Skip to main content

Science + Research

Report from Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon's Quest

Image by Greg Dunn


Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon's Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain & the Secrets of the Heart

Into the Magic Shop by James R. Doty MD

Click here for link to the recorded interview and conversation.


Dr. James Doty is interviewed by Jon Ramer of the Compassion Games International and Reed Price of the Charter for Compassion International. Dr. Doty talks about his new book, Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon's Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart.

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.

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.

Compassion Cultivation Training logo badge

About James Doty, M.D.
James Doty, MD, is a clinical professor in the Department of Neurosurgery at Stanford University and the director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University School of Medicine. He completed his undergraduate education at the University of CA, Irvine and medical school at Tulane University. He trained in neurosurgery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and completed fellowships in pediatric neurosurgery at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia (CHOP) and in neuroelectrophysiology focused on the use of evoked potentials to assess the integrity of neurological function. His more recent research interests have focused on the development of technologies using focused beams of radiation in conjunction with robotics and image-guidance techniques to treat solid tumors and other pathologies in the brain and spinal cord. He spent 9 years on active duty service in the U.S. Army Medical Corp.

As director of CCARE, Dr. Doty 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 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 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.

See more about James R. Doty, MD

Welcome and Instructions for the Call

Reed Price: Hello. I am Reed Price with the Charter for Compassion International. I want to welcome everyone to the call today. Today we have as our speaker Dr. James Doty, discussing his new book, Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon's Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain & the Secrets of the Heart.

Hosts for this call are the Charter for Compassion International and the Compassion Games International.

The Charter for Compassion International is a worldwide organization which emerged as a result of Karen Armstrong’s TED prize in 2008. To find out more, visit You can sign up as a partner and choose to help support the Charter.

Our co-host for this call is the Charter’s sibling organization- the Compassion Games International. The Compassion Games hosts several global coopetitions to engage individuals, groups, schools, organizations, and businesses in compassionate action. To find out more, visit

Both our organizations have events happening during World Interfaith Harmony Week, February 1-7. We will discuss these events at the end of the call.
Now, I would like to introduce Jon Ramer, the Founder and first follower of the Compassion Games.


Introduction of the Speaker

Jon Ramer: I am excited to share with everybody James’ story and his remarkable book. He is a champion of compassion. The book is important and important for me personally. I’ve heard bits and pieces of Dr. Doty’s compelling story through the years. His story is important at this time when the hunger for compassion is great. Our choices can lead to a compassionate life.

Actually, James, with all your responsibilities, I don’t know when you found the time to write this book.

In our call today, Reed and I will ask you some questions about your life and your book. Then, we will open up the call to the audience for questions and answers.

Interview of Dr. James Doty

Reed: James, your book is a memoir as well as a guidebook with tips for centering your life. You begin the book by saying that before your trip into the Magic Shop, you’d always been known as Bob- but for some reason on that day at the Magic Shop you started to call yourself Jim. What’s in a name?

James: At age twelve, I walked in to a magic shop. I was having a tough time in life. My father was an alcoholic. My mother had a stroke and suffered from depression and had attempted suicide. Our family was on public assistance. I was becoming a juvenile delinquent. I felt loss. I did not have access, mentors, guidance, knowledge. To succeed in life without these is difficult. The Magic Shop changed my life. The owner’s mother was there, sitting in for her son who was away at the time. She was an “Earth Mother” type. She had a radiant smile. She asked me a lot of penetrating questions which I answered honestly. She said she really like me and said she was there for 6 weeks in the summer and she could teach me things to help me in life. When she asked my name, I said my first name, Jim, whereas I was known by my middle name, Bob. At that point, though perhaps I did not know who I was, I may have known who I was becoming. By acknowledging that my name was Jim, it allowed me to be what I could be and not what I was.

Reed: When you went into the Magic Shop, you were interested in card tricks and other magic shop items, but ultimately, you came to understand another kind of power. Today, how would you define magic?

