13 December 2009

The Brain That Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge

The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science (James H. Silberman Books) My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Though Dr. Norman Doidge follows many of the tried-and-true techniques of interesting science writing, this book doesn't feel formulaic; it's joyful, hopeful, exuberantly optimistic, and yet somehow still cautious. Dr. Doidge follows several discipline-bending, pathfinding, genius-with-cherry-on-top neuroscientists, psychologists, teachers and researchers to find the beginnings of a field that says our brains are able to heal themselves or hurt themselves, bit by bit, all depending on what our senses and thoughts provide. Trauma and worry can be learned; our neurons can hardwire it, resulting in OCD and neuroses. Damage from stroke or brain injury can be unlearned, by stitching new functionality onto unused or underused neurons. Everything we do is a result of our neurons behaving in some way or another. Our brains are unbelievably flexible-- so flexible, they'll become rigid if we let them.

He introduces a few principles of neuroplasticity at the beginning of the book (ie neurons that fire together, wire together), and then he occasionally reminds the reader of how those principles illuminate a certain situation. But thankfully, he avoids the "Gladwell Error," which is hitting the reader over the head with one basic principle. (My impression of Gladwell? "This is what I call a blink moment, the kind of moment where a decision is made in the blink of an eye. It's such a quick decision, you don't even realise you've made one, because it only took as long as blink, so it's a blink decision made in a blink moment.")

This book is fabulously readable; often scientists need journalists or writers to translate the science into ordinary English. And lately, I've found journalists can be too reliant on their column-writing skills. By writing this himself, Doidge proves himself a decent writer on top of being a neuropsychologist; and he saves us hundreds of pages of groaning topic sentences and grinding dialogue.

It's exciting, to think your brain is always reacting to what you're giving it. But be warned: this book will make you wonder about everything you do; whether you're training your brain to do something you shouldn't, or what you should be doing to make your brain better. I started favouring less comfortable and cushy shoes; after all, I don't want the neurons that listen to my feet to forget how to deal with uneven, non-cushy terrain, making me less agile and more reliant on sneakers over the years. Boy Wonder started practicing his cursive handwriting. He's always been a print kind of man, but Dr. Doidge believes that long, flowing strokes of the pen encourage long, flowing, more eloquent thoughts, which we could all use a little more of, yes? But then you start worrying that thinking about what you're teaching your brain all the time could be a bad idea, and then you worry that your "I should improve my brain" neurons will fire with your "I worry now" neurons, and by firing together, those neurons will wire together, giving you yet another neurosis exclusively about brain improvement.

So you know... just... be warned.

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