Lars Guthrie'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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's review
Aug 30, 2009

it was amazing
Read in August, 2009

Doidge takes the reader on a tour of the latest happenings in the world of brain research and therapies resulting from it. He makes the tour an easy journey by presenting a wealth of information in episodic, often narrative, essays organized in eleven chapters and two appendices.

Personal stories allow Doidge to introduce findings and applications by eminences in the field such as Paul Bach-y-Rita who combines basic scientific research with medical rehabilitation. Work by Bach-y-Rita, scientists like V.S. Ramachandran, and entrepreneurs like Michael Merzenich demonstrate the limitations of those who are what Doidge calls 'localizationalists.'

Generalizing from the Enlightenment philosopher Rene Descartes, the Nineteenth Century discoveries of Broca and Wernicke (whose names are now attached to sections of the brain), and subsequent research in the Twentieth Century by the behaviorlists, localizationists view the brain as a fixed structure, with different regions having specific functions. This means that if an area of the brain is damaged, therapy to restore functions associated with that area will be pointless.

This concept, Doidge points out, has been challenged by some, even while dominating the fields of neurology and psychology. He mentions Aleksandr Luria and even Freud as examples. Now advances in technology over the past few decades have given us a way of mapping living brains, and have shown us the brain has ways of mapping itself to overcome damage and dysfunction. The brain is, indeed, plastic, and far more adaptable than a belief in localization allows.

While the brain's flexibility has helped people to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles--Edward Taub's constraint-induced movement therapy with stroke victimes is an exciting example--Doidge points out the dark side of plasticity. Because experience maps the brain--neurons that fire together wire together--we can mold it into an engine of self-destruction. Addictions are learned behaviors. Etched into our neural pathways, they become difficult to 'unlearn.'

'The Brain That Changes Itself' is a great overview of current neuroscience and an impassioned plea for humans to use the brain's plasticity so that all of us can be successful learners--and unlearners. Highly recommended.


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