In this book, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Dr. Norman Doidge provides a comprehensive review of neuroplasticity, including the science behind it and the wide-ranging implications for health, learning, and society. In this free version of The Brain that Changes Itself summary, we’ll briefly outline what’s neuroplasticity and its key applications and implications.
The Brain that Changes Itself: An Overview
For a long time, it was believed that the human brain operated like a machine with a fixed structure. However, there’s now compelling scientific evidence that our brain can change itself, a phenomenon called “neuroplasticity”.
The book is a collection of stories from scientists, doctors, and patients who’ve experienced the astonishing results of neuroplasticity. By incorporating scientific facts into narratives, Dr. Norman Doidge makes it easy to understand how the brain works, when/how plasticity occurs, and how neuroplasticity can be used to cure diseases, prevent aging, and enhance learning.
The book is organized into 11 chapters and 2 appendices, each focusing on stories/research around a specific expert or theme. In our complete version of The Brain that Changes Itself summary, we’ve distilled the early discoveries on brain plasticity, recent scientific findings and their range of applications into a 17-page summary (with options for text, infographic and audio formats in pdf and mp3).
In this free summary article, we’ll give some snippets of the stories and insights.
For many years, scientists believed in localizationism, which says that each part of the brain is fixed to a specific task or body organ.
Neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita started to question this in the early 1960s when brain scans showed a cats’ visual area lighting up when its paw was stroked or when it heard sounds. This suggested that the “visual” part of the cat’s brain also processed other functions. Bach-y-Rita began to think of the brain as “polysensory”, i.e. each sensory area can process signals from multiple senses. A blind man can still tell what’s around him by sweeping a cane back and forth, using his skin receptors to receive data which are decoded in the brain. In short, we see with our brains, not our eyes.
This insight led to many sensory-substitution inventions, e.g. gloves that allow blind people to read computer screens. Here are 2 stories to show the amazing effects of plasticity:
- Cheryl Schiltz lacked a working vestibular apparatus (the organ that helps us to balance). As a result, everything seemed shaky and she was perpetually falling. She was saved by one of Paul’s inventions—a “hat” that acted as an artificial sensor by connecting the tongue to the brain. Cheryl could balance while she wore the hat, and for a short while after that. The more she wore the hat, the longer the residual effect lasted because her brain was developing a new vestibular sense. Eventually, she could balance without using the device at all.
- Bach-y-Rita’s father suffered a stroke which destroyed 97% of the nerves connecting the cerebral cortex to the spine. He was told that he’d never walk again. Yet, after going through a series of therapies with his sons, he managed to walk and recover all his functions. Seven years after the stroke, a brain scan showed that the lesion from his stroke never healed, yet his brain had somehow reorganized itself to accomplish the amazing recovery.
In our full version of The Brain that Changes Itself summary, we also share the story of how Barbara Arrowsmith Young (who was considered “retarded”) found a way to heal herself and help others with learning disabilities—at a time when learning disabilities were not yet widely understood or accepted.
Understanding Brain Plasticity
Humans have about 100 billion brain neurons. Each neuron has three parts: the cell body (which sustains cell-life and carries its DNA), the axon (which carries electrical impulses at high speeds), and dendrites (which receive inputs from other neurons). Synapses are the microscopic spaces between axons through which signals travel—when they’re strengthened, the connections between neurons increase. “Rewiring” the brain is all about strengthening or weakening the synapses.
In our complete version of The Brain that Changes Itself summary, we will elaborate on the research findings for neuroplasticity over the past decades and their implications. These include:
- Research by leading neuroscientist Michael Merzenich who specializes in using brain maps and targeted brain training to redesign the brain. We’ll share how he uncovered invaluable insights about plasticity (and what they mean), such as:
(i) The “use it or lose it” principle;
(ii) Neurons that fire together wire together (and neurons that fire apart wire apart);
(iii) Brain maps are organized topographically, but not hardwired anatomically;
(iv) Plasticity improves with intense focus, and our neurons get more efficient as we master new skills
(v) Plasticity doesn’t happen in isolation.
- The importance of “critical periods” of plasticity in humans (and young animals), and the implications for learning and conditioning.
