Book Excerpt
The Brain That Changes Itself : Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science
by Norman Doidge, M.D.

An excerpt from The Brain That Changes Itself : Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge, M.D., published 2007 by Penguin Books.
Book excerpt reprinted with the permission of the publisher.
Copyright © 2007 Norman Doidge, M.D.

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BOOK EXCERPT

This book is about the revolutionary discovery that the human brain can change itself, as told through the stories of the scientists, doctors, and patients who have together brought about these astonishing transformations. Without operations or medications, they have made use of the brain's hitherto unknown ability to change. Some were patients who had what were thought to be incurable brain problems; others were people without specific problems who simply wanted to improve the functioning of their brains or preserve them as they aged. For four hundred years this venture would have been inconceivable because mainstream medicine and science believed that brain anatomy was fixed. The common wisdom was that after childhood the brain changed only when it began the long process of decline; that when brain cells failed to develop properly, or were injured, or died, they could not be replaced. Nor could the brain ever alter its structure and find a new way to function if part of it was damaged. The theory of the unchanging brain decreed that people who were born with brain or mental limitations, or who sustained brain damage, would be limited or damaged for life. Scientists who wondered if the healthy brain might be improved or preserved through activity or mental exercise were told not to waste their time. A neurological nihilism -- a sense that treatment for many brain problems was ineffective or even unwarranted -- had taken hold, and it spread through our culture, even stunting our overall view of human nature. Since the brain could not change, human nature, which emerges from it, seemed necessarily fixed and unalterable as well.

The belief that the brain could not change had three major sources: the fact that brain-damaged patients could so rarely make full recoveries; our inability to observe the living brain's microscopic activities; and the idea -- dating back to the beginnings of modern science -- that the brain is like a glorious machine. And while machines do many extraordinary things, they don't change and grow.

I became interested in the idea of a changing brain because of my work as a research psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. When patients did not progress psychologically as much as hoped, often the conventional medical wisdom was that their problems were deeply "hardwired" into an unchangeable brain. "Hardwiring" was another machine metaphor coming from the idea of the brain as computer hardware, with permanently connected circuits, each designed to perform a specific, unchangeable function.

When I first heard news that the human brain might not be hardwired, I had to investigate and weigh the evidence for myself. These investigations took me far from my consulting room.

I began a series of travels, and in the process I met a band of brilliant scientists, at the frontiers of brain science, who had, in the late 1960s or early 1970s, made a series of unexpected discoveries. They showed that the brain changed its very structure with each different activity it performed, perfecting its circuits so it was better suited to the task at hand. If certain "parts" failed, then other parts could sometimes take over. The machine metaphor, of the brain as an organ with specialized parts, could not fully account for changes the scientists were seeing. They began to call this fundamental brain property "neuroplasticity."

Neuro is for "neuron," the nerve cells in our brains and nervous systems. Plastic is for "changeable, malleable, modifiable." At first many of the scientists didn't dare use the word "neuroplasticity" in their publications, and their peers belittled them for promoting a fanciful notion. Yet they persisted, slowly overturning the doctrine of the unchanging brain. They showed that children are not always stuck with the mental abilities they are born with; that the damaged brain can often reorganize itself so that when one part fails, another can often substitute; that if brain cells die, they can at times be replaced; that many "circuits" and even basic reflexes that we think are hardwired are not. One of these scientists even showed that thinking, learning, and acting can turn our genes on or off, thus shaping our brain anatomy and our behavior -- surely one of the most extraordinary discoveries of the twentieth century.

In the course of my travels I met a scientist who enabled people who had been blind since birth to begin to see, another who enabled the deaf to hear; I spoke with people who had had strokes decades before and had been declared incurable, who were helped to recover with neuroplastic treatments; I met people whose learning disorders were cured and whose IQs were raised; I saw evidence that it is possible for eighty-year-olds to sharpen their memories to function the way they did when they were fifty-five. I saw people rewire their brains with their thoughts, to cure previously incurable obsessions and traumas. I spoke with Nobel laureates who were hotly debating how we must rethink our model of the brain now that we know it is ever changing.

The idea that the brain can change its own structure and function through thought and activity is, I believe, the most important alteration in our view of the brain since we first sketched out its basic anatomy and the workings of its basic component, the neuron. Like all revolutions, this one will have profound effects. The neuroplastic revolution has implications for, among other things, our understanding of how love, sex, grief, relationships, learning, addictions, culture, technology, and psychotherapies change our brains. All of the humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences, insofar as they deal with human nature, are affected, as are all forms of training. All of these disciplines will have to come to terms with the fact of the self-changing brain and with the realization that the architecture of the brain differs from one person to the next and that it changes in the course of our individual lives.