James: The term “magic” is used by a lot of people to describe supernatural or mysterious forces that can influence events. The woman I met there (Ruth) had the ability to perform a certain kind of magic. Her magic was the ability to rewire the brain. This is what she did for me. It was my first experience with what we now call “neuroplasticity”. We now know that with intention and repetition we can rewire the brain and improve it. That is what she did. Before the store, I felt like a leaf blown by an ill wind. I had little possibilities for the future. At the end of my time with Ruth, I believed I had endless possibilities. That is the fundamental magic that she taught me. It wasn’t so much about my circumstances; it was how I responded to my circumstances. How you respond results in a significant effect on your physiology. Many people react negatively which can result in the onset of disease or worse disease states. We need to perceive how the mental state affects the body. Our mental state also affects how people respond to us. Someone who has a smile on their face and is positive and optimistic- they create a different kind of positive energy.

Reed: The magic involves internal attention and focus vs. something external to ourselves.

Jon: I want to ask about one of the moments you describe. Later in your life, there was a moment when you set up an irrevocable trust to gift money to a list of charities. After you set up the paperwork the market crashed and you discovered that you were bankrupt. Then, your lawyers called and said the paperwork had not yet gone through and you were not obligated to pay the money. But, you decided to follow through with funding the charities anyway. What was it that moved you to sign the irrevocable charitable trust when you found out that you didn't have to?

James: I want to clarify a few things. Ruth taught me many lessons. These lessons helped me become very successful. However, the most important lesson was to keep an open heart. As I became more financially successful, I thought success was having money and being in control and manipulating circumstances in my favor. I ended up getting divorced. Though I had tremendous monetary success, dated beautiful women, etc., I was more miserable than I’d ever been in my life. What I thought were badges of success were empty spaces that led nowhere. When the market crashed, I lost millions of dollars. As it so happened, the paperwork for setting up the trust to fund the charities had not been completed and I had not yet transferred the assets. However, I was in this particular position and I wanted to live up to this commitment. I was CEO of this medical device company that had not yet gone public. To honor my funding commitment, I gave away a lot of my stock shares in this company which ended up bringing in billions of dollars. I ended up giving away a lot of money. These events saved my life. I stopped the path of emptiness. This series of events let me see with clarity what having an open heart means. On my worst day, I am a neurosurgeon who gets paid more than 99% of people in the world. It would be an insult to people to complain about losing that money. I was blessed with the gift of insight into what the meaning of life is. It is being of service to others. The “other” is us.

Reed: You write that you don't believe in a Supreme Being who decides who is worthy and who is not. But you do believe in "the energy of the universe." What is the energy of the universe?

James: One of the gifts I received is that I’ve developed deep and profound relationships with spiritual leaders around the world. The book is endorsed by many of these global leaders- the Dalai Lama, etc. When I say I’m an atheist, they all laugh at me and say I’m one of the most spiritual people they know. As a human being, there is no question that our physiology functions at its best when we care for others and are of service to others. People want to believe that their life has meaning and when they die they will leave something of value for others. To do this, they need to have an outward journey of connection- that of service to others. We are in a universe where there is randomness. There are people who can do very bad things and are not punished and good people whose lives are cut short by tragedy. That said, I believe our purpose here is to be of service to others. When you serve others, you are serving your highest self. The energy in the universe-the stardust that connects us all- is here to provide a positive energy which is manifested at its best when we recognize we are part of the stardust.

Jon: You talk about the research on how being compassionate, altruistic, and kind affects the reward centers in the brain and shows that compassion and kindness are good for you. What is the current research showing us about the relationship of the brain and the heart, and the bridge from science and spirit? What are the current research questions?

James: The research is coming from a variety of fronts. Why is there interest in caring, compassion? It is how we are hard-wired. As humans, we evolved with theory of mind and complex language that required that offspring be cared for 15 to 20 years after birth. There had to be incredibly strong pathways to motivate the parents to care for the child. Unless there is some benefit to the parents, they would not do so. When you care, respond to your child’s pain, you are rewarded with oxytocin (the love hormone) which has direct effect on your pleasure centers. This effect is thought to be many times better than food, sex, etc. The hunter-gatherers had to know when a member of the group was suffering. A suffering member might not be able to do his/her job and put the whole group at risk. When one is of service to another, it has an effect on the autonomic nervous system-via the vagus nerve. This effect lowers blood pressure, lowers and steadies the heart rate, lowers stress hormones, and boosts the immune system; and thus, has a profound impact on one’s longevity and physical health.

