James R. Doty

Into the Magic Shop

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Into the Magic Shop Summary

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Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart is an autobiographical self-help book published in 2016 by physician James R. Doty who is the director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE). A New York Times best-seller, Into the Magic Shop is unique among self-help manuals in that it incorporates elements of the memoir genre while also bringing a level of scientific rigor to its inquiries into the self and how we might improve it. The lessons and techniques Doty utilize help him overcome a troubled and impoverished childhood to achieve professional success and—most importantly—personal happiness beyond his wildest imaginings.

At the start of the book, Doty is a 12-year-old boy living in Lancaster, California, a mid-sized city north of Los Angeles. Doty’s childhood is one wracked with hardships: his family lives below the poverty line, his father is an alcoholic, and his mother is suicidal, suffering from clinical depression and the paralyzing effects of an earlier stroke. On a sweltering summer day in 1968, Doty enters a strip mall magic shop looking to buy a plastic thumb for a trick. There, he meets the mother of the shop owner, an elderly woman named Ruth who promises Doty that she will teach him a different kind of magic if he’s willing to come back everyday for the rest of the summer.

The first and most crucial step to Ruth’s instruction is for Doty to open his heart. This unlocks the healing power of compassion, Doty writes, allowing him to help ease his own suffering by better understanding the suffering of others. He helps achieve this by focusing on ideas like forgiveness and gratitude. For example, Doty tries to be thankful for the albeit limited things his family has to offer while refusing to be overcome by negative feelings toward his father. As Ruth puts it, “really deep, lasting happiness is about connecting with people: being kind to people and being of service to people.”

Through this dramatic adjustment to his attitude, Doty is able to succeed at school despite an upbringing that’s far from ideal. He later goes on to college and then graduate school, finding enormous success as a physician and entrepreneur. Thanks to the enormous credit he gives to the compassionate, empathetic teachings of Ruth, Doty, now a neurosurgeon, embarks on a lifelong quest to understand the relationship between the brain and the heart. As such, the book explores these connections through anecdotal and scientific evidence, seeking to identify an empirical, fact-based explanation for why we feel empathy and how those feelings lead to a greater sense of well-being and contentment. These musings combine neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and Buddhist meditation, among other disciplines.

As Doty puts it, “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 behavior but also how it affects the brain and ultimately our health.”

But his journey isn’t complete yet. Doty encounters two hardships that threaten to derail all of the progress he’s made. The first, while still a medical resident, is a car crash that nearly results in his death. The second is a series of poor decisions involving the medical device business Doty runs—which, combined with the bad luck of the financial crisis, costs him $70 million and nearly leaves him bankrupt. The key lesson from Ruth that pulls him through these difficult times is also the first lesson she taught him: open up your heart. His commitment to empathy is put to the test when, on his last morning in his mansion after selling it off along with his luxury cars, his lawyer calls to tell him that he hasn’t yet finalized the paperwork for a charitable trust to which Doty had committed millions of dollars. Doty has a decision to make: keep the millions in order to maintain the level of comfort he’s accustomed to, or honor his commitment to the charity. After meditating on the question and, indeed, looking inside his heart, he gives up the millions to the charity. Doty credits this decision, among others, as a key driver of his success in later life, which sees him richer both financially and personally.

Now that Doty is grown up—and also a student of the brain as well as the heart—he brings his knowledge of the human mind to bear on Ruth’s lessons, developing rigorous mental training exercises to ensure that he’s always giving himself positive affirmation and recontextualizing the events of his life, no matter how tragic, so that they exist as part of a greater journey toward empathy and calm mindfulness. These lessons also help him through more common adult stresses that are nevertheless very upsetting in their own ways, like divorce and loneliness.

Despite a life’s journey fraught with challenges, his final destination—at the end of the book that is; one’s destination is always evolving through life, Doty argues—is by any measure a good one. His Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford is so prestigious that it counts none other than the Dalai Lama as a founding donor. And in writing Into the Magic Shop, he has expanded the legacy of that accidental encounter with Ruth decades ago, making a self-help book that appeals to science-minded skeptics, and a science book for self-help junkies.