Into The Magic Shop, A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart by James R. Doty

Into the Magic ShopJames Doty never really set out to write this book, but he told his story to so many people with whom it resonated and being one of the founding creators of CCARE (The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research) he was eventually convinced how many more people could be inspired by his story and learn about the amazing work being undertaken, that he agreed to share his experience.

Doty came from a poor background, raised in a dysfunctional family, his mother was frequently depressed and had suicidal tendencies, his father, who when he was sober he adored, often disappeared after one of his drinking bouts and when he did return was violent and abusive. Consequently, as a child he lived in a constant state of fear, in anticipation of when the next bad thing was going to happen, it made his heart race, his body tense and constantly made him dwell in anger and sadness.

The first major turning point in his life occurred in his early teens when he went to the local magic shop looking for a replacement thumb tip and there he met the mother of the owner, a woman named Ruth. Ruth recognised something in him and invited him to come to the shop every day that summer, promising to teach him a kind of magic he could use all his life. So he did.

She talked to him about different feelings and the emotions they stem from and taught him:
Trick 1. to Relax the Body,
Trick 2. to Tame the Mind,
Trick 3. to Open the Heart (the only one he didn’t learn) and
Trick 4. to Clarify your Intent.

She taught him to visualise and to never accept that something was not possible. He took the lessons and they enabled him to attain goals he believed would not have been achieved without the insights and practices that Ruth taught him. He went to university, to medical school and despite absences and the lack of excellent grades, became a doctor, a successful businessman and entrepreneur, a husband and father. But at a price, something he wouldn’t learn until many years later when he finally understood what the third lesson that he had failed to learn and practice was about and began to live and work in accordance with it.

Ruth was helping me form new neural connections in my brain. It was my first experience with neuroplasticity, well before the term was commonly used….Not only was Ruth training me to change my brain by creating new neural circuits but she was also training me to regulate the tone of my vagus nerve and, by doing so, affect both my emotional state and my heart rate and blood pressure.

James Doty became a neurosurgeon and shares a little of what he learned about the brain and uses it to explain how those early interactions with Ruth were changing and remapping his brain in a way that would help him in the future.


In another turning point in his life, later when he has risen to great heights and achieved the great material success he believed was all he desired, he would come to learn how much more he was capable of with an open heart, he would bring together a group of people to scientifically research the effect of compassion and altruism on the brain.

As well as great scientific minds, he would meet with the Dalai Lama, who on listening to Doty explain his research and answering a number of questions, decided to support and sponsor the research with a significant and unprecedented financial donation, so impressed was he with the project.

When our brains and our hearts are working in collaboration – we are happier, we are healthier, and we automatically express love, kindness, and care for one another. I knew this intuitively, but I needed to validate it scientifically. This was the motivation to begin researching compassion and altruism. I wanted to understand the evolution of not only why we evolved such behaviour but also how it affects the brain and ultimately our health.

It is a wonderful, honest account, a compelling and easy read. Doty shares his story, flaws and all, sharing the beneficial effect on his life of the rare gift of meeting someone who shared those simple life resources with him at an early age, and importantly where he got it all wrong. Through this book he and many others hope that more people will have access to them, or at least become interested enough to find out more.

It is fascinating and heartening to see the increasing scientific development in the 21st century into understanding the effect of compassion, altruism and meditative practices on the brain through science, something that ancient Buddhist cultures have known, experienced and passed down the generations through practise for thousands of years.

Dr James R.Doty, MD Stanford University and His Holiness The Dalai Lama

Dr James R.Doty, MD Stanford University and His Holiness The Dalai Lama

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via Netgalley.

25 thoughts on “Into The Magic Shop, A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart by James R. Doty

  1. Wonderful uplifting account of James Doty. Really enjoyed reading this and inspires me to #NeverGiveUp even though streaming consciousness in French….did test my disicipline! (De Beauvoir). If you believe you can do it….you will!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have already fallen in love with this book, Claire. Thank you for this beautiful review, as ever. Doty’s story is inspiring, and his research could be powerful. I am curious to learn more about him. I will try reading it this year. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so glad you like the premise Deepika, I was sure you would and it is so heartening to read about the research being done and the connections being made with those who been practising the ancient traditions for thousands of years. It didn’t surprise me that the Dalai Lama supported the initiative as he is very interested in science and a marriage between science, compassion and altruism must have been very interesting to him.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I thought you might enjoy this and couldn’t help thinking after reading your review of A Mother’s Reckoning yesterday, what a pity Dylan Klebold didn’t meet “his Ruth” and could people like him be helped by learning these kind of lessons early on in life.

      Doty was really quite fortunate and it’s amazing that he learnt what he did and got to the point of researching co,passion and altruism without being aware of the work of the Dalai Lama and Buddhists in general, but what a great outcome when they finally did meet. I love that photo of the two of them together and his recollection of what it felt like to be in his presence, very, very moving.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I think this one touches on what Dad will be going through, but to focus more of the brain changes, I’d probably recommend something more like The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, which includes lot of different health case studies of people for whom this has happened. James Doty’s book is more focused on the effects of relaxation, meditation, quietening the mind and opening the heart – compassion and altruism.


    • Thanks Jacqui, it’s one of those titles that uses one man’s story to illustrate the power of learning to relax and quiet the mind and then is able to explain it rationally from his persepctive as a neurosurgeon, it’s a little like Jill Bolte Taylor, who is a neuroanatomist and had a stroke at the age of 37, and observed everything happening to her and was able to explain it in her book book My Stroke of Insight, A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey and in a fascinating and insightful TED talk. For people working with those who have suffered a stroke, it is full of amazing insights.


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