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That Changes Itself
Doidge - Scribe
Publications Pty Ltd -
2007 & revised 2010
the late 1960’s the prevailing view amongst neuro
scientists was that the brain is hard wired with specific parts being
responsible for analysing input signals and/or sending commands to the
of the body.
recent times experiments
observations around the
world have shown that it is possible for the brain to adapt its
that functions, normally processed in one region of the brain can be
by a completely different region. This
phenomenon, known as neuroplasticity, is now widely accepted.
That Changes Itself”, Doidge outlines many of
the remarkable experiments that have been conducted to establish the
brain plasticity and to indicate the extremely wide potential for
disabilities that may inflict people from injuries, psychological
traumas or even
gives examples where
has been possible for the
blind to see, the deaf to hear, stroke victims to recover motor skills,
children with low mental abilities to become brilliant, 80 year old
sharpen their wits, previously incurable obsessions and traumas to be
cured. Doidge also indicates that
neuroplasticity has implications for our understanding of love,
relationships, learning, addictions, culture, technology and
the 1960’s Paul Bach-y-Rita (a neuroscientist born in NY
city, who obtained medical qualifications and practiced in Mexico for
years then joined University of Wisconsin, Madison), developed an
device that was able to transmit visual signals to people who had been
since birth. With a patient sitting in a
barber’s chair, a digital camera was mounted above the
patient’s head. The electrical
signals from the camera were
fed down to a plate pressed against the patient’s back. There were 400 small cells on the plate which
vibrated when excited by the electrical signals. The
cells vibrated strongly for a dark section
of the screen to which the camera was pointed, while there was no
bright sections of the screen. After a
short time the brains of patients were able to interpret the signals
recognise basic patterns.
As well as
demonstrating the flexibility of
work showed the incredible sensitivity of the skin to monitor and
closely spaced signals. Paul Bach-y-Rita went on to use these findings
a variety of touch-based devices, including: a feeling glove for
improve their manipulation of tools during spacewalks, a glove for
victims to have feelings in nerve-dead fingers, a glove for blind
read computer screens, scalpels with sensing signals sent to a
via a small plate held on the surgeon's tongue.
a respected professor, suffered a
massive stroke. His brother, who knew
nothing of the traditional methods for dealing with stroke, commenced a
teaching program to bring their father back to walking and general
by a learning approach similar to that of a young child –
around the backyard! This proved to be
remarkably effective. The father had
agreed to have his brain sectioned after death.
When this was done it was found that a huge legion had put much
brain out of action. Very clear evidence
that the remaining healthy part of the brain had taken over functions
normally expected of it. In other words
neuroplasticity was undeniable.
the University of
Paul Bach-y-Rita developed a
large program of neuroplasticity research.
As part of this work he made a major improvement in his early
machine, reducing the electronic sensing to a small unit mounted on
generate electrical impulses sent to an array of 2000 electrodes in a
placed on the patient's tongue.
Exercises to Modify the Brain
quotes the case of a young woman, Barbara Arrowsmith
Young, who as a young girl was exceedingly bright in some areas, but
retarded in others. She had poor spatial
awareness and difficulty with symbols.
As a teenager she had a nasty car accident which damaged her
very nearly killed her. As she grew into
her late teens and early twenties she studied other cases that seemed
similarity to hers and she read of the work in Russia on a soldier who
half of his brain in a war incident. She
was inspired by the work that was done in developing this man’s
capabilities. To reshape her own brain
she worked tirelessly at developing and practicing mental exercises,
became competent in all the areas that had been lacking.
In other words, purely by mental activity she
had reshaped her brain – another very clear case of
recognized that the
exercises she had developed for
herself could be useful for many other people.
With colleagues and friends she formed an organisation, known as
Arrowsmith School, to help people in need.
This has been developed and improved and now offers exercises on
at a site called ‘PositScience’.
Merzenich is a
cited by Doidge as a major
contributor to the understanding of neuroplasticity.
He has done a lot of work using monkeys as
his subjects. He has also developed many
exercises to train specific areas of the brain.
He believes that brain exercises can cure many diseases, such as
schizophrenia. He showed that some
people have learning difficulties because parts of their brain do not
visual or audio information as fast as the average person - this is
particularly important for children and may explain reading and writing
difficulties. He developed a programme
of learning tools that he has called ‘Fast ForWord’. This is available on the web.
