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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.

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.


  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:

    And the pro­duc­tion com­pa­ny is:

  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:

  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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