Our plastic brains
I was eager to read The Brain that Changes Itself. The book is about the possibility of recovery from brain injury. I wondered whether the long-held idea of the human brain as a complex yet rigid machine was about to be challenged. Perhaps it could even be disproven.
Detailed yet accessible
In The Brain that Changes Itself, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Norman Doidge puts forward the idea of “neuroplasticity”. The idea is that the brain is plastic and capable of reshaping itself. The concept suggests people may improve, recover and preserve brain function through targeted activities and mental exercises. It is very exciting for people like me whose brains have been damaged.
Doidge’s book provides a detailed yet accessible account of the evolution of neuroplasticity. Doidge tells of his professional journey to learn more about this revolutionary theory through interviews with prominent neuroscientists and their patients. There are also explanations of groundbreaking experiments.
Acquired brain injury
Doidge opens the book with an account of a young woman with an acquired brain injury. She had damage to around 98 per cent of the vestibular (balance) system within her brain. For several years she felt as if she was continually falling. She had been unable to stand independently.
Doidge describes how neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita tackled the problem. An artificial vestibular system was contained in a helmet. It sent measurements of orientation and movement to a sensory feedback strip positioned on the woman’s tongue. Every time her body tilts, her tongue is stimulated in relation to the movement. Through this alternative pathway, her brain was able to change itself. It recruited new areas to perform the function of her damaged vestibular system. Over time the woman was able to learn to stand, then walk. Eventually she even learned to ride a bike.
The book explores many fascinating aspects of this emerging field. I found myself caught between an overwhelming desire to read on and the excitement of immediately changing my own brain.