Reed: You talk in the book about how the heart has its own intelligence, and cite clinical information about variable heart rate and blood pressure to support that. In Western culture, of course, we've come to think of the brain as where "we" are. Other traditions have located other centers of being in our bodies. Talk a bit about how our being is manifest throughout our physical self.

James: This is a mistake people often make. We may have a mind, but who we are is manifested by our entire body and how our mind impacts our entire body. Dr. Richard Davidson was studying monks about twenty years ago. He had an EEG cap with brain electrodes and introduced it to the monks as a way to study compassion. The monks started laughing. He thought they were laughing about the appearance of the cap. However, a monk explained that they were laughing because compassion comes from the heart, not the head. The brain connects to the heart and to the rest of the body. You have heard of the fight or flight response. This is a manifestation of what happens to the body when we are presented with stress. 200,000 years ago on the savanna in Africa, when we saw a lion, our hormones would kick-in and we would get increased heart rate, our pupils would dilate, etc. If we survived, these changes in our body would go back to baseline. Modern society puts us in a low-level stress mode much of the time. Such chronic stress has a horrible effect on long-term health. The stress hormones were never meant to be released in a chronic way. By practicing compassion with intention you can bring yourself back to a normative state with increased tone in the parasympathetic system which helps you be relaxed, calm, and open. When you are in that state, it allows you to have your best executive control (in the frontal lobes of the brain)- resulting in “flow,” the ability to be productive, creative, and able to make the most thoughtful decisions based on data at hand. When you are scared or anxious, that area of the brain shuts down, resulting in bad decision-making and impacting your ability to function at your best.

Jon: The key thing I find that is so practical is the connection in one’s own life between personal happiness and the understanding of one’s own suffering and the suffering of those around us.

James: I think what happens to many of us – when someone comes up to us and maybe is not as nice as we’d hoped, many times what we do is we have an immediate emotional response that does not benefit the situation or the other person. If you do the training I talk about in the book, it lets you step back a moment and see that if a person is acting negatively, it may not be about you. By stepping back a few moments, it allows the person to see that you will not engage in this type of dialogue or interaction. It allows you to de-escalate the situation. When you are more discerning and more thoughtful and not reactive, it has a huge effect on the person and others around you. So many times in life, people are doing actions that are not even directed by them. Often we believe we are being thoughtful. However, the decisions we make may have nothing to do with fact. Our actions may be related to a fight we had with our spouse, a bad meal, problems in traffic, etc. As an example, all of us, while driving on congested highways, have had people cut in front of us. What is our reaction? Many say an expletive. Some use a digit to indicate displeasure. Then, we are angry with the person. What if we find out that the person who just cut us off had his wife in the car who was pregnant and bleeding and he was trying to get her to the hospital. Our understanding of his fear and anxiety makes us want to help him. The event is not different. It is the exact same. What changes is our response. It doesn’t really matter that the person cuts us off. If they needed to do that, being frustrated or upset doesn’t benefit anyone. We can do nothing about it. Why spend energy reflecting on it? If we look at the animal kingdom, an animal/a mammal- they don’t often had a long memory. They don’t have a perception of the future. Their only choice is to live in the present. When they are in the present, they are functioning at their best. One of the problems with humans- studies show that 75% of the time humans are not present in the moment. Instead, they are thinking about what should they do, could they do, etc. They cannot be at their best with another person because of this.

Jon: It is obvious that we are driven to distraction in today’s world. We need to learn everyday protocols to be present. James, what did you leave out of the book that you'd like the reader to know about living a compassionate life?

James: Well, the challenge with books is that once they are over 250-300 pages, many people don’t have the patience to read them. Any book needs editing. What some people mention to me is that they know I had a brother and sister and they would like to know more about them. Also, I’ve had interactions and learned from great spiritual leaders in the world and these lessons would be valuable to others. Not many people have had this opportunity. There may be another book in the future related to these lessons.

Reed: I invite you to write a blog anytime for the Charter for Compassion International.

