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The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science (James H. Silberman Books) Hardcover – March 15, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
For years the doctrine of neuroscientists has been that the brain is a machine: break a part and you lose that function permanently. But more and more evidence is turning up to show that the brain can rewire itself, even in the face of catastrophic trauma: essentially, the functions of the brain can be strengthened just like a weak muscle. Scientists have taught a woman with damaged inner ears, who for five years had had "a sense of perpetual falling," to regain her sense of balance with a sensor on her tongue, and a stroke victim to recover the ability to walk although 97% of the nerves from the cerebral cortex to the spine were destroyed. With detailed case studies reminiscent of Oliver Sachs, combined with extensive interviews with lead researchers, Doidge, a research psychiatrist and psychoanalyst at Columbia and the University of Toronto, slowly turns everything we thought we knew about the brain upside down. He is, perhaps, overenthusiastic about the possibilities, believing that this new science can fix every neurological problem, from learning disabilities to blindness. But Doidge writes interestingly and engagingly about some of the least understood marvels of the brain. (Mar. 19)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
It takes a rare talent to explain science to the rest of us. Oliver Sacks is a master at this. So was the late Stephen Jay Gould. A case can be made for John Emsley, one-time science writer in residence at Cambridge, and author, most recently, of Better Looking, Better Living, Better Loving: How Chemistry Can Help You Achieve Life's Goals (2007).
And now there is Norman Doidge, a psychiatrist who divides his time between Columbia University and the University of Toronto. Four years ago, Doidge set himself the most cerebral of tasks: to understand a concept called neuroplasticity. The brain, far from being a collection of specialized parts, each fixed in its location and function, is in fact a dynamic organ, one that can rewire and rearrange itself as the need arises. That need can arise when the brain is physically damaged, as it is by a stroke, or simply when it is allowed to go to seed, as it has in my case.
It is an insight from which all of us can benefit. People with severe afflictions -- strokes, cerebral palsy, schizophrenia, learning disabilities, obsessive compulsive disorders and the like -- are the most obvious candidates, but who among us would not like to tack on a few IQ points or improve our memories?
To benefit from a concept, one must first grasp it, and that is what makes The Brain That Changes Itself such a terrific book. You don't have to be a brain surgeon to read it -- just a person with a curious mind. Doidge is the best possible guide. He has a fluent and unassuming style, and is able to explain difficult concepts without talking down to his readers.
The case study is the psychiatric literary genre par excellence, and Doidge does not disappoint. There is a woman who manages quite well on just half a brain, an eye surgeon who made a remarkable recovery from a severe stroke, a seven-year-old who had to be taught how to hear pitch, an eight-year-old girl whose autism was holding her back from learning how to speak. Their stories are truly inspirational, and Doidge tells them with great compassion and sensitivity.
Buy this book. Your brain will thank you. -- Jessica Warner, senior scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and the author of Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason and The Incendiary: The Misadventures of John the Painter
A masterfully guided tour through the burgeoning field of neuroplasticity research -- Discover
Doidge provides a history of the research in this growing field, highlighting scientists at the edge of groundbreaking discoveries and telling fascinating stories of people who have benefited. -- Psychology Today
Doidge tells one spell-binding story after another as he travels the globe interviewing the scientists and their subjects who are on the cutting edge of a new age. Each story is interwoven with the latest in brain science, told in a manner that is both simple and compelling. It may be hard to imagine that a book so rich in science can also be a page-turner, but this one is hard to set down. -- Jeff Zimman, Posit Science, e-newsletter
It takes a rare talent to explain science to the rest of us. Oliver Sacks is a master at this. So was the late Stephen Jay Gould. And now there is Norman Doidge. A terrific book. You don't have to be a brain surgeon to read it -- just a person with a curious mind. Doidge is the best possible guide. He has a fluent and unassuming style, and is able to explain difficult concepts without talking down to his readers. The case study is the psychiatric literary genre par excellence, and Doidge does not disappoint. Buy this book. Your brain will thank you. -- Globe & Mail
Lucid and absolutely fascinating... engaging, educational and riveting. It satisfies, in equal measure, the mind and the heart. [Doidge is] able to explain current research in neuroscience with clarity and thoroughness. Presents the ordeals of the patients about whom [he] writes...with grace and vividness. In the best medical narratives -- and the works of Doidge... join that fraternity -- the narrow bridge between body and soul is traversed with courage and eloquence. -- Chicago Tribune
Only a few decades ago, scientists considered the brain to be fixed or "hardwired," and considered most forms of brain damage, therefore, to be incurable. Dr. Doidge, an eminent psychiatrist and researcher, was struck by how his patients' own transformations belied this, and set out to explore the new science of neuroplasticity by interviewing both scientific pioneers in neuroscience, and patients who have benefited from neuro-rehabilitation. Here he describes in fascinating personal narratives how the brain, far from being fixed, has remarkable powers of changing its own structure and compensating for even the most challenging neurological conditions. Doidge's book is a remarkable and hopeful portrait of the endless adaptability of the human brain. -- Oliver Sacks
The newest buzzword in brain science seems to be neuroplasticity-the idea that the adult brain is capable of positive change. Sharon Begley covers the same ground in her upcoming TRAIN YOUR MIND, CHANGE YOUR BRAIN but with stories of those whose lives have been saved or improved through training based on neuroplastic theories, Doidge's book is much more engaging for lay readers. -- Library Journal
The power of positive thinking finally gains scientific credibility. Mind-bending, miracle-working, reality-busting stuff, with implications, as Dr. Doidge notes, not only for individual patients with neurologic disease but for all human beings, not to mention human culture, human learning and human history -- New York Times
[Doidge] links scientific experimentation with personal triumph in a way that inspires awe for the brain, and for these scientists' faith in its capacity. A valuable compilation of work that seeks to prove the unsung adaptability of our most mysterious organ. Readers will want to read entire sections aloud and pass the book on to someone who can benefit from it. -- Washington Post
Top Customer Reviews
I recently reviewed Sharon Begley's superb book - Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain - and this one is in a similar vein. Though it is rather different from Sharon's book in which the main focus was on the changes wrought in the brains of meditators, while this one looks at the extraordinary responses of the brain to injury or congenital absence of sensory organs. Since this book went to press, yet another study, this time from India, has shown that some blind children may be able to regain their sight, an observation that is helping turn a lot of neurology on its head.
