Thinking to change your brain: Sharon Begley in the WSJ
Posted by gregdowney on March 15, 2009
In January, The Wall Street Journal carried a short excerpt from science writer
Sharon Begley’s excellent, but unfortunately titled book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain. The article, How Thinking Can Change the Brain, is excellent, as is the book, which I’d highly recommend, but both engage in a couple of pervasive rhetorics for talking about brain function that I believe make it harder to really theorize about issues like neuroplasticity.
That is, although I like Begley’s work, some of the ways that she writes about the brain puts her readers, if they’re not already neuroscience savvy, two steps backwards before moving toward greater understanding. It’s sad because I think her book is one of the best works for a general readership on recent research, and the brain imaging projects with Tibetan monks which forms the central narrative of the book are fascinating on so many levels. Begley has a brilliant eye for turning research into story-telling and with the meditation research, she’s picked an ideal subject on which to exercise her skills.
If only she would stop carrying on about ‘Mind’ and ‘Brain’ like they were the two primary characters…
The problem is much like the ritual of Cartesian Castigation, which I find some of scholarly colleagues like to engage in as preparation for delivering a paper on ‘The Body.’ That is, they carry on for a while about how Descartes and Cartesianism divide ‘the Mind’ from ‘the Body,’ and how essential it is to re-integrate them, as if the two are wandering around in a train station looking for each other.
The ritual specialist engaged in the Cartesian Castigation then, with an enormous sense of satisfaction, puts forward some compound term — ‘mindful body’ or ‘embodied mind’ — and then proceeds to stagger along, still labouring under the weight of the conceptual division between ‘Mind’ and ‘Body,’ repeatedly declaring the problem solved while still tripping over every mention of ‘Mind’ and ‘Body.’
‘Mind’ and ‘Brain’ are much the same, treating the actions and experience of the brain as if it were a different thing: Mind. Of course, sometimes it’s helpful to talk about the mind, but not if we then suddenly become freaked out by the existence of the Mind and the Brain, as if there are two entities.
Begley recounts the Dalai Lama’s patient questioning of Western physicians, some of which had a very traditional view that the brain was unchanging beyond a certain age, with thoughts having little or no effect on neural architecture, a view that we now know is out-of-step with some of the more interesting research on activity-dependent plasticity, even in adult brains. According to Begley, the Dalai Lama had learned from neuroscientists that ‘mental experiences reflect chemical and electrical changes in the brain.’ But when he asked about the consequences of thoughts on the brain:
One brain surgeon hardly paused. Physical states give rise to mental states, he asserted; “downward” causation from the mental to the physical is not possible. The Dalai Lama let the matter drop. This wasn’t the first time a man of science had dismissed the possibility that the mind can change the brain. But “I thought then and still think that there is yet no scientific basis for such a categorical claim,” he later explained. “I am interested in the extent to which the mind itself, and specific subtle thoughts, may have an influence upon the brain.”
Begley describes how the ‘neuroplasticity revolution’ overturned the brain surgeon’s argument, demonstrating that perceptual training could affect dyslexia sufferers and physical training could help the motor cortex of a stroke victim learn new functions.
Although Begley is interested to some degree in the way that perception or motor training might affect the brain, she’s more interested in the idea that thought itself could affect neural architecture.
The kind of change the Dalai Lama asked about was different. It would come from inside. Something as intangible and insubstantial as a thought would rewire the brain. To the mandarins of neuroscience, the very idea seemed as likely as the wings of a butterfly leaving a dent on an armored tank.
In The Wall Street Journal article, Begley summarizes research on cognitive-behavioural therapy, in which depressed patients were taught to interpret their own thoughts differently, and brain imaging studies of Tibetan monks engaged in compassion meditation (we’ve discussed these studies before at Meditating makes the brain more compassionate).
The research Begley discusses is fascinating, but she also touches on research done on chimpanzees, in which the animals were asked to pay attention to either a touch or a sound stimulus in order to receive a reward, with the other stimulus as a distractor. Depending on which stimulus was crucial, the part of the brain responsible grew more extensive and the brain area responsible for the other, even though subjected to the stimulus, did not expand without attention focused on the relevant sense.
My issue with Begley’s focus is that, by emphasizing the difference between ‘internal’ or ‘pure’ thought and things like perception and motor control, suggesting that it’s more interesting when ‘just thinking’ changes the brain, Begley creates a troublesome divide, one that mirrors the body-mind dichotomy that has so bedeviled our understanding of human experience. I believe that if we allow this distinction to gain too much weight, it leads us back down the road of the mind-brain division.
Treating thought as ‘intangible’ — whereas perception and activity are presumably ‘tangible’ — divides our mental activities in ways that may not reflect how the brain actually functions. For example, from brain imaging and psychological studies, we know that some of the same brain areas used in spatial navigation are also used in imagined movement, and that imagined movement can take as long as body motions on the same scale. And the discovery of mirror neurons suggests that perception and understanding of another’s actions uses closely related mental processes, even overlapping neurons, as the neural activities that result in the actor’s own movements.
In other words, the gulf between ‘just thinking’ and other sorts of action are not as great as Begley’s argument suggests. I think she would probably concede this if asked; attention, for example, which is one of her examples, is a combination of mental, perceptual and even behavioural components.
The idea that the ‘mind’ shapes the ‘brain’ may help sell the idea to the general public, but it reinscribes the same sort of artificial division that we struggle against with Cartesian dualism. Like ‘the-brain-is-a-computer’ metaphor, the baggage that the mind-brain dichotomy brings along may wish we never invited it on the trip.
And while we might congratulate ourselves for figuring out clever ways that two artificially separated dimensions of the human being — the mind and the brain — are actually related, but that’s only solving a problem we created at the onset. I don’t know how much progress we’ll have made in the end…