Book Review: The Brain That Changes Itself

Book review – The Brain That Changes Itself written by Dr. Norman Doidge.

Blog post by Barbara Casey  (Ian’s mom)

When my son first acquired his brain injury, I was told that whatever state he was in at the 6-month mark was about the best we could expect for the rest of his life. You’d better believe I started immediately with (homemade) tools to stimulate thinking, speaking and motor control.

Not to mention nagging his doctors for physical therapy, of which he received 10 whole minutes a day in the ICU, his home for almost 6 weeks.

Somewhere along the line, the 6 month limit was extended to 12 months. I don’t recall by whom – perhaps a physical therapist who didn’t work with patients long-term.

The reality..

however, was that my son kept making progress step-by-step, month after month, dollar by dollar. We never gave up on his capability for continued improvement and – 4 years later – I discovered a revolutionary book that proved what I suspected all along. The brain can keep changing itself!

Norman Doidge, M.D. is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who began researching neuroplasticity after meeting scientists whose studies at the “frontiers of brain science” excited him about the implications of their work for clients in his own consulting practice.

 

He met with many of these brain scientists, describing their cutting-edge work and amazing results in a book called The Brain that Changes Itself, published in 2007.  After reading Doidge’s book, I now had “official” hope that my son could keep improving his brain function with time, diligence… and money.

 

I am, quite frankly, astonished that not one physician, therapist, psychologist or brain injury support website that we encountered over the past four years has mentioned this truly important book – or the research being done by the scientists whose work is featured in its pages. My introduction to the concept of neuroplasticity (or brain plasticity) came through an online energy healing resource, for which unfortunately the url no longer exists.  Dr. Doidge’s book was listed there. It took four years to finally find this “official hope” based on scientific evidence that brain power can improve and increase with the right tools and approaches.

 

The book is not overwhelming to read for a non-scientific person like me. Though, like me, you might find your jaw dropping when you read some of the case studies.

 

For example, a stroke patient returning to his medical practice and tennis-playing after constraint-induced movement therapy at the Taub Clinic. Or Michael Merzenich’s work on brain maps that demonstrates the brain’s ability to compensate for missing functions.

 

Then there’s the story of Michelle, born with only half her brain. Functions normally handled via the part of her brain that is missing migrated to the other hemisphere, enabling her to manage day-to-day with a partial brain. Not perfectly, but sufficiently.

 

The story of Barbara Arrowsmith is quite remarkable. Labeled “retarded” as a child, in an era when little was understood about learning disabilities, Arrowsmith struggled her way through high school and college until she came across a research study by Mark Rosenzweig on how activity can produce changes in the structure of the brain.

 

She designed her own “mental exercises” to work the brain functions she was weakest in and found that, not only did those functions improve – others that were related did, too.

 

A two-fer, in other words.

 

Barbara Arrowsmith took what she learned from the research and her own experiences in designing ”proof-in-the-pudding” exercises to found the Arrowsmith School in Toronto, specifically for children and adults with learning disabilities. I learned in this chapter, for example, that practicing cursive writing improves the flow of thoughts into speech – something my son wishes to improve. So I’m busily looking for websites with cursive writing worksheets that he can use for this purpose.

 

Doidge’s book is an eye-opener and I plan to go through it again to winnow out more ideas for homemade exercises. More on this in another blog post.

 

If you haven’t read The Brain That Changes Itself, you can click this link to “look inside the book” at Amazon.com.

Most of the first chapter is available for preview, including some really interesting material about Paul Bach-y-Rita.

 

The part you don’t get to read concerns the methods Bach-y-Rita’s brother used to help their father recover from a debilitating stroke. The results of that intense work triggered a career change for Paul Bach-y-Rita, who then focused on rehabilitation medicine (especially with “late rehabilitation” stoke patients), using the techniques he know knew had validity. An international icon in the field of neuroplasticity, Paul Bach-y-Rita died in 2006. His story is worth knowing.

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