Monday, March 19, 2007

TO READ: Changing the Structure of Your Brain
Wow, am I reading a great book right now! Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain by the wonderful science writer Sharon Begley, is billed on the cover as, "How a new science reveals our extraordinary potential to transform ourselves," and, "A groundbreaking collaboration between neuroscience and Buddhism."

Sound confusing? Well, I suppose anytime you get the Dalai Lama to write a foreword for a book on nerve cells in the brain, it's unusual, that's true. And neuroscience is typically thought of as a daunting field. Despite those things -- or maybe because of them -- I'm telling everyone I know to read this book! It's absolutely fascinating and it's very accessible.

Here are some of the things I've learned so far, boiled down and boiled down again. When I was a college student, and even when I was a graduate student in biology, it was taken as a given that whatever brain cells you were born with were what you got for good -- no exceptions. This was simply a basic rule of neuroscience. But... Begley describes a whole host of recent experiments that show how that belief is hooey. Instead, the incredible changes our brains can make -- the "neuroplasticity" of the brain -- will amaze you. For instance, in people blind from birth, you might imagine that the enormous visual cortex part of the brain would sit silent, since no visual input can get in through the eyes. No! In fact, instead of lying dormant, the visual cortex actually switches jobs to help the person hear certain tones and rhythms more acutely than sighted people can. In other words, it helps them compensate. Similarly, the brain region believed to only be able to process auditory stimuli can, in deaf people, be recruited to help the visual cortex to gain even more information from peripheral vision than usual, thus helping a deaf person to notice and react to changes in the environment more quickly.

What these kinds of experiments mean is that we can change our brains. By attending to particular things in our environment, we can cause regions of nerve cells in the brain to grow, to shrink, to adjust their function, even to change jobs completely. So, if you take up the violin, even as an older adult, your brain's motor cortex in the region controlling your left (fingering) hand, will grow. It takes attention and practice, but our minds really can change the structure and the electrical and chemical activity in our brains! That's consciousness changing matter.

I'm only half-way through the book, but I'm hooked. So stay tuned for an upcoming discussion of what happens when neuroscientists study the brains of Buddhist monks who have meditated for years, and learn what these discoveries mean for the treatment of OCD and depression.

1 comment:

John said...

Your writing continues to be clear, informative and enjoyable to read. Thanks.