I give this book five stars easy. “The Brain That Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge was published in 2007 and has become an international best seller. It is an outstanding work that explains a number of remarkable and insightful discoveries from the fascinating world of neuroscience that has led to one of the biggest paradigm shifts in the field. Whilst many of us take a natural interest in the brain pausing at times to think about the rather small piece of meat that’s sitting within the top of our skulls powering our consciousness, it is difficult to gain a great deal of insight from the rather impenetrable scientific literature that surrounds human brain research. With the curious, non-expert in mind, Doidge takes us on a scientific adventure that is easy to understand, laying the fundamental groundwork of our previous and current knowledge about the brain and its ability to change itself. During the journey we encounter numerous eccentric, inspiring and insightful researchers, doctors and patients who were part of this revolution and many of whom were told they were crazy for doing so.
The word is neuroplasticity and the consequences of this discovery are immense. We are now beginning to understand the inner workings of previously Inconceivable recoveries – paralysed stroke victims learning to walk and talk again, a blind person given “sight”, a woman born with severe learning disabilities graduating from college with a PhD. By discovering the brains capacity to adapt and change itself, Doidge shows how best practices for rehabilitation and medical therapy have improved dramatically and how this impacts the quality of life for those suffering from brain trauma, sensory deprivation and other neurological disorders. Furthermore, he explores how this leap in understanding has helped us to readdress questions in psychology and how this may help us to optimize the ways we live and learn.
By demonstrating that our brain can help us to understand more about ourselves as individuals, “The Brain that Changes Itself” becomes an evidence-based tool and directory for how we can improve the functioning of our own minds and what we can expect in return. It provides reasons for why we should not feel condemned by the fifth grade teacher who told us we would never amount to anything nor the colleague who is convinced we lack a dynamic approach to tasks that require creative thinking. Where many of us have been brought up within a society and culture that has focused more on our genetics, our “IQ” and intelligence as a child, implying this notion of predetermined abilities – that we were either “naturally gifted” or not, research is suggesting that our intelligence, capabilities, “gifts” and “talents” are something that we have the power to develop ourselves despite genetic setbacks or initial challenges. This is not for the sake of a more progressive, considerate or “likeable” ideology or belief but because of the hard evidence that suggests our experience and how we “exercise” our brain as a child AND as an adult, has a much bigger impact on our brain than we had previously realized.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was one of the early pioneers of the ideas surrounding our mind’s ability to adapt. Way back in the 18th century, Rousseau suggested that “the organization of the brain” was affected by our experience. As Doidge explains, Rousseau thought that the brain’s development depended, at least somewhat, on what we exposed it to and how we exercised it, just like the muscles in our body. In the 20th Century, Donald Hebb’s research began to prove that this was indeed the case, and the law he developed, Hebb’s law, is often summarized as “neurons that fire together, wire together”. In other words, this means that our outer experience affects how our brain is wired and rewired. As Doidge explains, this capability introduces exciting avenues for progress in clinical psychology and the management of conditions, such as character disorders including sociopathy, which we have had little success in treating with other conventional routes.
Reading this book made me laugh and cry, it left me feeling empowered and it gave me hope for the future of our world. Not only is it exciting to see such positive steps in the field of medicine and read about how this has changed people’s lives, it was motivating to know that I can overcome things at work and in my personal life that I may find initially challenging by taking advantage of my brain’s ability to change. I think this book is for those who are curious about how our brain, mind, behaviours and experiences interact with one another and are interested in understanding how scientists, patients and doctors have worked together to unlock some of the secrets of the brain in the 20th and 21st Century. It is for those who seek motivation and want to know what neuroplasticity means for them, whether it be for their own rehabilitation and/or personal psychological growth and well being or for a loved one. This book is also for those who believe that the future progress of the human race lies in our ability to continue to learn and teach throughout our lifetime. It is for those who want to understand the wealth of hard evidence available and utilize this data to encourage others to continue to grow and make positive changes to their own life and the world around them.