If You Read One Book

If you’ve been paying any attention to the world of emotional health and relationships, you’ve probably come across terms like positive brain change, neuroplasticity, the neuroscience of resilience, etc.  Though this scientific field is still in its infancy and there is much to learn, it’s become clear that your thoughts and feelings requires neural activity because “neurons that fire together, wire together.”  According to Rick Hanson, PhD, “Repeated patterns of mental activity require repeated patterns of brain activity.  Repeated patterns of brain activity change neural structure and function.  You can use your mind, to change your brain, to change your mind…to benefit yourself and other beings.”

There are a lot of programs, books, articles and guides to help people harness the power of neuroplasticity to improve stress levels, anxiety, depression and their relationships.  I’ve read many of them, taught some of the skills in my therapy practice and employed some of them in my own life.  I have seen and felt the positive impact of creating these habits emotionally and relationally.

All of this was massively reinforced via one of the most impactful books I’ve read:

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, MD

The book is the true story of a 12 year old boy not only overcomes a traumatic and dysfunctional childhood but against all odds becomes a prominent neurosurgeon who had “it all.”  Or did he?

Jim Doty grew up poor, with an alcoholic father and chronically depressed and suicidal mother, in Lancaster, Ca.  He was interested in magic and a chance encounter at age 12, with a kind woman named Ruth in a local magic shop, changed the trajectory of his life.  Sensing that this boy was suffering, Ruth spent a summer with him in the back room of the magic shop, teaching him “tricks” to ease his distress, help him self-regulate in a stressful family environment and ultimately, manifest his dreams.

As Jim started to see the positive impact of her teachings over that summer, he was for the first time inspired and excited for the possibilities in his life.  But he neglected her last lesson, to keep his heart open, leading to disastrous consequences.  But all those years after his teachings from Ruth, Jim circles back and learns this lesson with amazing results.

Into the Magic Shop demonstrates the massive power we all have for brain change to positively influence our lives, no matter where we come from.

A sneak peak at the “tricks” or exercises that Jim learned that forever changed his life:

  • Relaxing the Body (to regulate the physiological response to chronic stress)
  • Taming the Mind (to get a new perspective on feelings and thoughts for the brain to observe itself)
  • Opening the Heart (to let go of a life story or narrative that doesn’t serve)

“I had made an identity out of my poverty, and as long as I carried that identity…I would always be living in poverty.  In my daily practice I opened my heart to my mother and father, and I found forgiveness for them.  I opened my heart to the boy I used to be, and I found compassion…I wasn’t the only one in the world who’d ever been frightened.  I wasn’t the only one who’d known loneliness or felt isolated and different.  I opened up my heart and found that my heart had the ability to connect with every other heart it met.” 

– James Doty, Into the Magic Shop

I crown this book the most impactful for me (thus far) in that it speaks to everything related to ultimate happiness; internally and in connection to others.  It speaks to one of the biggest obstacles to emotional and relationship health, problematic belief systems. It speaks to overcoming adversity and resilience.  It speaks to the impact of a traumatic family of origin experience (which many have).  It is steeped in great wisdom and research backed exercises that demonstrate through an incredible story, that with practice, can work.

And it’s all wrapped into a digestible and compelling true story.  Many thanks to Dr. Doty, MD for sharing this with us.

There are a number of excellent books on the topic of brain change, particularly by Rick Hanson, PhD, Elisha Goldstein, PhD and Linda Graham, MFT.  If you are further inspired there are additional resources mentioned in the book as well.

Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT

Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT

Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT is the creator of with emotional and relationship health articles, guides, courses and other tools for individuals and couples. She is a frequent consultant for the media having appeared in,, and others. Lisa has a private practice in Marin County, CA and offers Emotional Health and Relationship Consultations via email, phone or video conference.