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Neuroplasticity and the Brain That Changes Itself

I first discovered Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain That Changes Itself, in a May, 2007 review in the New York Times. Intrigued, but caught up in myriad end-of-school-year responsibilities, the book was put out of my mind until later that summer, when our The Brain that Changes Itself - Norman Doidgeschools learning specialist emailed to say she had just finished a fascinating book. The Brain That Changes Itself: Stores of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, is a compelling collection of tales about the amazing abilities of the brain to rewire, readjust and relearn after having a slice of itself rendered dysfunctional. The first seven chapters captivated me for their personal stories; the final four chapters for the science and philosophy.

Part of what makes Doidge’s writing so accessible is he tells stories, and his stories just happen to incorporate brain science. As a result, his book is easy to digest. The neuroscience behind Doidge’s book involves neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to rewire itself. This means that the brain is our intelligence  is not something fixed in concrete but rather a changing, learning entity. On the face of it, this concept should not sound unusual, for it is what happens to individuals all the time as we go about the learning process, from infancy onwards.

What separates the stories in this book from daily learning is that the brains in question have been damaged in some form or other. Each tale is inspirational in that the individuals are able to overcome substantial, life-altering events, such as severe illness and stroke, in part thanks to the research of visionary scientists and doctors who developed methods and tools to facilitate neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity
The catchy phrase behind neuroplasticity is “neurons that fire together wire together”. The idea is that when two events (neurons firing) occur in the brain at the same time, the events (neurons) become associated with one another, and the neuronal connections (wiring) become stronger.

For many years, it was thought that each area of the brain had its own responsibilities; in other words, certain functions were localized or hardwired to certain brain areas. If something is hardwired then it is fixed and not capable of change.

However, while certain areas of the brain do tend to be responsible for specific functions, since the brain is plastic, areas overlap and even can co-opt one another’s functions. Initial maps drawn of our mental system turn out to be not as static as originally thought. If one pathway gets blocked, the brain is very good at finding alternative pathways.

As with any pathway, the more a particular path is used, the more ingrained it becomes, and pathways near one another become associated with each other. If a path is underutilized, over time it will be co-opted by other pathways that are branching out and need more space.

Hence, plasticity can be summed up in a few succinct statements all from chapter three  Redesigning the brain:

– Neurons that fire together wire together.

– Neurons that wire apart fire apart. This is also stated as Neurons out of sync fail to link.

– Use it or lose it.

The Scientists
Doidge includes stories of the neuroscientists, among them Paul Bach-y-Rita, who pioneered the idea of “polysensory”. Polysensory refers to the sensory areas of the brain, which rather than only processing information from just the senses that normally report to those areas, are actually able to process information from any of the senses.

Michael Merzenich, a developer of the cochlear implant and founder of Posit Science, is another of the scientists noted by Doidge. Merzenich says that “You cannot have plasticity in isolation – an absolute impossibility. (and Doidge continues) His experiments have shown that if one brain system changes, those systems connected to it change as well.

Following on his heels is Edward Taub, who established constraint induced therapy, an alternative therapy for individuals felled by stroke. Taub’s research supported Merzenich’s findings that “when a brain map is not used, the brain can reorganize itself so that another mental function takes over that processing space.

Alvaro Pascual-Leone’s experiments began with looking at what happens in the minds of those who read Braille, and transitioned to looking at how “our thoughts can change the material structure of our brains. His goal was “to test whether mental practice and imagination in fact lead to physical changes. This is, indeed, what happens when athletes use visualization to help prepare for sports trials.

In the last quarter of Doidge”s book, which is equally interesting for the clarification of theories, he discusses the work of Eric Kandel, Sigmund Freud, Santiago Ramy Cajal, Jordan Grafman, and several other scientists who are exploring neuroplasticity.

My Take-Aways
I see plasticity and metacognition as closely entwined. This combination of knowing that intelligence is not fixed and thus you can change it, and knowing how you learn, is immensely positive and powerful, and has huge implications for students of any age. I translate this to students who struggle with learning issues, and aging adults who fear their brains will fade. I also think it is important for teachers to understand the concept of brain plasticity, as a means for no longer pigeon holing students.

