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4.0 out of 5 stars Good Book but Definitely Not an Intro to Neuroscience, August 29, 2008
This review is from: The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science (Paperback)
For decades now there has been a longstanding feud between biologists and psychologists on how the human brain forms and develops -- otherwise known as the nature versus nurture debate. Evolutionary biology teaches us that genes is destiny, and with his book the Canadian psychiatrist Norman Doidge makes his case for individual agency and cultural influences.

Like Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, & Steel" Dr. Doidge's book is not original research but rather a synthesis and summary from the frontiers of brain science. Supplemented with case studies "The Brain that Changes Itself" is about neuroplasticity, which argues that the brain is "plastic," or organic and malleable. For hundreds of years, thanks to thinkers like Rene Descartes, scientists have thought of the brain as mechanical, certain functions localized to certain sectors in this machine -- over time it rusts, with no chance of regeneration. Thanks to decades of research by a brave few who dared to defy their mainstream bethren and to the invention of brain scans neuroplasticity is now the accepted view.

The good news about neuroplasticity is that the brain you have is the brain you make it. New external stimuli (such as learning a new language) causes new neural connections in the brain (the "neurons that fire together wire together" rule of neuroplasticity). Often when we're learning a new language or skill after some fast improvement in the early stages we reach a plateau where we seem to have no improvement at all. Then after a while we suddenly make a great leap. That's because it takes time (as measured by nights of good sleep) for these neural connections to consolidate themselves but once they do we can move onto the next level. Of course if we don't keep on practising this skill these connections will weaken (the "use it or lose it" rule of plasticity) because space in the brain is, after all, limited.

Individual agency over our brains gives great hope to those who suffer from aging and brain damage. Scientists have developed brain exercises on the computer to help the elderly maintain a sharp and alert mind, and help stroke victims restore once lost cognitive functions.

The bad news is that the brain you have is the brain that you make it, and unfortunately most of us choose the path of least resistance and decide not to use it at all. As Dr. Doidge explains the plastic paradox means that exposing yourself to new stimuli can make the brain flexible but choosing to stay within your comfort zone will also make the brain rigid. Learning is fast and furious when we're kids but as we reach adulthood the brain becomes less plastic, making learning more difficult, and instead of choosing to learn most of us choose merely to rely on our current belief system. And when the world challenges this belief system we choose to ignore the world, and if forced we'll opt to fight the world. Thus, the plastic brain that allows us to learn new languages can also paradoxically make us intolerant and racist.

Indeed, as Dr. Doidge warns us, the individuals that he profiles who have managed to change themselves have done so because they make a honest and hard commitment to change themselves. Dr. Doidge's patients went into psychotherapy (which operates from the principles of neuroplasticity) to discover how trauma created unhealthy neural connections, and how through discussion, self-analysis, and will-power to create new neural connections. But this process is painful and costly and takes many years.

And it's so hard because the brain is so adept at protecting us. When we suffer a physical injury the brain will actually decide on what the appropriate level of pain we feel is. And when we're traumatized when we're young (for example, our mother dies or we're sexually abused) the brain will often decide to not convert this experience into long-term memory, and build defenses to disassociate ourselves from the possible pain of further trauma. The net effect is that our hippocampus -- the area of our frontal lobe that transfers experience into long-term memory, and thus what governs our ability to learn -- will shrink, thereby giving a scientific explanation to why adult victims of childhood trauma seem so adolescent and immature.

Neuroplasticity offers hope though: love. It seems that our neural network will automatically become more flexible in two critical periods of our adulthood: when we fall in love, and when we have children. Presumably it's because in both instances we need to urgently learn a new skillset to match the two most important circumstances we could find ourselves in. So being in love with someone does allow you to change who you are. Of course, being the circumspect doctor, Dr. Doidge reminds us that if we find ourselves in love with the wrong person we can change for the worst as well, seeing our confidence and healthy attitude suddenly shatter.

I'm not sure how Dr. Doidge would view my summary of his book, because I've taken great liberty in summarizing it. It's a pithy book and there's really a lot of refreshing and insightful material in the book but I'm not happy about the writing style -- which seems rushed and choppy to me -- and the organization, which hurts the clarity and effectiveness of the book. I've read quite a lot on the workings of the brain so I could follow through most chapters but I think a novice will have a particularly hard time reading this book. For a great introduction to how the mind works I suggest watching the BBC documentary series "The Human Series," hosted by Robert Winston -- possibly the greatest documentary series ever made.
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Initial post: Jan 19, 2009 12:30:54 PM PST
Why do hold The Human Series in high regard?
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