Do you know any stroke victims? How about someone with a learning disability? Or anybody with OCD (obsessive compulsory disorder), other than that you’ve watched Monk on TV? Have you ever wondered how to keep your brain young for your years, or why people who have missing limbs often experience “phantom pain” where the limb used to be? The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge explores these questions and many more in an extremely engrossing and always informative way. The advances that have been and are being made in the field of brain sciences affects all of us. We all age (if we’re lucky); we all worry about the possibility of one day having a stroke; many if not all of us know of someone who has a learning disability; and we all would like to keep our mental faculties as long as possible, and to improve them to whatever extent we can.
The subtitle of the book, “Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science,” describes exactly what the book’s about. You’ll find yourself amazed at the progress that’s been made in the field of brain science, from people making recoveries from strokes that would have been thought impossible before to the story of a woman who was born with only the right hemisphere of her brain, yet has managed to lead a fairly normal and successful life. A book on the subject of brain science may sound dull and boring, but The Brain That Changes Itself is anything but that - it’s a book that sucks you in, and the subject matter is relative to all of us.
Throw away preconceived notions you might have that the brain is “hardwired” or like a machine, with each part specializing in a single function, and any ideas that once a part of the brain is damaged, whatever function that part of the brain performed is then lost forever. Rather, the brain is a marvelously plastic organ, with one part of it often capable of taking over from and performing the function of a damaged part. Scientists and doctors did not want to admit this possibility for a long time, but evidence, some of which is detailed in Doidge’s remarkable book, kept mounting, and the field of neuroplasticity was eventually born.
From the first chapter on, titled “A Woman Perpetually Falling...,” you’ll find information of a sort you likely have never heard before, that is presented in a manner a layperson can easily understand. By writing The Brain That Changes Itself as a collection of case histories and avoiding medical jargon to a large extent, the author makes the subject matter pertinent. He links the advances made with actual names and faces, making us care for the people he writes about and rejoice when we read about triumphs they make, sometimes seemingly against all odds.
One story (among many) that really brings home that people once considered (and still are, to many doctors) “hopeless cases” can be helped is that of the father of one of the pioneers in understanding brain plasticity, Paul Bach-y-Rita. Among other accomplishments, Bach-y-Rita “laid the groundwork for the greatest hope for the blind; retinal implants, which can be surgically inserted into the eye.”
His father, who was a doctor and professor, had a major stroke but dramatically recovered, due to Bach-y-Rita’s determination and work with his father on a daily basis, building up his physical and mental strength gradually until eventually he relearned how to walk and talk, type. He was finally able to go back to teaching and lived for several more years, until dying while mountain climbing of a heart attack. His autopsy result discovered for Bach-y-Rita exactly to what extent the stroke had damaged his father’s brain:
When he looked closely, Paul saw that his father’s seven-year-old lesion was mainly in the brain stem--the part of the brain closest to the spinal cord--and that other major
brain centers in the cortex that control movement had been destroyed by the stroke as
well. Ninety-seven percent of the nerves that run from the cerebral cortex to the spine
were destroyed - catastrophic damage that had caused his paralysis.
This much damage, many doctors likely would have suggested, would be impossible to recover from. Paul’s father’s brain had literally “reorganized” itself, the healthy parts taking over functions the damaged parts had performed. The map of his brain had been devastated, yet he was able to make a remarkable recovery.
The Brain That Changes Itself is mandatory reading. There are moments of pathos as well as joyous triumph. It’s sort of like an owner’s manual for the brain, giving advice on how to maintain intellect and reasoning functions as we grow older, along with the examples of the advances made and personal success stories mentioned. Norman Doidge’s gives the reader hope for the future of the health of yourself, your friends, and your loved ones. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is concerned about their own current and future mental health, and to anyone who enjoys stories of triumph against all odds.