Jodi's Reviews > The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science

The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge
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Mar 07, 2012

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The book gives the message that all sorts of amazing things can be done through lots of brain retraining work, but doesn't claim that it is a quick and easy cure for everything either, which I appreciated.

Some people are taking the idea of neuroplasticity and running with it and maybe going a bit too far and claiming that we can retrain our brains to be any way we want (such as choosing our sexuality), and to use it to cure completely every neurological disease. It is disturbing. But this book doesn't at all support these sorts of unreasonable notions, fortunately.

This book explains that amazing changes can be made to improve people with congenital issues, diseases or brain injuries or that wish to reverse negative learned behaviours - but that these changes take lots of hard work and also that they are limited in some cases. Recovery from brain injuries will often be partial and not total. Not all neurological function that is lost through a brain injury can be fully restored. All we can do is try our hardest and do our best.

(The idea that everyone so injured could be totally well again if they just put the time into rehabilitation worries me a little. Again, this idea is not supported in the book, I'm referring to worrying and ignorant comments made elsewhere.)

Partial recoveries are still very very exciting though and nothing to sneeze at, especially when people are very ill and disabled to begin with. It is very exciting stuff, this book.

This book would be very encouraging to read for those who have had strokes and would like to learn to walk again. The bits at the start of the book about how neuroplasticity may allow people that are blind or deaf from birth to see and to hear, were astounding to read about.

I was fascinated to read about how one can compensate for a failed vestibular system with vision, as this is something I and many other M.E. patients have done.

I couldn't help but think about this compensation in M.E. patients as I read the book. It is a natural phenomena, which is kind of fascinating to me. But it is only a partial solution - which sort of supports the notions in this book of targeted and purposeful brain retraining being so powerful I guess.

This natural brain retraining of the vestibular system works well, but leaves you in a hideous situation if you are even plunged into a totally dark environment - such as when the power goes out. You suddenly have no sense of up or down and the world spins horribly, so much so that you are too ill to crawl towards the torch or lighter that can save you.

I keep torches within reach in every room I spend time in, I have to. This problem also means many of us need to sleep with a nightlight, as your body seems to need to know up from down when you are sleeping too. I also need to make sure when I walk that nothing in the room moves, or else I feel about to fall over and lose my equilibrium for a few minutes and have to clutch at things to not fall over.

But far better all these problems than going back to when I didn't really have any sort of vastibular system and would be constantly spinning and feeling I was rolling off my flat bed, or feel I was falling backwards the whole time I was walking upright! As the women in the book said too, it is also awful always walking with your feet so wide apart for balance as well. I'm so used to it now, but it would be wonderful to one day no longer have to do so! Maybe in time, and with the ideas in this book put into use, this could happen? I'd like to think so.

Reading about how well-known these visual compensations for vestibular problems are was a bit hard going for me at times, as it made me quite annoyed and sad that so few doctors and neurologists seem to know about them and that we as patients are each treated as if this problem were unique to us, when it is so obviously not. The woman with vestibular symptoms mentioned in this book described my symptoms so well. It is a bit maddening how behind with real cutting-edge research and information so many medical professionals are.

If I can improve my health to the point of being out and about in the world again, and my vestibular function hasn't improved along with the rest of me, I'll definitely try the under-tongue vestibular re-trainer device (I forget the proper name for it used in the book!) if I can.

This book was exciting to read and gave me hope for my future and one day being able to try out some of these ideas for myself. But for right now, with a brain injury that also has had systemic effects and caused cardiac insufficiency and an inability to do anything but the most basic tasks (I'm housebound and 95% bedbound and very limited with talking and movement etc. as well), it is impossible and would result in relapse and loss of function rather than improvements. Having an ongoing disease process which means your activity level is severely restricted as well as neurological problems is a different kettle of fish to fixing neurological issues which are not ongoing, such as a stroke, say. You need to be able to put the work in, and not have a disease which is worsening for physical reasons too I guess. But hope for the future is still hope.

The parts supporting animal studies in the book made me feel quite uncomfortable. I would personally rather they had been omitted from the book as they detract from the important main message.

I also have to admit that I was a bit disappointed after reading the book and hearing so many good things said about it that it wasn't edited to a somewhat higher standard, and organised a bit better. Parts of the book were quite boring to read and it'd have been great if the book had summarised the main points in the final chapter instead of just kind of petering out. The book was well written, but could maybe have been made even better with a good edit.

All through the book I kept wondering how much more positive the results from these treatments would be if they were combined with patients being given all the nutrients their brains need to function well and to heal. Nutritional medicine is vital for anyone recovering form a brain injury or similar, the body needs to have all the basic building blocks necessary to make repairs and to function properly, no matter what other treatments are tried. Although this topic is mostly ignored in this book, there was one comment towards the end where the author said that although nutrition was not his area that a properly designed supplement regime is 'a common practice that we should all be pursuing' which is hard to argue with.

For anyone interested in this topic books such as Detoxify or Die, Eat Fat, Lose Fat: The Healthy Alternative to Trans Fats, Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food and Primal Body, Primal Mind: Beyond the Paleo Diet for Total Health and a Longer Life and others are a great start. (These books and others like them have let me very slowly start to improve my own health, FWIW.)

Overall this book is a fascinating and engaging read, especially if you are facing a neurological disease or other neurological problem. I'd highly recommend checking to see if your library has a copy. The books on neurological case studies by Oliver Sacks are also a very interesting read if you have any type of brain injury.

Jodi Bassett, The Hummingbirds' Foundation for Myalgic Encephalomyelitis
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