Thinking to change your brain: Sharon Begley in the WSJ

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…

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-authored and co-edited several, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

11 thoughts on “Thinking to change your brain: Sharon Begley in the WSJ

  1. Gentleman, the author’s name is Sharon Begley.

    I would agree with your assessment of the text: It’s a great intro to the research on neuroplasticity though it is another example of science writing that fails to take into account a system’s view of research. My sense is that the ghost of Descartes lurks in Begley’s writing due to the centrality of the argument within ratio-empiricism especially in face off with Buddhist empiricism. (We see a related argument surface in her book written with Jeffrey Schwartz). Maybe Begley’s challenge was up-ended by the fact that in reporting on the science of meditation, she was forced to contend with the paradoxical logic embedded within say Vajrayana logic and the reductionism of empirical science — a point she attempts to make throughout Train Your Mind.

    For my money, I think Steven Johnson had it right when he addressed neuroscience research as an emergence theory — lining up the development of brains with that of ant colonies, cities and software.

    Synaptically yours,

    Dr. G.
    The George Greenstein Institute, creating a sustainable future by coaching bodies, brains and minds!

    P.S. My interviews with neuroscientists at the recent Society for Neuroscience conference leads me to believe that the more neuro-technology shapes research, the greater potential there will be for discussing neuroscience and neuroplasticity from a non-dualistic, systems point of view.

  2. Hello Greg.

    This is subtle point, but I agree. A thought is a thought whether it comes in response to external stimuli or not.

    The only difference seems to be that the influence of an external stimulus seems to be easier to conceive of, and therefore less remarkable.

    I like the counter example, that just thinking about a muscle task can result in changes in the strength of the muscle… Same goes for practice of a motor skill (such as playing the piano.)

    Best wishes,
    Martin Walker
    Effective, Affordable Brain Fitness Software

  3. I can’t believe that this type of thinking is still being viewed so uncritically. Physical states don’t “give rise to” mental states, they are mental states. Sadly, such a proposition is politically incorrect in a time where most would rather cling to the notion of a soul. Thanks for the post; I hope more people are influenced by neurological materialism in the future.

  4. Might you say, then, that “the mind” is the individual’s experience of the structure and operations of his/her working (living/functioning) brain?

    Best regards,
    Barbara Ritchie

  5. Although this critique is very thought out and brings up good points it is fundamentally flawed.

    I am not going to try and argue my case about the mind-brain problem however I will just highlight the theory of the brain-mind problem Sharon Begley and many other scientists actually hold.

    Cartesian dualism states that the mind and body are two separate entities, inherently independent. However Sharon Begley, and many other proponents who share her same theory of mind and brain, do not agree with this cartesian dualistic theory of mind-brain. They also do not agree that neural events create the mind nor are they the same as the mind. Instead they would state that the mind and brain are interdependent of one another. That is they are not identical nor do they exist independently of the other. Thus while the neural events influence the mind, mental events also influence the brain. Proponents of this theory argue that there is no empirically scientific evidence that neural events are the same as mental states, yet there is definitely a correlation between the two. So to state that either of these hypotheses are scientifically true is what Daniel Boorstin calls an illusion of knowledge.

    No one has to accept this hypothesis that Sharon Begley actually proposes. All I want to do in this comment is represent her case as it actually is. I also just want to propose that a belief in any of these theories is based more on faith than any sort of scientific evidence.

  6. Thank you, Jason, that was a much-needed comment.

    I’m willing to go a bit further and critique the stance of decrying the ‘artificial distinction between the mind and the brain’. I’m not an anthropologist (although my partner is) so I’m unaware of the discourse that has led to this stance. Perhaps it contains some radical new insights not seen before in other disciplines, and deserves to be taken seriously. But when Lesath, above, writes…

    “Physical states don’t “give rise to” mental states, they are mental states.”

    …I start to wonder whether anthropologists with this stance have actually checked out the problems with identity theory (which states that mental states are identical to brain states).

    This is simply not the case. Mental events (qualia such as feeling pain, feeling joy, seeing blue, hearing a c-minor chord, mentally visualising images, etc.), are qualitative subjective experiences. Physical entities are not qualitative subjective experiences. And qualia, unlike physical entities, have no shape, no mass and no location. They have such radically different natures from physical entities that simply putting a ‘=’ sign between the mental event and a physical one is just bullshit. It’s a semantic sleight of hand we’d like to accept because it lets us hold a much simpler theory about the world, one which does away with some large uncertainties. But it’s just not realistic. The mind is not the same thing as the brain, and to insist otherwise is deliberately to ignore the evidence of your own subjective experience.

    It is much more subtle — and much more realistic — to explore the stance that Jason elucidates above: mind and brain are not identical, nor are they completely independent. The idea that they must be either the same or completely different is just a false dichotomy: actually neither of these possibilities is tenable.

  7. For the western mind everything is this or that. But for the buddist it can be this and that. Hence the mind and body are not two and are not one. They are both two and one. The mental constructs we use in communication create the problem.

    But the mind and brain are not two and not one. Both rely on perception and are not objective.

    Vic Carpenter

  8. I agree with the original post. There is a category error here. The ‘brain’ and ‘mind’ are constructs. Our ‘being’ is the that system which having taken in inputs from a huge variety of sources, including introceptive and fedback past-outputs, goes through a form of distributed but interconnected processing, to deliver a distributed but interconnected series of outputs – which themselves are fedback and so forth.

    Yes there is a fleshy organ at the top of your head, and yes it has a (semi) modular function w/in the interdependent system, and yes you can name that thing a ‘brain’ for the sake of simplicity, but the way it really operates cannot be separated from the rest of the system.

    When we are ‘thinking’ (a wholly contingent term) the whole being is doing the thinking, not the brain and not the mind.

  9. If your reasoning is correct, this brain does it all, there is no mind. We can’t make behavoial changes, the brain does it all. You didn’t write your article, your brain did. That’s your brains story and that works for you. Are you here at all?

  10. You all hear the voices/mutterings in your head/mind/X.
    I listen top them/it. I can goi along with or choose my response. Is the brain the voice/listener/choicemaker??is the brain talking to itself? For over 20 years now, I’ve made behavioral changes that have changed the way I experience. Is my brain both afflicter and healer? Twenty yeRs ago I was a very unhappy with my life, heard myself cry out “I’ve got to change my mind!!” I’ve spent these years listening to my mind and made huge changes. Is there some “I” that underpin that great saving labor, dis my brain do it, without my presence? do you suggest that “I” am not “present” at all? behavior

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