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Monday, March 16, 2009

The Brain that Changes Itself

Doidge, Norman, M.D. The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science.

Brain function and neural plasticity are fascinating subjects, and our brains are capable of almost miraculous re-wiring to accommodate to situations incurred by accident, disease, learning disabilities, natural aging, or stroke. That does not mean that all brain trauma can be cured, just that the brain has the often amazing ability to recover brain function in cases previously considered hopeless.

Dr. Doidge, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, is on the faculty at the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research in New York and the University of Toronto's department of psychiatry. His research into neuroplasticity leads him to interview some of the world's leading neuroscientists, to visit their labs, and to observe their methods in action.

In a fluent and highly readable account, he gives the reader an extraordinary look at individual triumphs and at scientific concepts and experiments that have led to so many hopeful discoveries in the field.

Portions of the book read almost like science fiction--fast and furious--leaving you marveling at the possibilities. Other portions slow you down and are more technical, but are still within the comprehension of the lay reader and are equally gripping.

The first chapters in the book are some of the most exciting. These chapters deal with almost unbelievable improvements in certain individuals with brain trauma or disabilities, the scientists who did the research, and the methods of research. While some very exciting discoveries have come about with improved technology that has allowed more and more accurate brain scans, other scientists have formed hypotheses and created treatments using very low-tech methods.

One interesting aspect is that brain plasticity or malleability, can be a blessing or a curse, for while the brain has remarkable flexibility, repeated patterns of thought and behavior ("neurons that fire together wire together") can create a rigidity that is hard to break. As a result, both positive and negative results can be achieved by the same brain process. (Ahh, those bad habits that we reinforce daily....)

On the other hand, "neurons that fire apart, wire apart" a phenomenon that provides a method of correction and a way to break bad habits or addictions.

Other interesting points (and there are far too many to mention!):

* Use it or lose it applies to mental as well as physical skills. Plasticity is competitive and unused areas can be pruned back or used for other information.

*The benefits of memorization (largely discarded in modern education) increased auditory memory, and therefore, thinking in language and that the stress on handwriting (also no longer a priority in education) not only increased motor skills, but probably "added speed and fluency to reading and speaking."

*Culture is more important than some believe. Because our brains are plastic, "To a larger degree than we suspected, culture determines what we can and cannot perceive." An example is in speech. There is a critical period during which the auditory cortex develops and during that period an infant is "capable of hearing any sound distinction in all the thousands of languages of our species." After the period closes, however, infants lose the ability to hear many of the sounds not used in their own culture which explains the problem some cultures have reproducing certain sounds.

Melbourne Conversations - Dr. Doidge speaks and explains better than I can.

Here is an article about the CBC Documentary with David Suzuki; there is also a link to a video, but it is evidently only available in Canada.

The brain is an astonishing organ; this book affirms that the brain is capable of significant growth, change, and self-repair.

(If you've reviewed this book let me know, and I'll link to your review.)

Nonfiction. Science. 2007. 408 pages.


  1. Definitely one for the old wishlist! I knew the things about speech sounds because of the work I do in linguistics. Today I actually spent the morning recruiting participants for a study about English vowel differentiation among non-native speakers. Strange as it might sound to natives, we just don't hear the difference between certain vowels! I just love reading about those things.

  2. This book sounds so neat!! Russians have memorisation as an integral part of their education; I wish we had it in ours. I've always enjoyed memorising poems and stuff.

  3. I keep dipping in and out of this one. Absolutely fascinating!

  4. That sounds wonderful! I'll have to look for a copy. Of particular interest to me is that bit about the lack of emphasis on handwriting. My youngest son's teachers skipped right over cursive at elementary level and then nobody could figure out why he couldn't read cursive handwriting. Ahem. Seems pretty plain to me. We've had to work at home quite a bit to fill in those educational gaps.

  5. Hi, got my Lady of Cleves today :D
    Thanks again

  6. This sounds like a fascinating book, Jenclair. One of my favorite courses during my undergraduate studies was neuropsychology. I've added this one to my wishlist. Thanks for the great review.

  7. I must get this book, I think.

    I "volunteer" (really, it's more like I spend a couple hours every Thursday playing games with clients and other volunteers; we also occasionally do a writing group) with our local brain injury society, and my husband was in a construction accident in 2000 which resulted in a brain injury from which he's made remarkable recovery.

    I'd like to recommend a fabulous memoir called Where Is the Mango Princess? by Cathy Crimmins. (It's about her husband's brain injury and recovery.)

  8. Agreed with all above. This is an inspiring book. It made me wonder why it has taken so long for us to hear about some of these incredible scientists and their work.

    The scientific research on brain plasticity just keeps coming. Last year Susanne Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl released results of their study on Improving Fluid Intelligence by Training Working Memory (PNAS April 2008) which recorded increases in mental agility (fluid intelligence) of more than 40% after 19 days of focused brain training. Which seems extraordinary when we've been told all our lives that you can't make yourself smarter.

    PS. I was so impressed that we're using this training method in our brain fitness software

  9. Nymeth- I love reading about this kind of thing as well! I think you'd enjoy this book.

    Eva - Memorization can help us in more ways than we realize. The book points out that memorization aids our memory and, therefore, our comprehension.

    Kate - I knew I'd read about it on someone's blog!

    bookfool - It is a shame that the powers that be in education failed to understand the importance of skills like memorization and handwriting. Can't imagine skipping over cursive!

    Blodeuedd - I'm so glad it arrived...and pretty quickly, too!

    LF - Although for a long time, many scientists scoffed at the idea of neuroplasticity, it is widely accepted now. Neuropsychology is a fascinating field.

    Jena - The book would be particularly useful for people who work with those who have suffered brain injury. It tells about several programs and techniques that can help the brain recover function.

    Thanks for the recommendation - I'm adding Where is the Mango Princess to my list. Last year, I read In an Instant: A Family's Journey of Love and Healing about Bob Woodruff, the ABC co-anchor who suffered severe brain injury while embedded with the military in Iraq, which was also informative.

    Martin - It is amazing what
    can be done with today's technology!

  10. You know I don't read much NF but this sounds fascinating!

  11. iliana - It is! Full of great personal stories and the marvels of technology and more.

  12. Fascinating! It's now on my TBR list along with another book I just picked up after talking with my audiologist: This is Your Brain on Music.

  13. This one really grabs my interest. I don't know if you remember that I majored in and taught biology and chemistry. I've always been extremely interested in the brain.

  14. Robin - I've just added This Is Your Brain on Music to my list! Thanks!

    booklogged - Oh, then this one will really appeal to you! There was one chapter that I could have done without, but the rest was awesome!