Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain

I’m halfway through Sharon Begley’s Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain. So far the only thing I don’t care for is the title, which sounds more like a self-help book than the clear, engrossing narrative it actually is.

Begley, a science columnist for the Wall Street Journal and formerly the senior science writer for Newsweek, details growing understanding of neuroplasticity and its implications. She recounts sessions at which Western scientists discussed research with the Dalai Lama, as well as ways in which Buddhist practice provides insight into how the mind can affect the development of the brain.

I’ve ended up discussing with people chapters I haven’t even finished, both because of Begley’s skillful writing and because of her many examples of research leading to impressive, real-world application.

For example, one conclusion is that “the same systems [in the brain] that display the greatest plasticity… are more vulnerable in development and will display the greatest deficits in developmental disorders like dyslexia.”

A scientist at Rutgers suspects that many cases of dyslexia arise not from a child’s being unable to distinguish letters like b and d while reading them, but while hearing them. Sounds like b p d and g can last as little as 40 milliseconds, while m can last 300 milliseconds.

Working with dyslexic children, scientists used special software to stretch out the duration of those quick phonemes and played words using them (bay and day; point, boy, girl).

Once a child learned to tell the difference between b and p when the initial phoneme was stretched to three hundred milliseconds, the software shortened the phoneme by a couple of milliseconds at a time…

After twenty to forty hours of training, all the children could distinguish fast phonemes as correctly as kids who did not have dyslexia. After one month, all had advanced two years in language comprehension.

Other examples include rehabilitation for stroke victims using “constraint-induced therapy.” Patients would spend six hours a day with their good arm strapped down, working on using the stroke-affected arm. “Even two years later,” patients in one study “had retained their edge and were able to use their impaired arm — which was hardly impaired by this point — significantly more and better than those who did not receive this training.”

Begley deftly segues from “bottom-up” influences on the brain — incoming sensations of sight, sound, touch — to “top-down” ones such as attention. “Mental practice alone,” she quotes one scientist, “may be sufficient to promote the plastic modulation of neural circuits.” She goes on to describe one experiment with monkeys who had their fingers tapped nearly two hours a day while listening to music over headphones.

Some of the monkeys were rewarded for noting when the rhythm of the tapping changed. Others were rewarded for noting when the sound changed. After six weeks, the brains of the “tap” monkeys showed changes in the somatosensory cortex (which deals with touch) but not the auditory cortex (which deals with sound). The reverse was true for the “sound” monkeys.

As Begley notes, the two sets of monkeys had identical stimuli: all of them got the tapping, all of them heard the sounds. The difference in brain structure was a result of the reward their received, which focused their attention on one of the two stimuli.

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