How ironic that the tool we’ve used to demystify the universe is the one we understand the least. Remember that crude cross section from biology, dotted lines specifying different areas of cognition, communication and behaviour in the human brain? For a long time the ‘machine’ theory was the best approximation of brain anatomy we had, but we’re only just starting to really grasp the secrets of that 1.5kg of wet, pulpy flesh.
A US psychiatrist, Doidge reports from one of the most radical cutting edges of neurology, that the brain can physically rearrange itself for optimum performance. It’s called neuroplasticity and even without reading The Brain That Changes Itself it makes perfect sense. Many other physiological processes operate on a ‘use it or lose it’ basis — think of the effect on your muscles of a few months in the gym. To think of the brain as a cookie-cutter drawing of inflexible ghettos of activity seems dreadfully unenlightened.
With neurons and synapses forging new connections and strengthening or discarding old ones, the brain is like the grand staircase in the Harry Potter films, constantly reshifting structure on a microscopic scale. Is it so hard to imagine those changes affecting the macroscopic scale?
The most extreme manifestations of neuroplasticity Doidge talks about concern neurological damage or defects, where functions normally found in the affected area can be activated in another portion through training, patience or the serendipity of life.
In one instance, a woman with a genetic defect is born with literally half a brain. As our left and right brains control different impulses, actions and facets of our personality, you’d expect the woman to be brilliant with maths and logic and hopeless with subtle cognition (or vice versa). The result of an attentive upbringing is a woman in her thirties with full, albeit slow, mental capacity.
Not all the theories and observations of the book are about accidents or genetic anomalies. Because the electrochemical activity in our brain is the seat of our every behaviour, action and thought, neuroplasticity is being applied to treat everything from autism to pornography addiction.
Psychiatric treatment helps cure a man who is unable to fall in love with women who aren’t mentally unstable and abusive. The treatment, as Doidge claims, has used neuroplasticity to unwire the neuronal responses that fuse feelings of sexual desire with those of fear or mistreatment. In neuroplastic terms, the treatment has separated two brain ‘maps’.
According to The Brain That Changes Itself, neurological activity generates these maps so fewer mental resources are required to sustain specific tasks. As we know from experience, driving to work every day requires far less mental effort than trying to remember a phone number from our childhood.
These maps form every action and idea in our lives, and once conjoined by the chemistry in the brain, they can be difficult to defuse or separate. If you tie two fingers together for a month, experiments have shown that even after freeing them you won’t be able to move them independently without concerted effort and practice.
So, according to many of the claims in The Brain That Changes Itself, some of the old chestnuts of cultural wisdom are indeed true. The media brainwashes kids (through repetition of images or messages), the late night infomercial ‘improve your memory’ products might actually work, and we don’t realise how literal we are in calling a complicated action ‘second nature’. Our brain has literally rebuilt itself to have the components of that action on instant recall.
The book is a fascinating glimpse into a new field and Doidge uses the work of some rebellious individuals and scientists to illustrate it. He delights in the eccentric personalities of his contributors a little too much for a popular science tract, but The Brain that Changes Itself could signal an important medical shift we’re in the midst of right now.