of The Brain that Changes Itself|
Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, Mensa member, and author of over 6000 articles.
Brain research has made breakthroughs that can benefit just about everyone. Most individuals can benefit enormously by simply changing the kinds of inputs they provide their minds. This book discusses what some of those changes and inputs would be. Other benefits can also arise with other things people can do (also discussed in this book).
On a larger scale, this research holds the answer to the stupidity epidemic that is presently overwhelming our society. We see colossal stupidity on a massive scale in many ways, such as the $9 trillion USA federal debt that is growing even faster this year than last because Congress has increased the level of irrational spending. The book doesn't explore the idea of reversing aggregate stupidity, but it's one that struck me again and again as I read the book. If a critical mass of people engaged in purposeful brain input management, that could start a trend of diminishing stupidity. Maybe the book leaves this idea alone in an effort to avoid political commentary.
The Brain That Changes Itself sheds light on why so many people can't filter information, focus, or use the tools of reasoning--and why others can. Consequently, it provides us with insight on the effects of brain retraining--plus the how, what, and why. We also learn who some of the key players have been in the long battle to bring the concept of brain plasticity into the medical mainstream.
This is not really a self-help book, but it does give the reader a good overview of where brain science is today and how it might be personally useful. Most people are unwitting participants in the wrong kind of brain training (for example, watching television), as evidenced by many metrics of mental performance (such as the "sound bite attention spans" of today). You are always training your brain, whether you are trying to or not--that's a "between the lines" point that frequently emerges while reading this book.
Dr. Doidge brings us the latest brain research with real life accounts that are both informative and inspiring. The main principle he illustrates is the brain rewires itself based on a "use it or lose it" model. A related principle is "neurons that fire together wire together." The various accounts that demonstrate or prove these principles are fascinating.
The book shows conclusively how wrong some long-held beliefs are (for example, that people can't become smarter or learn new skills when they are older). It also justifies other beliefs (for example, talk therapy works--and it does so because it causes the physical structure of the brain to change). The book mostly does that with detailed accounts of individuals who have pushed the frontiers of brain science forward--often despite powerful opposition or hardships.
The brain, as Doidge repeatedly points out with evidence, logic, and anecdotes, is plastic (malleable). It adapts to its inputs, forming new neural connections, new structures (arrangements of cells), and even new cells as needed. We do not yet know the limits of this plasticity or how to drive the brain all the way to its limits. But we have some amazing examples of where limits that would seem "fixed" don't actually exist. Two such examples are the woman with half a brain (meaning not that she's a member of Congress but that she physically has only one hemisphere--the other half of her skull is empty) and the Sea Gypsies who have developed extreme control over their eyes so they can see clearly even thirty feet under water.
Unlike many works that are in the nonfiction section today, this one actually is nonfiction. It contains no political agenda, and it doesn't stray off topic. Clues to how authoritative The Brain That Changes Itself is may be found by perusing the notes and references section--which, at over 80 pages, makes up about 20% of the book.
This book contains 11 chapters and two Appendices. The first two chapters are inspiring stories of people who had seemingly insurmountable afflictions but used brain training to almost completely overcome them.
Chapter Three is more for "normal" people who are interested in becoming smarter. It details the research of Michael Merzenich on sharpening perception, improving memory, and increasing the speed of thought. Merzenich also delved into solving learning problems. The next chapter should hook just about everybody, as it explains the role of neuroplasticity in love and sexual attraction.
The next two chapters go into specific problems and how brain plasticity relieved them or even provided a total cure. Chapter Seven explores the dark side of plasticity, looking at such things as how brainwashing works. The flipside of that is the subject of Chapter Eight.
In Chapter Nine, research shows how and why "talk therapy" causes beneficial structural changes to the brain. These changes are more effective than drugs or surgery, because they solve the root problem rather than masking or muting the symptoms. There has long been a close-minded, one-sided "debate" in the medical profession as to the merits of psychoanalysis (or alleged lack thereof). The research explained in this chapter would appear to settle the "question" with finality.
It has long been canonical in medical literature that, while the liver and other organs can self-repair, the brain can't. Chapter Ten discusses why this isn't the case and what the implications are for a wide variety of conditions.
The eleventh chapter is the story of a woman who has only her right hemisphere. Her left hemisphere just never developed, leaving her with half a brain. The rich detail of this account makes for fascinating, page-turning reading. But the real value lies in the lessons we can take away from it, and those lesson are profound. Doidge highlights some of the implications of this case study, but just thinking about it later is a real mind-bender.
I'm a bit puzzled as to why the two Appendices aren't simply Chapter Twelve and Thirteen, especially since Appendix One is chapter-length. It could be because in the Appendices the author has inserted his own views and speculations, whereas in the eleven Chapters he took the role of reporter rather than commentator.
In any case, Appendix One looks at the interplay of brain plasticity and culture. Appendix Two is short, and it discusses the double-edged sword aspect of "progress" and "perfectibility" in regard to brain plasticity.
This book is on my "must read" list. A book that dovetails nicely with this one is The New Brain.