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Dr. James Doty: Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon's Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart

James R. Doty, MD, is a Professor in the Department of Neurosurgery at Stanford University and the Founder and Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research
and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University School of Medicine of which the Dalai Lama is the founding benefactor.

As Director of CCARE, he has collaborated on a number of research projects focused on compassion and altruism including the use of neuro-economic models to assess altruism, use of the CCARE developed compassion cultivation training in individuals and its effect, assessment of compassionate and altruistic judgment utilizing implanted brain electrodes and the use of optogenetic techniques to assess nurturing pathways in rodents. Presently, he is developing collaborative research projects to assess the effect of compassion training on immunologic, gene expression and other physiologic determinates of health, the use of mentoring as a method of instilling compassion in students and the use of compassion training to decrease pain.

Dr. Doty is also an inventor, entrepreneur and philanthropist having given support to a number of charitable organizations including Children as the Peacemakers, Global Healing, the Pachamama Alliance and Family & Children Services of Silicon Valley. These charities support a variety of programs throughout the world including those for HIV/AIDS support, blood banks, medical care in third world countries and peace initiatives. Additionally, he has endowed chairs at major universities including Stanford University and his alma mater, Tulane University. He is on the Board of Directors of a number of a number of non-profit foundations including the Dalai Lama Foundation, of which he is chairman and the Charter for Compassion International of which he is vice-chair. He is also on the International Advisory Board of the Council for the Parliament of the World’s Religions.

He is the author of the New York Times bestseller, Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart


SK: Your book is an incredible journey of how one interaction in a magic shop changed the trajectory of your life. The real magic began in the high desert of Lancaster, California in 1968. You’re twelve years old. Your father is an alcoholic and your mother has had a stroke and is chronically depressed. Your family is on public assistance. You often go to bed hungry. You like riding your orange Sting-Ray bike around the town. On one particular hot summer day, in the blistering heat, you ride to a part of town that you’re not that familiar and see a magic shop in a strip mall. And in this magic shop you meet a woman named Ruth who not only showed you great kindness but taught you a number of things that changed your life. What made you go in?

JD: That’s right. I grew up in poverty in the high desert of California with an alcoholic father who was frequently unemployed and a mother who suffered a stroke, was partially paralyzed, and chronically depressed. She had attempted suicide on multiple occasions. I was always constantly worried and anxious. I was afraid my family would be evicted. I would often go to sleep hungry. We were on public assistance. Although we had little money, I occupied a lot of my time doing magic tricks. One day, I noticed that my rubber thumb that I used to perform a number of tricks was missing. Vanished.  So when I saw the magic shop in the strip mall not only was I interested in replacing my thumb but also in the tricks in this store that until then I was unaware even existed. When I walked in the only person there was this woman who I describe as an “earth mother” with flowing grey hair and a radiant smile who was reading a book.

SK: Ruth taught you the most powerful magic of all. What did she teach you?

JD: It turned out that Ruth was the owner’s mother. I told her that I had lost my plastic thumb. She looked at me and laughed telling me she knew nothing about magic or plastic thumbs. Then she began asking me a number of questions about my life and background which for some reason didn’t bother me. Finally, she looked at me with a penetrating gaze and said, “I can teach you a different type of magic that I think could change your life.” At that time, I had no understanding what she meant but I for some reason I said, “sure”. She told me she was in town for another six weeks and I would have to come in every day and spend an hour or two with her. She then shared her bag of chocolate chip cookies with me and asked me how the plastic thumb trick worked. For six weeks, I showed up everyday and during that period of time she taught me four fundamental “tricks” that ultimately had a profound influence on me.

Ruth shared with me initially how stress and anxiety not only affect our bodies causing us to tighten our muscles but also impair out ability to focus and be attentive. Her first “trick” was to teach me how to relax my body and how to breath. Once I was able to relax, she taught me a meditation that allowed me to focus and be attentive.

Her second “trick” related to what she described as “taming the mind”. She explained that most of us have an ongoing dialogue in our heads that is negative and hypercritical. We confuse that dialogue with who we are and as a result it limits us in reaching our full potential. Additionally, many of us have a physiologic response to that dialogue that negatively impacts our health. With practice, she taught me that not only chould I control my response to the dialogue but I also could change the dialogue from one of being hypercritical to one that is nurturing, self-affirming and supportive. This allowed me to see the world more clearly and be more discerning in my responses to events in my life.

Ruth’s third “trick” of “opeing the heart” was the most important although at the time I didn’t have the experience or insight to understand this reality. I had mastered the first two “tricks” quite readily but ultimately I realized the what many of us think of as success in modern society, be it money or power, does not lead to happiness. It was only much later that I realized that “opening the heart” by connecting to others, being of service to others is what leads to a meaningful and happy life.

And lastly, Ruth’s fourth “trick” was a technique to give “clarity of intent”. This technique allowed one’s vision to become reality. Today, it is called visualization and is commonly used by high level athletes. Ruth asked me to make a list of things that I wanted. At the time my father was unemployed, we were facing eviction, we had no money and many bills had piled up. I made the list that included not being evicted, having a million dollars and a number of others. Ruth wanted me to be very specific. Ultimately, all of them came manifested. Ruth had promised me the greatest, most powerful and life-changing magic and she delivered.

SK: You became a very successful neurosurgeon, entrepreneur, and philanthropist. You wrote that in the process of becoming a success you forgot Ruth’s third “trick” of “opening the heart”. When in your life did you realize how important this third “trick was?