Of course, we take away from an authors writing what we want or need to learn. As a provider of professional development to faculty, the final lesson I take from Doidge’s book is the power of multifaceted professional development to foster neuroplasticity in adults, and therefore enhance their creativity. I take the message that most of us have the ability to break out of habits and to learn something new, and each time we do this, it strengthens our ability to do it the next time!

Laurie Bartels— Laurie Bartels writes the Neurons Firing blog to create for herself the “the graduate course I’d love to take if it existed as a program”. She is the K-8 Computer Coordinator and Technology Training Coordinator at Rye Country Day School in Rye, New York. She is also the organizer of Digital Wave annual summer professional development, and a frequent attendee of Learning & The Brain conferences.

For more on brain plasticity and learning:

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11 Responses

  1. spencer says:

    i read this entire book – twice. i loved it. all the pornographic stuff feels out of place (i didn’t expect to see so many phrases like “c*m d*mpster”. that all felt so out of place. but the book was interesting. reminded me a little of “change your brain change your life”, but no SPECT scanners and lots of dirty words.

  2. My primary interest and fascination with neuro-plasticity is not its scientific value but that it is yet one more scientific observation that philosophers have “known” and buddhist monks have practiced for thousands of years…

    “All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become.” ~ Buddha

    Great post, by the way. I’m a fan of this blog…

  3. Hi.

    I have just come to this site and I have to say that I think it’s fascinating. I never knew such a site existed. In regards to the article post, Its true that the brain is very malleable. Even into old age, seniors can maintain peak mental fitness. The only downside is that their “processing speed” is slower.

  4. Benj Langdon says:

    Doidge inexplicably left Moshe Feldenkrais’ work out of his book even though he has written articles about it in the past.
    I’m sure he and Merzenich,Taub et al know their intellectual debt to him but never mention it.
    Very odd. I wonder how many people get ignored in the history of science because of stuff like this.

  5. HI Benj,

    You are the second person to comment on this in some fashion. I also received a comment on my Neurons Firing blog from someone who provides Feldenkrais training.

    Here is a 2007 link to an article regarding an interview with Doidge on CBC Radio Canada. It’s a long link but hopefully it will appear in full.

    http://feldenkraismanitoba.wordpress.com/2007/05/07/cbc-radio-on-rebuilding-the-brain/

    Regards,
    Laurie

  6. Benj Langdon says:

    Doidge wrote an article about Feldenkrais called “new hope for aching yuppie bodies” or something like that.This was written several years ago.Taub’s constraint therapy also has familiar elements as well.

  7. Norman Doidge references the Arrowsmith School in his book and talks about Barbara Arrowsmith Young and he struggle to “fix her brain”. Her school, to which my son attended last year, was the subject of a documentation that may interest your readership. While those in the US may have to wait until it airs on PBS, it is airing in Canada on the CBC on Tuesday, November 18.

    The URL to the CBC’s website is:
    http://www.cbc.ca/documentaries/thelens/2008/fixingmybrain/

    And the production company is:
    http://www.matteroffactmedia.com/index.html

  8. Ananga says:

    Thank you for submitting this excellent article to the Living by Design Blog Carnival. I received 136 submissions from which I picked my 7 favourite posts – this article was one of them. I appreciate your contribution.

  9. Mike King says:

    Found this through the living by design carnival. Very cool site and I think I’ll check out this book now, I’ve been wanting something like this, just hadn’t gone hunting yet.

  10. Greetings all!

    I just got back from Neuroscience 2008 which was filled with lots of research papers looking at the neurochemistry of neuroplasticity! Along those lines, Takao Hench at Children’s Hospital, Harvard noted how neuroplasticity can be interrupted during embryonic development, thereby affecting the potential for neuroplasticity in later life.

    The take home message: let’s take a good hard look at the research as we work to keep our brains fit with all that we know at this point!

    For more info, see my blog on the conference proceedings:

    http://spacesuityoga.com

  11. Alison says:

    This book sounds interesting. I will check for it at my local library. I like the idea of using real-life stories then relating the science – it seems that would be more easily absorbed into memory. Come to think of it, if a brain science book can’t be written to help us learn what can?!

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