The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, by: Jeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D. and Sharon Begley
“Cerebral conditions may determine the nature of what’s thrown into one’s minds, but we have the power to choose which aspects of that experience to focus on. The brain may determine the content of our experience, but the mind chooses which aspect of that experience receives attention.”
-Jeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D. and Sharon Begley
The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force
The Mind and the Brain by Jeffrey M. Schwartz is an ambitious, interdisciplinary study that integrates decades of research on neuroscience with centuries of debate on the nature of consciousness. Schwartz offers a bold interpretation of the relationship between the brain, commonly defined as the electrochemical activity located in three pounds of tissue in the human skull, and the mind, the myriad experiences of conscious perception ranging from memory to emotion that have inspired countless philosophers to ponder the human condition.
As a research professor of neuropsychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, the director of the Westwood Institute for Anxiety Disorders, and a serious student of Buddhist mindfulness meditation, Schwartz is in a unique position to present his thesis that willed mental activity can change the function and physical structure of the brain. This is the “power of mental force” and its effects on “neuroplasticity” suggested in the subtitle of Schwartz’s book. Such a thesis is, to say the least, ambitious. Not only does it run counter to the reigning belief in neuroscience that the mind is merely a product of the brain’s physical activity, a notion based on the materialist legacy of the 19th century scientific revolution, but it also implies fundamental questions of the human condition, such as the nature of moral responsibility and free will. While this reader finds Schwartz’s argument convincing (I must admit that I also am a scientist with a profound interest in Buddhist mindfulness meditation), here lies the major flaw of the book: Schwartz’s argument ultimately preaches to the choir. By framing solid research on anxiety disorders within the parameters of Buddhist philosophy and quantum mechanics, Schwartz may have over-popularized his work, making it into an even easier target for his opponents in the scientific community.
The Mind and the Brain is divided into three main sections. Schwartz begins with a useful summary of historical and current approaches to the mind-brain problem, referencing thinkers from Descartes to the Australian philosopher David Chalmers. Although presented as an impartial list of most to least materialistic philosophies on the relationship between the mind and the brain, Schwartz’s review of these 6 categories also reads as a somewhat biased review of least to most enlightened attitudes toward the mind-brain problem. For example, the beginning category of “Epiphenomenalism,” based on Descartes’ view that the mind is incapable of acting on and changing matter, is upheld by mainstream neuroscientists through the view that conscious experience is nothing more than the result of physical activity in the brain. Indeed, this view even resonates in the writing of Emily Dickinson, who stated that everything we do and see is a creation of the brain, and the self is merely a creation of it. In contrast, the last category addressed by Schwartz is “Dualistic Interactionism,” which holds that consciousness and other aspects of the mind have the power to shape the brain or cerebral states, a view that clearly follows his own beliefs about the mind-brain relationship.
The second section of The Mind and the Brain is the heart of the book. In several chapters, Schwartz describes the burgeoning field of neuroplasticity in terms of his own research on obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD) in humans and various accounts of behavioral research on monkeys. Taken together, the data on OCD in humans and controlled behavioral experiments on monkeys demonstrate the considerable plasticity of the adult primate brain. Accordingly, Schwartz’s groundbreaking work on OCD deserves detailed review as it forms the foundation and impetus for his argument that the mind has the power to change the physical properties of the brain. In the 21st century, OCD has clearly entered into the realms of popular culture and popular consciousness, but what is OCD? Symptoms of OCD typically include intrusive thoughts (the obsessive part) that cause intense urges to perform ritualistic behaviors (the compulsive part). Notably, these intrusive thoughts arise without the I-function and the ritualistic behaviors take over a person with an absence of “self.” That is, patients typically describe episodes of OCD as if they were describing the activities of a third party. In neurological terms, brain scan technologies have demonstrated that episodes of OCD reflect a biochemical imbalance that becomes locked between the orbital frontal cortex, anterior cingulate gyrus and caudate nucleus (i.e., “the worry circuit”). This pattern of repetitive biochemical firing triggers an overwhelming sense that something is wrong, followed by compulsive attempts to make it right.
