This book is fabulous! It raises the possibility ‘we can train ourselves to be kinder, more compassionate, less defensive, less self-centred, less aggressive …’ and we are told our brain might reorganise ‘as the result of an experience’. It explains scientific terms and concepts like ‘cortical remapping’, ‘gain-of-function experiments’ and ‘use-dependent cortical reorganisation’. It tells us some people can hear lightening and see thunder!

We are told it breaches the gap between Buddhist philosophy and science and for me it did exactly that. It helped me to find a different sense of self through this unique combination. The author, Sharon Begley says, ‘the idea that we are constantly changing means there is no intrinsic nature to the self or the mind, which is what Buddhism teaches. Instead, both self and mind are extremely plastic. Our activities inform who we are; as we act, so we shall become.’

She says the ‘more habitually you make a particular movement, the more of the brain’s real estate is zoned for that movement’ and quotes the well-known adage, ‘cells that fire together, wire together.’ Sharon Begley suggests we have the scope to change the way we ‘translate the outside world into inner experience.’ And informs us that in an ‘enriched environment’ our cortex becomes thicker and our synapses denser with more dendritic branches. ‘This means richer and more complicated brain circuits and increased neurogenesis’.

We learn the young brain is resilient and ‘a one-year-old has twice as many neural connections as her mother’ whilst after age two or three there is a pruning of the synapses. It is possible that environmental inputs, and thus the experiences a person has, ‘shape the development and specialization of the brain’s regions and circuits.’

Why is any of this important? Why does it make a difference how much space the brain apportions to which tasks, how strongly one neuronal firing is connected to another or how it is shaped by experiences and the life we lead?

Or that ‘thinking affects emotions’ and ‘what you see is what you pay attention to.’ Or there appears to be a relationship between happiness and self-acceptance, strong relationships, a meaningful life … Or we have the ability to change our emotional response through mental training and modulate the signal in the ‘fear-generating amygdala’? Or ‘nonreferential compassion becomes a state’ we can generate in our mind?

It mattered to me! I wondered what had happened in my brain as a result of early childhood experiences with severe illness. I became curious.

Towards the very end of this book, I got a sense of the answer. It had to do with the brains of meditating monks and a ‘far-flung cortical network involving the anterior cingulate cortex, the insula, the somatosensory cortex and the cerebellum’. This network fires when a person is in pain or sees someone else in pain. Begley reports, it was like the monks engaged in compassionate meditation were ‘itching to go to the aid of those in distress’.

Was it also possible that in early childhood usually unconnected parts of my brain started to fire together? Did some brain sites take up a new function? Was there a cortical reorganisation and compensatory strategy? It is very possible!

The Dalai Lama says in his book The art of happiness. ‘The wiring in our brains is not static nor irrevocably fixed. Our brains are also adaptable.’ I would, of course, love to meet his Holiness but was entranced by the work of Matthieu Ricard, godson of Russian mystic Gurdjieff, and based at the Shechen Monastery in Nepal. He was one of the monks behind some of these unusual and important findings.

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