Studies of the Brain Map
book goes into some
explaining the modern
tools, such as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) that can very
locate and even cause specific neurones to fire so that muscles operate. In early times this was done by inserted
physical electronics, but now much can be done by devices and plates
to the skull.
sensitive techniques it has been
activity, such as practicing on a piano for several weeks will cause
the brain to actually grow in size.
Rather intriguingly in one experiment with a fairly large number
subjects, it was found that this brain growth could be observed if
played an actual piano for an hour or so each day for a month, but
growth was also observed in people who mentally practiced the piano
merely thought about their fingers operating on a virtual keyboard) for
same time period. Both groups showed real
improvement in their playing ability; although, as might be expected,
practiced mentally did not develop their skills as significantly as
a similar fashion, actual
thought experiments were
conducted on the development of muscle power.
One group was asked to undertake 4 weeks of physical training
another group was asked to imagine physical training.
The first group developed 30% stronger
muscles while the second, thinking about training showed 22% stronger
surprising demonstration that thoughts can change the body. In other words a validation of the old saying
“mind over matter”.
scans showed physical
changes in the brain do occur in
experiments such as these. Thoughts
actually change the structure of the brain.
It has now been
by talking”) cures by altering the strength of synaptic
structurally altering the interconnection between nerve cells. Freud had proposed this in 1895 with his
concept of the integration of the brain and mind and his suggestions
and feelings presented at the same time become fixed in the mind - for
if a certain sound or smell was heard at the same time as some
or trauma, then an unpleasant feeling (or fright) may be triggered
that sound or smell is experienced. This
is confirmed by the more recent finding that ‘neurones that fire
methodology of letting the mind
wander, which he
called “Free Association”, is based on the idea that
disparate events may have
been linked in the past. By asking the
patient to randomly wonder over their memories, some unexpected
might be discovered and a cure to a phobia might be achieved by
link out into the open and demonstrating that it is not relevant to the
patient’s current life.
Growth and Memory Functions
two Appendices and a section ‘Notes and References’,
Doidge reviews some very interesting ideas about human behaviour and
interaction. He points out that while Homo
some 100,000 years ago there was very little development of tools or
they lived very much the same as any other animal.
Around about 50,000 years ago there seems to
have been a significant awakening with the development of art,
complex technology. There was little or
no change in total brain size and physical structure, but apparently
development in communication skills led to new neurone paths and
growth in some parts of the brain to achieve more logical, rational
Recent studies of childhood brain
development show that in
the first two years of life there is significant formation of neural
connections in the right hemisphere.
This is related to non-verbal communication, such as recognition
faces, the interpretation of facial expressions and processing of music
speech tones. All this is very important
for maintaining human connections and regulating emotions.
Without a full, loving, exposure to other
human beings in the first two years, society misfits are created.
Around 24 to 26
months of life the left
rapid growth spurt. This provides the
linguistic and problem analysis basis for the adult human.
It is also the area where explicit memories
seem to be held; so it is only after the first 26 months that a child
to recollect specific facts, events, and episodes.
Prior to this, the unconscious, non-verbal,
memories have been laid down.
the adult life it appears
short-term memories are
stored in the hippocampus and that sleep, particularly the rapid eye
sleep (REM), is important in storing these memories for the longer term. It is a function of the hippocampus to make
this transition from short-term to long-term memory.
Doidge points out that the hippocampus will
shrink with depression, high stress, trauma and/or older age, leading
memory loss (particularly short-term loss).
with mice have
that a group exposed to
interesting toys and playthings developed brains with more neurone
a larger hippocampus than an equivalent group confined in blank boxes. A similar phenomenon is shown in humans where
a challenging life is well known to develop the brain and make an
Republic’ argued that a person could train
his mind in the way gymnasts train their muscles. And
it is now recognized that to keep the
brain fit we must learn new things rather than replaying already
skills. Of course physical exercise is
important, since it strengthens the heart and improves the blood supply
proper attention to
the brain alive and alert
many people have shown how their can be very skilled and innovative in
age. Amongst other examples, Doidge
that Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Guggenheim Museum at age 90.
is an excellent book
clear explanations and
relevant examples. It shows how the
brain has played its critical role in Homo sapiens evolution, how
maintains human beliefs, interactions and current human life. It also implicitly indicates how humans
might evolve in the future.
RH Brown August 2014
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