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14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The power of the mind to structure the brain, 4 July 2010
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This review is from: The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (Paperback)
The Mind & The Brain: Neuroplasticity and the power of mental force, by Jeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D. and Sharon Begley, Harper Perennial, 2002, 432 ff

The power of the mind to structure the brain
By Howard Jones

This is an account of how patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder were able to be guided through treating themselves by reconditioning of the brain. Dr Schwartz is a Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and his co-author, Sharon Begley, is a columnist for the Wall Street Journal. As well as describing clinical case studies, the book provides a suggested mechanism of action for mind-brain influence through quantum phenomena, as shared with the authors by quantum physicist Henry Stapp. The treatment and explanations Schwartz offers are also imbued with a fair measure of Buddhist philosophy. The calming effects on breathing, heart rate and blood pressure of meditative techniques have been known for thousands of years to eastern mystics and are used regularly in complementary therapies.

For the past two decades at least, books have been appearing to refute the idea that mind or consciousness is merely the name we give to brain function. This was the old materialist view in science that mind described brain function just as digestion describes the operation of the gut. However, there are now several books by physicians and psychiatrists that describe how patients can take conscious steps to improve their health by controlling brain and body function: books by Hamilton, Hay, Dyer, Dossey, Benson and Tart spring to mind.

Here, Schwartz describes how he teaches his OCD patients the practice of mindful awareness, which he describes as the foundation of Theravada Buddhism. The result is self-directed neuroplasticity - wilful effort or volition that can alter brain chemistry and function. The case studies given here indicate that the treatment is highly successful. But I mustn't give the impression that this book is all about OCD - that's only a part of the story. The author then goes on to give a detailed biological account, witty and wholly accessible to the non-biologist, of brain function and especially of how attitude of mind - will or volition - influences the brain. This is very reminiscent of Schopenhauer's philosophy of Will.

Incredibly, we read of preschool epilepsy patients who have surgery to remove half of the brain and not only survive but thrive! There is a discussion of brain development that highlights the well-established fact that learning a language or how to do mathematical operations is best learned as young as possible and certainly before puberty. The experiments on monkeys make for some uncomfortable reading - but the conclusions regarding brain function after stroke are highly significant. `The brain's response to messages from its environment is shaped by its experiences . . . throughout life.'

And that is the message of the book: neuroplasticity - reinforcing in biological language with theoretical explanations what the authors listed above have been telling us from practical experience. Explanations for the clinical physiology given in terms of quantum physics are excellent, the authors handling a conceptually difficult subject in accessible language. I think they make what is also a quite convincing argument. This is a very worthwhile book, but readers with little background in science will have to be prepared to be challenged, first by the section on the biology of the brain and then by the often perplexing conclusions of quantum physics.

Dr Howard A. Jones is the author of The Thoughtful Guide to God (2006) and The Tao of Holism (2008), both published by O Books of Winchester, UK.

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