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 schools 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.
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.
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.
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 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:
- Brain Plasticity: How learning changes your brain
- Neuroscience Interview Series: interviews with over 15 brain scientists on how to direct the property of neuroplasticity.