Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself was a snowballing, word-of-mouth bestseller. Its big news was that our brains, far from being “ever-fixed”, are adaptive, changeable. In a word, neuroplastic.
Picture a phrenological bust, with the brain’s moral geography mapped out on its surface – “combativeness” behind the ear, “mirth” at the hairline. Over the 20th century, theories of “localisation” held that the capacity for language, say, or sense of balance could be lost if that part of the brain designated responsible were damaged.
Only in recent decades have the closed-border certainties of the “hardwired” brain been seriously challenged. Now, thanks to technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the brain’s plastic abilities are undeniable. Scans reveal that, in survivors of stroke or head injury, unimpaired areas of the brain can be – and are – recruited to perform functions for which they are apparently unqualified. The old thinking deemed such adaptation impossible.
In his new book, Doidge again scouts the frontiers of neuroplasticity to bring tidings of the next-generation therapies that promise to stimulate and harness the brain’s regenerative capacity. Some, using light, sound, motion and the gentlest of touch, draw on insights from traditional Eastern medicine. Paired with mental awareness and activity, says Doidge, these and other energy-based therapies are producing unmistakeable proofs “that the mind can alter the brain”.
Doidge is an ardent herald of the new science. He writes with unflagging awe of researchers’ ingenuity, of patients’ determination and, above all, of the miracles he sees wrought: people who walk off the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, or overcome stroke, traumatic brain injury, chronic pain, lifelong blindness, dyslexia, autism – despite, invariably, a phalanx of doctors having declared their prospects hopeless.
The book is a umami blend of science and self-help, offering plenty of “wow” moments besides hope to sufferers of the intractable. Only the fine print reveals how small a percentage of patients experience improvements of the magnitude depicted in the case studies. And while the (albeit tentative) credence Doidge lends to a link between vaccination and autism will, for some readers, underscore his open-mindedness, for others it will raise a red flag. FL
Scribe, 432pp, $35
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 7, 2015 as "Norman Doidge, The Brain’s Way of Healing ".
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