JD: At the time, I lived in Newport Beach which is one of the most affluent areas in the United States. One morning I woke up worth $75 million. I was recently divorced. I had a Ferrari and a Porsche in my garage , a mansion overlooking Newport Bay, a villa in Florence. I was dating beautiful women. I was purchasing a private island in New Zealand. Yet, I had never felt more unhappy in my entire life. I felt empty and alone. I had everything and I had nothing.

Then suddenly, the dot-com bubble burst and I was millions of dollars in debt and effectively bankrupt. I had made a number of commitments to charity. The only asset I had left was the stock in a medical device company of which I had been CEO. I decided to keep live up to my commitments and gave away all of my stock in the company. In 2007 the company went public, with a valuation of $1.3 billion with those charities that I had promised to support receiving $30M . It was in that moment that I felt free. I realized that happiness cannot be bought with money and that it was only through connection to others and being of service that is the true meaning of life. This is what Ruth’s third “trick” was all about. I decided to follow the compass of my heart. I learned that there's one way for wealth to bring happiness - and that's by giving it away. The brain has its mysteries, but the heart holds the secrets.

SK: We all know that our heart has its own intelligence and power. How would you explain this?

JD: The research has shown that the heart sends far more signals to the brain than the brain sends to the heart. There are more neural connections that go from the heart. Ultimately the mind and the heart are part of one unified intelligence. By giving up my last remaining wealth, I feel that I learned what Ruth taught me when I was twelve years old and too young to comprehend. The most real magic there is- compassion. It's the greatest gift, and the greatest magic. It is also what gives of us meaning.

SK: You manifested a meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. You also serve on the Board of the Dalai Lama Foundation. Would you take us on this journey?

JD: Yes! For our offspring to survive in a harsh environment, they required to be cared for and nurtured for well over a decade. As a result our brains are hardwired to sense when another is in pain or suffering. As we evolved as a species into hunter-gatherer tribes the ability to sense when another was in need or suffering was just as critical for our survival as a species. That being said, growing up, I had always been struck by the fact that often people of wealth or in positions of power made little, if any, effort to help another who is suffering, yet often those with nothing would immediately help another in need. This paradox stayed with me from childhood. So having left Stanford for a period and becoming more reflective regarding this paradox, I decided that upon my return I would gather together neuroscientists and psychologists to help me understand how the brain responds to suffering and what makes people care. This led to an informal research initiative called Project Compassion that I funded myself. One day reflecting on this work while walking toward the psychology building at Stanford, it struck me that I should invite the Dalai Lama to come to Stanford to share with him the work I had begun and to have him speak about compassion. I’m an atheist and not a Buddhist and at the time knew very little about Buddhism. I also suddenly remembered his quote, “If one wishes to make others happy, practice compassion. If one wishes to be happy, practice compassion”. To this day, I still don’t know how this possibly entered my head. The Dalai Lama had visited Stanford a number of years before, so I found out the contact person and amazingly after one phone call a meeting manifested. During this meeting with His Holiness in 2008, he expressed great interest in the work we had begun and immediately agreed to visit Stanford. But, what is more amazing at the end of our meeting, he began an animated conversation in Tibetan with his translator for a quarter-century and former monk, Thupten Jinpa. I was concerned that somehow I had insulted His Holiness. Suddenly, they stopped talking and Jinpa turned to me and said, “His Holiness is struck by your intention and wishes to make a personal donation”. This donation turned out to be the largest donation His Holiness had made to a non-Tibetan cause ever. I was overwhelmed. This led to two individuals committing significant funds and thus CCARE was born. His Holiness visited Stanford in 2010 and met with our scientists and give an amazing talk on compassion. This led to further conversations and meetings ultimately culminating in me becoming a member of the Dalai Lama Foundation and later Chairman of its Board.

SK: What makes you to be an extraordinary neurosurgeon?

JD: I’m blessed because not only have I been at the forefront of some amazing innovations in the field but I have learned that kindness and compassion toward patients is just as important as my technical abilities. This is what I teach our medical students and residents. In fact, there is an ever increasing amount of scientific evidence that this alone can have a significant positive effect on health outcomes.

SK: Thank you, Dr. Doty for sharing your wisdom and real magic with us all.

JD: It's a journey of opening our heart to our fellow human beings on this earth. I remember His Holiness the Dalai Lama once said, "Love and compassion are necessities; without them humanity cannot survive." Science has proven the importance of compassion not only for one’s health and wellness but it is also what gives one meaning and it is what ultimately will be responsible for our survival as a species.


A word for the Dalai Lama?

(100 words please)

The science of compassion with Dr. Doty discussing the visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama

The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE)

James R. Doty, M.D. is the founder and director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University ( He collaborates with scientists from a number of disciplines examining the moral, social and neural bases for compassion and altruism.


Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon's Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart. Visit to learn more.

Growing up in the high desert of California, Jim Doty was poor, with an alcoholic father and a mother chronically depressed and paralyzed by a stroke. Today he is the director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University, of which the Dalai Lama is a founding benefactor. But back then his life was at a dead end until at twelve he wandered into a magic shop looking for a plastic thumb. Instead he met Ruth, a woman who taught him a series of exercises to ease his own suffering and manifest his greatest desires. Her final mandate was that he keep his heart open and teach these techniques to others. She gave him his first glimpse of the unique relationship between the brain and the heart.

Doty would go on to put Ruth’s practices to work with extraordinary results—power and wealth that he could only imagine as a twelve-year-old, riding his orange Sting-Ray bike. But he neglects Ruth’s most important lesson, to keep his heart open, with disastrous results—until he has the opportunity to make a spectacular charitable contribution that will virtually ruin him. Part memoir, part science, part inspiration, and part practical instruction, Into the Magic Shop shows us how we can fundamentally change our lives by first changing our brains and our hearts.