by Rene Allen
I am excited this morning about a book I’m reading: Train Your Mind Change Your Brain by Sharon Begley. The author writes science articles for the Wall Street Journal, and the book presents scientific data on the neuroplasticity of the brain – the brain’s ability to change the function of anatomical areas previously thought to be hardwired in their performance. (An example is the visual cortex in individuals blind from birth being used for hearing.) In collaboration with the Dali Lama, the most fascinating chapters examine the ability of the mind to change the neurochemistry of the brain with applications in obsessive compulsive disorder and depression.
This is revolutionary in scientific arenas because scientific dogma has been that the brain determines the mind, its consciousness and thought. But there have been a few scientists over the last couple of decades who refused to believe this. Now the studies are being done that prove otherwise.
A comparison was made between the modality of a treatment called “mindfulness cognitive psychotherapy” and psychotropic drugs such as Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft. In this treatment, the patient learns how to monitor depressing thoughts that trigger depression in a non-judgmental fashion and to call them what they are, sad thoughts and nothing more. The circuit of depression is interrupted and relapse, a significant problem in people who suffer bouts of depression, is averted. This is markedly contrary to the experience with anti-depressants, where discontinuing the medication often results in relapse within 18 months.
I wonder if there will be found in this research a new and empowering tool. The effectiveness of visualization and mental rehearsal is already accepted and used in activities such as athletics where performance is important. This new information expands that knowledge. I find it exciting because I believe that anything that empowers a person to be in charge of his or her life, to exercise agency and enjoy the thrill of self-efficacy, which does not compromise this agency through ill-effects such as drug dependency, is good.
And I am excited because there are in our society influential and thoughtful individuals who do not kowtow to prevailing thought just because it is there. The idea that depression, for example, is solely due to a deficiency of neurotransmitters in the brain, is one that has been advanced by an aggressive media and drug companies peddling their products. Even though psychotherapy has been shown to be as effective, the money and therefore influence has been behind and from pharmaceutical companies. Yet there are scientists who held true to their postulates that there must be more than feeding starving serotonin receptors for the treatment of depression.
I find this book to be hopeful and empowering, paving the way for new treatments for stroke, mental disorders and learning disabilities. The miracles of consciousness and thought, of morality and agency, are not merely by-products of neurochemistry. And the miracles of the brain, the wonder of the genetic code, the capacity for adaptation in the face of enormous stress, are topics for which I have keen curiosity.
It has been a long time since I have read a book that offers so much hope and good news. My wish is that I have not bored you with this because it is exciting to me to stand at the edge of truth and see the swath it cuts into the staid and over-cultivated fields of hegemony.