- Research by neurologist Edward Taub (using deafferentation experiments with monkeys) to show how plasticity can help patients to recover lost functions due to brain damage, and how patients with spine or brain damage may actually have lost their mobility due to “learned nonuse“.
- The 4 types of plasticity uncovered by research scientist Jordan Grafman, with stories of how people with half a brain (or massively damaged brains) managed to live normal lives.
Applications & Implications of our Changing Brain
Besides examining how neuroplasticity works, Doidge also shares detailed accounts of how it affects everything from learning to acquired tastes and treatments for diseases/disabilities. We’ve organized them into 5 main themes in our complete 17-page summary:
In our full version of The Brain that Changes Itself summary, we elaborate on the following insights:
- Various brain programs and treatments that have emerged using principles of neuroplasticity to treat dyslexia, autism, language impairment, stroke and brain-damage, cognitive degeneration and diseases like schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s disease. It’s possible for blind people to “see” again, for old folks to reverse the clock on their brains, and for patients to regain mobility years after a stroke.
- Overcoming bad habits, obsessions, and pain: Here, we’ll look at why our malleable brain can become rigid, and how to change bad habits. For example, patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can use change their brain patterns and overcome their OCD tendencies. Neurologist V. S. Ramachandran also found that “phantom pains” and discomfort can be countered using imagination and perception.
- Plasticity and learning: There’s a difference between short-term vs long-term learning. Mental practice (if done systematically) can also be as powerful as physical training because the brain doesn’t differentiate between imagination and action.
- Acquired Tastes, sexual attraction and love: All of us have inborn tastes and instincts, e.g. a baby naturally likes milk and sweets. We may also develop acquired tastes by growing to like things (e.g. blue cheese and sea urchins) that we initially disliked or were indifferent to. Our sexual preferences actually aren’t hard-wired for reproduction, but influenced by our experiences. In our full summary of The Brain that Changes Itself, we’ll explain (i) Sigmund Freud’s theories on critical periods for sexual plasticity, (ii) Doidge’s observations of porn addiction and how to reverse it, and (iii) how love triggers plasticity and massive changes in our brain when we fall in love and become parents.
- Psychotherapy and neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity can shape our genes and vice versa. In our full book summary, we explain how the process works, and how psychotherapy can change us fundamentally.
Basically, you’re not stuck with the brain or genes you were born with. Neuroplasticity is a double-edged sword. It can make us more flexible and adaptable, but it can also make us more rigid and vulnerable to outside influences. In our full summary, we’ll also touch on the link between brain plasticity and cultural influences.
Getting the Most from The Brain that Changes Itself
In this article, we’ve briefly outlined some of the key insights and strategies you can use to achieve desired change. For more examples, details, and actionable tips to apply these strategies, do get our complete book summary bundle which includes an infographic, 17-page text summary, and a 28-minute audio summary.
This book is packed with detailed stories and empirical research that take us through decades of scientific progress. Doidge shows how different scientists, doctors and researchers made their discoveries, how they tested and applied the newly-acquired knowledge, and what potential solutions are still being researched. Doidge also dives into detailed explanations of various organs, sensory/motor systems and diseases/disabilities, to help us understand how they relate to the latest findings in neuroscience. You can purchase the book here for the full details, or check out more details at www.normandoidge.com.
About the Author of The Brain that Changes Itself
The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science is written by Dr. Norman Doidge–a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, researcher, and author. He has been on faculty at the University of Toronto’s Department of Psychiatry, and Research Faculty at Columbia University’s Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University, in New York, for 30 years. Currently, he’s a trainer of psychoanalysts at the Toronto Institute of Psychoanalysis. Doidge has also won several clinical awards, scientific awards and science book awards.
The Brain that Changes Itself Quotes
“Any change in how we understand the brain ultimately affects how we understand human nature.”
“The brain is a far more open system than we ever imagined, and nature has…given us a brain that survives in a changing world by changing itself.”
“The plastic brain is perpetually altered by every encounter, every interaction.”
“All addiction involves long-term, sometimes lifelong, neuroplastic change in the brain.”
“Plasticity is a normal phenomenon, and brain maps are constantly changing.”