Traditional therapies of OCD leaned toward methods of exposure and response prevention (ERP) to correct over-activity in “the worry circuit.” For example, patients with a compulsion to repeatedly wash their hands would be forced to smear their hands with feces, and then restrained from cleaning themselves for hours. This well- intentioned, if cruel, treatment forced the patient to confront the specific obsession, resist the compulsive urge and eventually overcome the unwanted ritual. Although success rates across the country ranged from 30-65%, Schwartz found ERP to be inhumane, and more importantly, a form of therapy that rendered patients completely passive. To help OCD patients take control of their disorder, Schwartz used mindfulness meditation and its technique of actively noting perceptions as they arise in the mind. By objectively noting their symptoms without emotionally reacting to their symptoms, OCD patients could recognize their disorder as just that: a manifestation of faulty wiring in the brain rather than something irresistible and normative. Schwartz’s groundbreaking treatment not only demonstrated that thought can affect brain matter, but that eventually the wiring of the brain would change over time and that less mental force would be required to keep the biochemical imbalance from ricocheting around “the worry circuit.” Indeed, Schwartz’s research has implications for other unwanted behaviors such as smoking, alcoholism and overeating. Although people who smoke, drink and overeat know the dangers of their actions, they are content in leaving these actions unchanged. Schwartz proposes that mindful-awareness of these urges can rewire the brains of smokers, drinkers and overeaters all without medication! In effect, Schwartz’s research begins to unravel the conventional belief that the mind is a mere manifestation of neurons and electrical signals, a belief that reduces human beings to passive machines.
The third section of The Mind and the Brain is the most original and speculative part of the book. Based on Schwartz’s informal but crucial collaborations with Henry Stapp, a physicist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a preeminent scholar of quantum mechanics, Schwartz attempts to provide a physical framework for his research on OCD therapy and beliefs in mindfulness meditation. In contrast to those who appeal to classical Newtonian physics to assert that all mental phenomena are based on the electrochemical activity of neurons (i.e., brain=behavior), Schwartz’s use of quantum mechanics argues that consciousness and volition play a crucial role in shaping phenomena, including the activity of the brain (i.e., mind=behavior). That is, quantum mechanics shifts the primary question of physics from asking, “what exists” to asking, “what is our knowledge of what exists.”
In terms of OCD patients, this fundamental question of quantum mechanics means that once OCD patients realize that their compulsive behaviors are not a result of “what exists,” then they experience a sense of freedom and detachment from the tyranny of the disorder. Patients develop a sense that they are active creators in the functions of their brain and that they are in charge of telling their own stories. As provocative and compelling as this connection between quantum physics and neurological disorders may be, I feel that there are serious flaws with this part of Schwartz’s book in that he focuses on the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics to support what is in essence a scientific argument. Although Schwartz discusses the “collapse of the wave function” and the evidence of the infamous “discontinuous break,” he does not clarify why there is a break, how it is measured and how this break sheds light on the relationship between the mind and the brain. In fact, the problems with this chapter are representative of what one might find as an Achilles heel in Schwartz’s argumentation as a whole. By attempting to challenge the parameters of hard science through the softer ambiguities of philosophy, Schwartz’s insights into the power of the mind over the brain might only convince those who already believe that an important goal of scientific research is to question mainstream scientific beliefs.
Nevertheless, The Mind and the Brain deserves to be read by anyone who believes that science can develop by transcending the paralyzing fear of being wrong. While some might call this type of faith antithetical to science, the self-directed nature of faith oddly resonates with the idea of self-directed therapy at the heart of Schwartz's argument. After all, the belief in the power of the self, which lies behind mindfulness meditation and free will, easily translate to a view of healthcare in which self-reliance rather than drug reliance is the key to living well. For this reason, The Mind and the Brain is a commendable work for not only asking what is the relationship between the mind and the brain, but also for exploring the crucial and often overlooked relationship between self-reliance and wellbeing.