While the human brain has apparently underestimated itself, neuroplasticity isn't all good news; it renders our brains not only more resourceful but also more vulnerable to outside influences. Neuroplasticity has the power to produce more flexible but also more rigid behaviors -- a phenomenon I call "the plastic paradox." Ironically, some of our most stubborn habits and disorders are products of our plasticity. Once a particular plastic change occurs in the brain and becomes well established, it can prevent other changes from occurring. It is by understanding both the positive and negative effects of plasticity that we can truly understand the extent of human possibilities.

The Brain That Changes Itself : Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge, M.D.,
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BOOK DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHER

The discovery that our thoughts can change the structure and function of our brains -- even into old age -- is the most important breakthrough in neuroscience in four centuries. In this revolutionary look at the brain, bestselling author, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst Norman Doidge, M.D., introduces both the brilliant scientists championing this new science of neuroplasticity and the astonishing progress of the people whose lives they've transformed. Introducing principles we can all use as well as a riveting collection of case histories -- stroke patients cured, a woman with half a brain that rewired itself to work as a whole, learning and emotional disorders overcome, Iqs raised, and aging brains rejuvenated -- The Brain That Changes Itself has "implications for all human beings, not to mention human culture, human learning and human history" (The New York Times).

The Brain That Changes Itself : Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge, M.D.,
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Norman Doidge, M.D., is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and researcher 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, as well as an author, essayist, and poet. He is a four-time recipient of Canada's National Magazine Gold Award. He divides his time between Toronto and New York.

The Brain That Changes Itself : Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge, M.D.,
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BOOK REVIEWS

"Doidge's book is a remarkable and hopeful portrait of the endless adaptability of the human brain ... Only a few decades ago, scientists considered the brain to be fixed or 'hardwired,' and considered most forms of brain damage, therefore, to be incurable. Dr. Doidge, an eminent psychiatrist and researcher, was struck by how his patients' own transformations belied this, and set out to explore the new science of neuroplasticity by interviewing both scientific pioneers in neuroscience and patients who have benefited from neurorehabilitation. Here he describes in fascinating personal narratives how the brain, far from being fixed, has remarkable powers of changing its own structure and compensating for even the most challenging neurological conditions."

-- Oliver Sacks

"In bookstores, the science aisle generally lies well away from the selfhelp section, with hard reality on one set of shelves and wishful thinking on the other. But Norman Doidge's fascinating synopsis of the current revolution in neuroscience straddles this gap: the age-old distinction between the brain and the mind is crumbling fast as the power of positive thinking finally gains scientific credibility. Mind-bending, miracle-working, reality-busting stuff, with implications ...not only for individual patients with neurologic disease but for all human beings, not to mention human culture, human learning and human history."

-- The New York Times

"Lucid and absolutely fascinating ... Engaging, educational and riveting. It satisfies, in equal measure, the mind and the heart. Doidge is able to explain current research in neuroscience with clarity and thoroughness. He presents the ordeals of the patients about whom he writes -- people born with parts of their brains missing, people with learning disabilities, people recovering from strokes -- with grace and vividness. In the best medical narratives -- and the works of Doidge ... Join that fraternity

-- the narrow bridge between body and soul is traversed with courage and eloquence."

-- Chicago Tribune

"Readers will want to read entire sections aloud and pass the book on to someone who can benefit from it. [Doidge] links scientific experimentation with personal triumph in a way that inspires awe for the brain, and for these scientists' faith in its capacity."

-- The Washington Post

"Doidge tells one spellbinding story after another as he travels the globe interviewing the scientists and their subjects who are on the cutting edge of a new age. Each story is interwoven with the latest in brain science, told in a manner that is both simple and compelling. It may be hard to imagine that a book so rich in science can also be a page-turner, but this one is hard to set down."

-- Jeff Zimman, Posit Science, e-newsletter

"It takes a rare talent to explain science to the rest of us. Oliver Sacks is a master at this. So was the late Stephen Jay Gould. And now there is Norman Doidge. A terrific book. You don't have to be a brain surgeon to read it -- just a person with a curious mind. Doidge is the best possible guide. He has a fluent and unassuming style, and is able to explain difficult concepts without talking down to his readers. The case study is the psychiatric literary genre par excellence, and Doidge does not disappoint. What makes neuroplasticity so exciting is that it completely upends how we look at the brain. It says that the brain, far from being a collection of specialized parts, each fixed in its location and function, is in fact a dynamic organ, one that can rewire and rearrange itself as the need arises. It is an insight from which all of us can benefit. People with severe afflictions -- strokes, cerebral palsy, schizophrenia, learning disabilities, obsessive compulsive disorders and the like -- are the most obvious candidates, but who among us would not like to tack on a few IQ points or improve our memories? Buy this book. Your brain will thank you."