Neuroplasticity is a topic of enormous practical importance. The increasing evidence that the brain is a highly adaptable structure that undergoes constant change throughout life is a far cry from the idea that we are simply the product of our genes or our environment. Our genes help determine how we can respond to the environment; they do not make us who we are. And we all have untapped potential. This is more than the old nature/nurture debate in a new bottle. It has implications for human potential: how much can you develop your own brain and mind? Can you really teach a child to be a kind, loving person who can dramatically exceed his or her potential? Can psychotherapy really help change your brain for the better? Can we help re-wire the brain of a psychopath? Do we have the right to try?
The author is both a research psychiatrist and a psychoanalyst who has interviewed many experts in the field. His book is full of well chosen and detailed stories about scientists and their discoveries as well as case reports of triumph over unbelievable adversity. There is also a good discussion of people who have remarkable abilities despite the absence of key regions of the brain.
This book is a good complement to Sharon Begley's and if you can afford it, then I strongly recommend that you get both books. If your interest is more in personal development and its effects on the brain, then Sharon's book will be the one for you. If you are more interested in the science and anecdotes about scientists and some amazing patients, then this book may be the one to go for.
Richard G. Petty, MD, author of Healing, Meaning and Purpose: The Magical Power of the Emerging Laws of Life
Scientists used to believe that the brain was relatively fixed and unchanging -- some of them still believe that -- but recent research shows that the brain is much more mutable than biologists, psychologists, physicians (and any other scientists who studied brains) had ever thought.
For example, anecdotal evidence had long supported the idea that blind people hear better than sighted people, but scientists pooh-poohed this idea, saying that there was no mechanism for that to occur. Well, they recently discovered that the area of the brain usually called the visual cortex is taken over for auditory processing in blind people. So blind folks have twice as much brain space devoted to processing sounds, which means that they really do hear better, and now we know why. Scientists were astounded to discover that the "visual" cortex was really just brain space that could be used for anything.
Psych 101 and Bio 101 textbooks often have a picture in them that shows which areas of the brain control which bodily functions, and this is all presented as fixed and unchanging. Imagine our surprise to learn that the brain can make fairly large shifts in just a few days -- for example, if you blindfold somebody for five days, the area of their brains that's usually called the visual cortex starts using large sections of itself to process touch and sound, and this change is made in as little as two days. Two days!
The book is not just theoretical, though -- the author is interested in the theory, but he's even more interested in how all of this can be applied to better the lives of real people. He talks about people with strokes who've learned to walk again, people with vestibular problems who've learned to substitute something else for their missing vestibular system, people who've been helped with ADHD, autism, retardation, and many other "incurable" conditions by altering their brains.
The downside of the book is that the author is a Freudian, so there are some annoying comments about how Freud knew it all along, but if you can overlook that, it's all fascinating. The author does an excellent job of drawing the reader in with a story about a real person, then elaborating on the ideas by talking about studies that show the basic principles and their implications, then explaining how this can be used to ameliorate or even cure conditions that were considered incurable.
This book blew me away!
The chapter titles will give you more information about the subject matter:
1. A Woman Perpetually Falling...: Rescued by the Man Who Discovered the Plasticity of Our Senses
2. Building Herself a Better Brain: A Woman Labeled "Retarded" Discovers How to Heal Herself
3. Redesigning the Brain: A Scientist Changes Brains to Sharpen Perception and Memory, Increase Speed of Thought, and Heal Learning Problems
4. Acquiring Tastes and Loves: What Neuroplasticity Teaches Us About Sexual Attraction and Love
5. Midnight Resurrections: Stroke Victims Learn to Move and Speak Again
6. Brain Lock Unlocked: Using Plasticity to Stop Worries, Obsessions, Compulsions, and Bad Habits
7. Pain: The Dark Side of Plasticity
8. Imagination: How Thinking Makes It So
9. Turning Our Ghosts into Ancestors: Psychotherapy as a Neuroplastic Therapy
10. Rejuvenation: The Discovery of the Neuronal Stem Cell and Lessons for Preserving Our Brains
11. More than the Sum of Her Parts: A Woman Shows Us How Radically Plastic the Brain Can Be
Appendix 1: The Culturally Modified Brain
Appendix 2: Plasticity and the Idea of Progress