James: To write this book I allocated two hours/day from 5:00 to 7:00 a.m. Unfortunately, there are only 24 hours in the day and I am human. I would like to have the opportunity to talk in more detail about the practices I use today to be more compassionate and the results of CCARE research regarding compassion and physiology and the relationships with those you love.

Jon: I want to let everyone know that Dr. Doty’s book will be available February 2 wherever books are sold, and it can be preordered now via your favorite online retailer. You can go to for ordering links and to learn about events around the US in coming months where you might be able to meet Dr. Doty in person. You can follow James on Twitter @jamesrdotymd or on Facebook at james.r.doty.

Reed: Now we will open up the call for questions from the audience.


Questions & Answers

Karli: This has been a completely riveting talk. It is a pleasure to spend time with you in this way. You have this really remarkable combination of being filled with incredible resilience but also of coming across these influential teachers. How would you advise people to be open, as you were, to these opportunities of teachers coming into their lives? What do you do with such opportunity once it happens?

James: First of all, I think there is an old Buddhist saying: “The teacher appears when the student is ready.” You have to be in a position in your life when you are ready to listen to the universe and to others with wisdom and compassion. All of us are on a path and all of us can learn. We need, using a Buddhist term, the “beginner’s mind.” You are open to all people- to hear what they have to say. Often people put up a protective shield because they are scared to reveal who they really are. We are all frail, fragile, scared, and often have a dark side. It is when we are open to present our authentic self that we can learn the most from others. In the state of flow, we are more open to learn. Suffering can sometimes be the greatest teacher. You then need to decide what to do. Sometimes people decide not to be open and protect themselves even more. This is a false notion. The best thing you can do is to gain an understanding of what is important in life. Then, you can reap the most incredible gifts- a transcendent life, a life of meaning. That is what we all want to do. When you are open to others and share with others, at the end of your life, you can be truly one with the positive energy in the universe.

Reed: You say that "opening your heart" was the hardest lesson to learn. Why do you think that's so hard for people to do?

James: When you open your heart, you become vulnerable. People have fear that people can hurt them and take advantage of them. When you truly show people who you are, you can be loved the most. It is hard to do because it is painful.

Reed: The challenge of opening your heart is that you step out. Sometimes, you may find more pain after the first step. How quickly were you rewarded after the first step?

James: You have to be willing to hang over the abyss. It is scary and frightening. You find when you actually allow yourself to do that, you have wings you’ve never used before. You will not crash and burn. You will go even higher.

Jon: This challenge is the core of all compassion in my life. In the Compassion Games we see people stretching outside of their comfort zone. The rewards are immense. We must approach that place with compassion and caring.

Reed: We are using similar muscles in different ways. These are the same muscles we use in the hero’s quest- be all you can be. The first time James that you used these muscles was perhaps when you figured out you could go to school and become a doctor.

James: My story is a unique one and I’ve had many gifts from people along the way. For a long time I was angry at people who I thought had hurt me or let me down. One key is forgiveness. Holding on to anger can stop people from connecting. I had anger with my parents. On further reflection, I realized they could not help who they were. They had problems. I knew, though, that they loved me. I have immense gratitude. The lessons I learned allowed me to be the person I am today.


Into the Magic Shop by James R Doty MD


Reed: Thank you so much James for your time today. This has been very instructive. Reminder: the book is available in stores February 2. Before we go, I have two things I want to update you about -- both related to the World interfaith Harmony Week, a UN-supported event from February 1-7. First, the Charter for Compassion International is holding five days of online presentations, Monday through Friday of that week. And the Compassion Games International is staging a World Interfaith Harmony Week Coopetition--a great opportunity for your organization, group, congregation, place of worship or interfaith community to play in the Games in the spirit of growing global unity and respect. Learn more about Compassion Games / World Interfaith Harmony Week

I want to thank you for attending this Charter presentation on Maestro Conference. We’ll send out notes and a link to the audio of the call in a few days. These calls are always free to you, but our operation is NOT large, and we very much appreciate the financial support if you are able to “pay it forward.” Thank you all, and see you next time.

Dr. Doty: Here is the website for the book. There is an excerpt from the book and a recorded guided meditation.


←  Go back                                                  Next page