Norman Doidge’s The Brain that Changes Itself
Penguin, 2007

As Olduvai suggests here, there is something different about writing a response to non-fiction, just as I have found a difference in the way that I approach reading it. She’s right: it’s not as though we are being graded. But, I want to be fair and, because I read so little in this area, I have no context — or a very limited context — in which to respond to the book I’m reading. It feels as though anything that I might say will be only brushing the surface.

However, I have read Oliver Sacks, so I can draw that single comparison to Norman Doidge’s book. Both writers endeavour to bring neuroscience out of labs and hospitals and into a wider readership. And, even if I hadn’t thought of the similarity myself, I could have pulled Sack’s blurb from the back cover: “Fascinating. Doidge’s book is a remarkable and hopeful portrait of the endless adaptability of the human brain.”

Sack’s ability to draw unscience-y readers into science-y territory is remarkable. So the blurb would have held weight for me. But it wasn’t Sack’s quote which drew me to reading this; it was a friend who has struggled with addiction in her family (specifically, alcoholism); she suggested the book as a means of understanding the physiological changes in an addict’s brain, the ways in which physical changes come to override rational thought and decision-making power. (Which decimates that whole “if you loved me” argument.)

When I began reading, at first I wondered how she would have come upon this. The book opens with the story of a woman who had become completely debilitated by the sensation that she was perpetually falling. The sensory organ responsible for her balance system (the vestibular apparatus) wasn’t working. Old-school ideas about the brain, which viewed it as a machine, one with dedicated parts for specific purposes, would have written her off. Something in her machine was broken and could not be repaired based on traditional models. Enter new-school idea: neuroplasticity. (Yes, it even has a Wikipedia page.) The brain is plastic; it can be shaped by experience and new pathways can be established.

This kind of story, though interesting, doesn’t seem immediately relevant to, say, alcoholism. But case studies, like this one, go a long way towards drawing readers into The Brain that Changes Itself. And although Cheryl’s story had a “happy ending”, it’s clear that the same concept also underlies addiction. If the brain can learn new habits? If experience can shape new pathways? Then the stage is set for negative — as well as positive — outcomes. Yes, it makes sense. (And not to worry, the chapter on addiction is just one portion of the narrative, so if that subject doesn’t have personal relevance for you, you won’t be bored.)

In an interview with Shelagh Rogers, on “The Next Chapter”, Norman Doidge spoke of the demanding process by which he adjusted his tone and style in order that this work could reach a broader audience. He knew that the average reader could not grapple with the complexities of neuroscience. And although the text sounds authoritative, that’s rooted in confidence, not jargon. (Although he wasn’t always this outspoken: the concept of brain plasticity was attacked vociferously by the medical community until relatively recently.)

The image is a photograph of heat-convection currents in air, captured by Gavan Mitchell and Phil Taylor (source) using the Schlieren technique, a method that reveals temperature & density differences in the air. The image is © Copyright 2009 by Gavan Mitchell & Phil Taylor, used with permission for the challenge. Please use this image in your own blog to publicize the 2010 Science Book Challenge.Sure, there are medical concepts. He defines a neuron (but not until page 53, giving readers plenty of time to adjust to the ideas behind the science) and he uses words like localizationism (but not until the concept feels familiar). But, overall, this is a book that changes the way that readers think. Even readers, like me, without a background in science and neurology. The case studies consider everything from learning disabilities to memory loss, from OCD to pornography addiction, from blindness to preferences in food and love. Guaranteed that something here will have immediate relevance to your life.

If this sounds uninteresting, I’m not fairly representing the book. It really is, as Norman Doidge said, fascinating. The idea (Michael Merzenich’s) that the brain is structured by its constant collaboration with the world? How cool is that.

I disagree with Norman Doidge’s characterization of the “physical distress” the Silver Spring monkeys experienced in the extreme tests they were subjected to (and, indeed, there is a lot of discussion about animal experimentation, which perhaps I should have anticipated), and his overall acceptance that the ends justify the means, but I learned a lot from this book.

It made my neurons reach for new real estate up there in my cranium: I could feel them stretching.

PS This also counted towards the Science Book Challenge.