October 15, 2002
Conventional science has long held the position that “the mind” is merely an illusion, a side effect of electrochemical activity in the physical brain. Now comes a major work, grounded in two decades of research, that argues exactly the opposite: that the mind has a life of its own.
In The Mind and the Brain, Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, a leading researcher in brain dysfunctions, and Wall Street Journal science columnist Sharon Begley demonstrate that the human mind is in an independent entity that can shape and control the functioning of the physical brain. Their work has its basis in our emerging understanding of adult plasticity – the brain’s ability to be rewired not just in childhood, but throughout life, a trait only recently established by scientists. But in this paradigm-shifting work, Schwartz and Begley take neuroplasticity one critical step further. Through decades of work treating patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), Schwartz made an extraordinary finding: while following the therapy he developed, his patients were effecting significant and lasting changes in their own neural pathways. It was a scientific first: by actively focusing their attention away from negative behaviors and toward more positive ones, Schwartz’s patients were using their minds to reshape their brains.
The Mind and the Brain fallows Schwartz as he investigates this newly discovered power, which he calls self-directed neuroplasticity or, more simply, mental force. It describes his work with noted physicist Henry Stapp to establish the basic mechanics of self-directed neuroplasticity in quantum physics, and reveals its connections with the ancient practice of mindfulness in Buddhist tradition. And it points to potential new applications that could transform the treatment of almost every variety of neurological dysfunction, from dyslexia to stroke – and could lead to new strategies to help us harness our mental powers.
Yet as wondrous as these implications are, perhaps even more important is the philosophical dimension of Schwartz’s work. For the existence of mental force offers convincing scientific evidence of human free will, and thus of man’s inherent capacity for moral choice. Challenging the scientific mainstream, Schwartz and Begley suggest boldly that we human beings are more than mere automatons – that with the ability to shape our brains comes the power to shape our destiny. The conclusions they draw, and the questions they raise, should provoke debate among not only scientists but philosophers, legal scholars, and anyone who cares about the role of man in the universe.
Jeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D., is research professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine. His previous book, Brain Lock, introduced his revolutionary Four Steps therapy for the treatment of OCD. He lives in Los Angeles, California.
Award-winning writer Sharon Begley is the science columnist for the Wall Street Journal; before that she was senior science writer for Newsweek. She lives in Pelham, New York.