-- The Globe & Mail (Toronto)

"The most readable and best general treatment of this subject to date."

-- Michael M. Merzenich, Ph.D., Francis Sooy Professor, Keck Center for Integrative Neurosciences, University of California at San Francisco

"A masterfully guided tour through the burgeoning field of neuroplasticity research."

-- Discover

"Norman Doidge's book is beautifully written and brings life and clarity to a variety of neuropsychiatric problems that affect children and adults. With case histories that read like excellent short stories to illustrate each syndrome ... It reads a bit like a science detective story and is fun ... And manages to humanize an often baffling area of science and controversy. It is aimed at the well-educated lay reader -- you do not need a Ph.D. to benefit from the wisdom imparted here."

-- Barbara Milrod, M.D. Psychiatry, Weill Medical College of Cornell University

"A riveting, essential book. Doidge covers an impressive amount of ground and is an expert guide, a sense of wonder always enriching his skill as an explicator of subject matter that in less able hands could be daunting or even impenetrable. These stories are most emotionally satisfying ... Doidge addresses how cultural influences literally 'shape' our brain ... It becomes clear that our response to the world around us is not only a social or psychological phenomenon, but often a lasting neurological process."

-- The Gazette (Montreal)

"Doidge provides a history of the research in this growing field, highlighting scientists at the edge of groundbreaking discoveries and telling fascinating stories of people who have benefited."

-- Psychology Today

"For years, the conventional wisdom has been that the human brain remains fixed after early childhood, subject only to deterioration. Children with mental limitations or adults suffering from brain injury can never hope to attain brain normality. Not so, says Doidge. He outlines the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Through numerous case studies, he describes stroke victims who have learned to move and speak again, senior citizens who have sharpened their memories, and children who have raised their Iqs and overcome learning disabilities, among others. The science, he predicts, will have ramifications for professionals in many fields, but especially for teachers of all types."

-- Education Week

"Astonishing. This book will inevitably draw comparisons to the work of Oliver Sacks. Doidge has a prodigious gift for rendering the highly technical highly readable. It's hard to imagine a more exciting topic or a better introduction to it."

-- The Kitchener Waterloo Record

"We've long known that brain changes can affect our psychology and what we think. Norman Doidge has shown that what and how we think can change our brains. He has illuminated the foundations of psychological healing."

-- Charles Hanly, Ph.D., President-Elect, International Psychoanalytical Association

"A panoramic examination of plasticity's profound implications. Injured or dysfunctional cells and circuits can indeed be regenerated and rewired; the location of a given function can, astonishingly, move from one place to another. The body's lifespan may not have to outpace its mental lifespan ... Everything that you can see happen in a young brain can happen in an older brain. Deterioration can be reversed by twenty to thirty years."

-- Toronto Daily Star

"An eloquently written book about the boundless potential of the human brain. In addition to being a fascinating, informative and emotionally powerful read, it has the potential to enlighten parents about the incredible learning-enhancing opportunities now available to them and their children. Addresses learning disabilities in a unique way and could revolutionize the way educational issues are addressed."

-- The Jewish Week

''A rich banquet of brain-mind plasticity, communicated in a brilliantly clear writing style."

-- Jaak Panksepp, Ph.D., Bailey Endowed Chair of Animal Well-Being Science, Washington State University; Head, Affective Neuroscience Research, Falk Center for Molecular Therapeutics, Northwestern University; Distinguished Research Professor of Psychobiology, Emeritus, Bowling Green State University

"Why isn't this book on the top of the bestseller list of all time? In my mind the recognition that the brain is plastic and can actually change itself with exercise and understanding is a huge leap in the history or mankind -- far greater than landing on the moon. Clear, fascinating, and gripping. Dr. Doidge gives new hope to everyone from the youngest to the oldest among us."

-- Jane S. Hall, International Psychoanalysis

"A hymn to life."

-- Panorama (Italy)

"An owner's manual for the brain, giving advice on how to maintain intellect and reasoning functions as we grow older, Doidge's book gives the reader hope for the future. I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys stories of triumph against all odds. Extremely engrossing, and always informative."

-- Curled Up With a Good Book

"Doidge ... Turns everything we thought we knew about the brain upside down."

-- Publishers Weekly

"Supurb. Brilliant. I devoured it."

-- V.S. Ramachandran, M.D., Ph.D., Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, UCSD, and author of Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind

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