Review ‘The brain that changes itself’

Title: The brain that changes itself

Author: Norman Doidge 

I don’t think about my brain very often as long as it functions normally, that is until I started to read this book. I was amazed at what I read; it truly felt like a wave hitting my brain refreshing my senses and my concept of how I think. 

What would I do if I lost my balance and felt like I was falling constantly, or if I had a stroke and couldn’t move half my body, or worse, if I only had half a brain? Would I survive?  

My hypothetical musings are reality for some, and the stories of those living with the results of a brain that is ‘changed’ are all told in the book. Norman Doidge, a MD and a psychoanalyst, made this book which is essentially about neuroscience, very readable and understandable. The author visits countless patients and outstanding scientists to create this amazing work. His arguments about the plasticity of the brain are convincing and also often challenging. 

Brain plasticity, is the central theme of this book, a term used by neuroscientists for a possibility of brain change. We all know it is crucial in the early stages of the development for children’s brain, but what the author’s research shows is, that it’s equally important for adults.  

Whether one is ill, like in the instance of a stroke, or suffering from dementia, or even in ‘normally’ functioning brains, brain plasticity happens in everyone, at every age.  The author explores some seemingly unconventional treatment for stroke victims and their recovery using detailed anecdotes for examples. He convinces us that there is hope for regaining complete functionality in the cerebral cortex, even with a completely damaged brain.  

The book also tells us how a ‘normally’ functioning brain can benefit from brain exercises to improve memory, reducing the chance of dementia and keeping the brain younger. Learning a new skill, like a musical instrument, or a new language has great benefits for our brain because it all requires concentration and focus. While improving learnt skills strengthens existing neuron connections, new learning keeps the brain younger as it is the act of concentrating on new things that makes new neuron connections.  

For example, Doidge says ‘those that perform genuine concentration – studying a musical instrument, playing board games, reading, dancing – are associated with a lower risk for dementia. Dancing, which requires learning new moves, is both physically and mentally challenging and requires much concentration. Less intense activities, such as bowling, babysitting, and golfing, are not associated with a reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s’. (p.255.)

Furthermore, because neurons ‘fire together and wire together’, it is evidentially confirmed that new connection can be made in virtually any circumstances.  What struck me is how people often make excuses for not doing new learning since they think the brain ages when one gets old, but what Neuroplasticity and its development show us is how we can change this wrong perception easily. Physical aging doesn’t necessary mean you have to forget things, have slower reactions, slip into dementia, and so on. One can still have a younger and healthy mind by exercising it properly. 

Doidge also mentions the impact of television, computers and other multimedia have in changing a child’s development during crucial ages. It is very important for parents to learn how to balance their child’s learning. Equally interesting is the author shows that pornography addiction destroys one’s taste for love.

In addition, Doidge believes that culture can influence the development of perceptual learning, and so he concludes: ”immigration is usually an unending, brutal workout for the adult brain, requiring a massive rewiring of vast amounts of our cortical real estate.’ (p.299). He also explains that ‘ successful assimilation, with few exceptions, requires at least a generation.’ (p.299). For me this revelation provides policy makers with scientific evidence when considering a range of political and social issues.  

The appendixes and notes are worth taking a look at too, as it is where the author gives us some crucial background information which is important when trying to understand the terms and history of the complicated science that is neruoplasticity.   

I truly believe that after reading this book, my brain map must be different to what it was. I think everyone should read this book, I strongly recommend it to any who wants to keep their intelligence and learn how to exercise their brain properly.