents of one’s own mind.  Its teachings define a person as a constantly changing dynamic stream and this follows closely what has now been learned about neuroplasticity.  The idea that we are constantly changing means there is no intrinsic nature to the self or the mind.  We may be products of the past, but we always have had the opportunity to reshape ourselves.  And at long last, the scientists agree.

Read these books—both of them.  They will convince you that you possess the ability to do what you choose to do; it may take time and some effort, but you CAN do it!  We can train ourselves to be kinder, to pay more attention, to exhibit more compassion, and to be less defensive, self-centered, aggressive, and warring.  Now wouldn’t that be something!?!

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