Doidge, N. (2014). The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of
Brain Science. London: Penguin.
Norman Doidge is a psychoanalyst and psychiatrist. He writes this book to show how the brain is dynamic and powerful able to adapt to situations considered irreversible. The author tends to pass the message that “the brain is capable of changing itself”. This is how it is able to cope and mitigate difficult situations. The book extensively talks about neuroplasticity. Doidge believed that the brain is like a plastic living organ capable of changing its own function and structure even in times of old age.
Earlier on, the brain was thought to be like a machine that ages and wears off with time. Using high technology experiment, it was later learned that the brain does not age with time or war off as time goes by. Instead, it remains in the same state as it was during infancy, with the ability to grow, adapt, and change form as necessary (Doidge, 2014). Neuroplasticity is meant to help those
with extreme brain damage and instill some hope in them. However, it is through this process that scholars and neuroscientists got to learn more about the brain (Doidge, 2014). As a scientist, Doidge wanted to study about neuroplasticity. He initiated his research and interviewed a number of neuroscientists and the people that had their lives transformed by neuroplasticity. The data collected from this study is what is comprised of this book.
The book has numerous stories from the perspectives of the great minds behind neuroplasticity and the beneficiaries of the procedures. The book makes a collection of the people who had been rendered hopeless by brain damage and written off beyond assistance. Interviews with these beneficiaries, researchers, scientists and clinicians make up the largest part of the book. Apart from the interviews, the author draws from previous studies conducted by other researchers to show that the brain really adapts hence plastic. The book is arranged in stories. The first one is about a woman who is constantly feeling like she is falling. The feeling was never ending. The woman had her a damaged vestibular system in the inner ear. This is the part that harbors the senses of balance. This was the case until she found herself in a neuroscience lab where the neuroscientists put some electrodes on her tongue and a hat that had some wires on her head. Since that moment, the feeling stopped. The neuroscientist sent a message to the brain and it responded. The wires that had been connected were coming from a computer that acted as an external
vestibular system, which the researcher used to send the right signal through her tongue. The woman would come in from time to time for about a year. From there on, the brain learned how to bypass the malfunctioned area of the vestibular system and she no longer needed the external device (Doidge, 2014).
The author also features another story of an amputee with a seriously disturbing itch on his amputated hand that torments him day and night. A neuroscientist notes that the cells of the brain that used to receive signals from the hand were devoted to his face. When the athlete scratched his cheek, the itch would disappear (Doidge, 2014). A similar case is also narrated with another
athlete who had disturbing pain on his amputated elbow. However, he was trained using mirrors to recognize his arm and stretch it out. After a month of this exercise, the brain was able to rearrange the damaged circuits and the illusion that was created of the arm and the pain vanished altogether (Doidge, 2014). Doidge (2014) continues to show the power of the brain using another beneficiary of neuroplasticity; a surgeon attacked by stroke who also learned how to regain his mobility using neuroplasticity. He could not move his arm and hand. He was set to clean table in a rehabilitation clinic that he had enrolled. Initially the task was not possible to carry out at all costs. With time the hand started to remember its skills. Slowly by slowly he regained his ability to write and how to play tennis. The functions that were buried in the part of the brain that had been killed got transferred to the working part of the brain. Such are the stories that have been featured in the book. The stories are both moving and unbelievable. Other stories featured are of a woman who had been labeled as retarded who learned how to heal herself, locking and unlocking the brain by using plasticity to stop bad habits, compulsions, and worries among others (Doidge, 2014). The book also talks about what plasticity teaches us regarding love and sexual attraction. It also talks about how thinking makes things happen, how to preserve our brain and the extent to which the brain can be plastic. The book also covers an interesting topic about love and other warm emotions. This helps the reader understand how the brain works in relation to matters of the heart. Doidge (2014) also talks about porn addicts that had recovered from the habit through neuroplasticity. Through these case studies, Doidge (2014) shows both the good side and the negative effects that neuroplasticity can has on a person. A good example of negative effects is shown when Doidge says that neuroplasticity: “…renders our brains not only more resourceful, but also more vulnerable to outside influences.”(318) Balancing between the benefits and the possible negative effects of neuroplasticity enhances the credibility of the book and eliminates biasness. Otherwise, Doidge would exhibit lack of professionalism by making him to look like an advocator of
This book shows Doidge as an excellent communicator and narrator/ explainer. The way he uses all these stories to shed light about neuroplasticity is straight to the point and engaging. The author introduces the readers to the experts behind neuroplasticity, and the help they accorded to the patients, the victims that recovered from their conditions; lost eyesight, deaf, lost mobility among other critical conditions involving the brain. The way he tells the stories from the various sources is nicely arranged to create a moving and insightful book. The book is arranged into stories with different unique experiences. He also throws in human interest stories about love and sensitive topics like porn addiction. Some of these topics like love are things that an average human would want to learn. They would want to learn how the brain handles love and such emotions. To validate his theories and stories, as a scientist Doidge (2014) uses research from other scientists to back up his main points and findings. This is evidence from other studies that have been carried out by scientists in the field (Fry, 2008). Some of the scientists he quotes include Eric Kandel, Aleksandr Luria, Sigmund Freud, and Paul Broca (Doidge, 2014). This makes his book credible and founded on scientific grounds. It also makes the book a good read for students and other practicing practitioners, worthy of guidance in their practice. The main theme in the book is brain plasticity. It is reflected throughout the book. This is how the brain is able to adapt to changes and tough/ situations previously believed to be impossible. In each and every chapter, he presents a new story that furthers this theme. Every story in every chapter dazzles the reader by showing him how plastic the brain can be. The author chose a style that is more narrative rather than scientific. However, it might be due to the fact that he was also targeting the general readership with his book albeit being useful the most to people in the field. Using a combination of scientific and journalistic approach, he brings rather complex subjects to the level of a lay person. The book is mind changing for those people, including scientists that thought that damage to the brain was a one way street. Doidge (2014) emphasizes that the brain can reset, rejuvenate, discover itself and heal itself again.
Based on the various stories and findings featured in the book. It is only fair to say that the book does meet its purpose. By the time the reader finishes reading the book, it is clear that the brain does reform itself accordingly to heal pain, injuries, reset among other important functions of the brain. The stories featured in the book support the author’s argument. While the book’s
style seems to divert from scientific standards, it also considers or meets all the scientific requirements of a study as noted by Flick (2007) like supporting findings, using other studies, seeking experts’ opinions and getting firsthand information about the topic of study. The quote by the author: “The brain can change itself is,” clearly shows what the author thinks about the topic as it also gives a feel of the book. The message is loud and clear and shows that humans have really underestimated the brain. All in all the book is a good read. It is not heavily jargonized making it friendly to the normal reader. It is also a very insightful book for the professionals in the field of neuroplasticity and psychiatry. Highly recommended to any reader.
Beyhan Perim Seçmen
Doidge, N. (2014). The brain that changes itself: stories of personal triumph from the
frontiers of brain science. London: Penguin.
Flick, U. (2007). Designing Qualitative Research. London: SAGE Publications.
Fry, D.K. (2008). The brain that changes itself: stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of
brain science. Choice, 45, (10) pp. 1792-1793.