Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge, M.D.

A few months ago, Josh threw out some rotten squash.  Here is our resulting squash garden.

And below is our produce:

Not a bad crop for absolutely no effort on our part.  I'm encouraged.  Maybe I should convert the whole back yard into a self-sustaining farmette.

Today's song was suggested by one of my faithful commenters (Mudpuddle, you know who you are, sorry if I'm embarrassing you.)  It is a superb if not breathtaking in its speed rendition of Antonio Vivaldi's Recorder Concerto RV 443 performed by Maurice Steger and the Capella Gabetta Chamber Orchestra.

The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain ScienceThe Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book immediately intrigued me when I read of it in a news article. The premise is that certain beliefs about the brain have been fairly recently proven false.

One that the brain does not change and secondly that brain function is localized and permanent.

Dr. Dodge interviews a number of neurologists, scientists, behavioralists and other professionals and also case studies to prove this case.

The first chapter describes Cheryl, who feels as though she is always falling. Her vestibular system stopped working and she can no longer balance. She is helped by Paul Bach-y-Rita who has developed a machine, that replaces the vestibular system and sends balance signals to her brain. While wearing the machine, it's like a construction hat, Cheryl can stand without falling. Eventually, the effects last for a while after she has taken the "hat" off and it is lasting for longer periods of time.

How is this so? Bach-y-Rita states that this is where brain plasticity comes in. The brain is learning to use other pathways to replace the damaged neuro-pathways.

And this is the basic premise of the book. All the case studies, stroke victims, amputees, learning disabled et al... go through therapy that cause the brain to change itself, to bypass damaged neurotransmitters and create new pathways to perform the lost function.

This has been especially useful with stroke victims who have lost the use of an arm or hand. Through careful therapy that trains the brain to reorganize itself the case studies in this book have regained either most of complete use of previously paralyzed limbs.

Doidge recounts case studies of blind people whose brains have taken over the part of the brain that processes sight and began using it for hearing. He describes a remarkable account of a woman who, after losing her sight, can listen to books on her computer faster than sighted people can comprehend. She can hear up to three books a day.

Conversely, studies have shown that deaf people have more developed peripheral vision than sighted people.

Another interesting study was about "phantom" limbs. This is the sad phenomena that sometimes occurs when someone loses an arm or leg but still feels pain where the arm or limb used to be. This can be so debilitating that people have committed suicide to escape from the never ending pain signals. Dr. Ramachandran developed a therapy system that rewired the "pain map" of the brain to stop the brain from sending signals about limbs that no longer exist.

One of the, I'm sure, more controversial chapters is about sexual attraction and how our early childhood experiences can map our brains to determine what and who attracts us. It offers hope for people who are mired into deviant sexual practices that would like to escape but feel they can't.

One case study is about a man whose mother sexually abused him when he was very young. As an adult he found himself in relationships with women who demanded violent sexual experiences.

Doidge also asserts that our attraction to specific genders can be shaped by and reshaped due to experiences and then later therapeutic experiences that overcome the early experiences. I'm sure some will disagree, but scientists have known for years that what information we put in our brain causes chemical reactions that shape our mind and behavior.
Not just sexually, but in every area of life.

Probably the most fascinating case study was of a young woman who was born with half a brain. This was not discovered for some years because the other hemisphere had taken over the function of the other half.

The most questionable chapter had to do with culture and how it maps our brain. Doidge describes how the language we learn from infancy is going to shape our brains specific ways, but also how culture can shape our brains and even our senses. He uses as an example, a group of nomadic people called the "Sea Gypsies" who live among the tropical islands in the Burmese Archipelago who live most of their lives on boats and in the water harvesting sea cucumbers. Their ability to see underwater is significantly more advanced than any other group of people.

The final appendix details some disturbing information about how totalitarian regimes and the media can shape our brains.

It is common knowledge that what information we process can shape how we think, but Doidge goes farther in saying that the changes happen physically as well and determine how our neurotransmitters travel and map our brain.

It seems obvious that what you fill your mind with is going to help you think on either a more critical level, non-reflective level or even in a way that could be called brainwashed. Looking at some of the mob-like activities occurring on certain college campuses today, I think we can say that certain educators are certainly doing their best to indoctrinate their students rather than give them a quality education.

Doidge describes the education systems in totalitarian countries like North Korea to prove that the same happens there. No big surprise there.

He also described the brainwashing of people who join certain cults, but I thought this had been debunked.

My only question, is what extensive research has been made to prove that the brain map has been changed on a physical level. This was not as clear.

However, if it is changed, the good news, is that it does not have to be permanent.

Finally, Doidge does not simply give case studies but also biographies of the scientists, Doctors and educators as well as describing their research. This alone makes the book enjoyable.

My criticism would be that as informative and interesting as I found this book, I did feel that perhaps the case studies were a little cherry picked. I wondered why he did not mention Ben Carson's work with partial lobotomies for patients suffering chronic seizures or even the famous case of Phineas Gage, the 19th century railroad worker that suffered a pole through his frontal lobe from an explosion. A lot of information about where specific brain functions operate was discovered from Gage's accident and his subsequent behavior.

I think it would be prudent to read more than one book on the topic of brain plasticity.

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  1. Fascinating review Sharon.

    This is such an interesting and important topic. Brain science reaches into so many areas of our existence. I have read a few books on human consciousness. They touch on these subjects but I really should read this book and some others like it.

    Those are some impressive squash!

    1. Hi Brian. Thanks for the compliment on the squash. I've never grown anything before. I don't have a green thumb at all. Anything that grows around here is on its own.

      The book is certainly very informative and thought provoking. I would like to read more on the subject myself.

  2. What a fascinating book! Thanks for the great review and commentary. While my brain is still somewhat functional, I will have to find a copy and read the book. Again, thanks, Sharon.

    1. Thanks, R.T. I think your brain is extremely functional based on the intelligent posts you publish. I certainly feel smarter after reading them.

  3. Steger dances around a lot while playing; it was distracting, and it might be easier to follow his performance with ears only... i still wonder if he's actually playing the notes or just imitating the chord progressions... maybe it would be possible to slow the tape down to hear it better... oh well, just maudling along, here...
    this sounds like a very interesting book; i have a sometime curiosity about brain function and have read a few tomes regarding it; this one seems good: i'll give it a try if i can find it... tx for the excellent review...

    1. Hi Mudpuddle. I'm with you. The less motion of performer makes the more I can concentrate on the music. When I was a young and immature performer I would sway and fling my hands on and off the keyboard. I eventually learned that none of that added to the sound.

      Hope I didn't embarrass you mentioning you in my blog. I'll remove your name if it makes you uncomfortable.

    2. it doesn't matter to me... i have no egoistic associations with my pseudonym...

      i'd really like your opinion re Steger... i just doesn't seem possible to me that he can be playing the actual notes... i've practiced some of the Vivaldi concerti he plays, and i just have my doubts about what he's doing... and i have trouble with his tempi: during V's lifetime, i'm quite positive they were not performed anywhere near the speed with which S plays them....

    3. You raise good questions, Mudpuddle.

      One, I watched the video again and Steger is playing the notes. Even if it were dubbed, someone is playing those notes at that speed. Hopefully classical musicians have not sunk to the level of pop stars who lip sync even at their concerts now.

      Although, classical artists do patch their recordings because everyone supposedly wants that "note perfect" performance. I think some gestalt and spontaneity is lost myself.

      It seems by the audiences reaction he was almost playing it that tempo as a joke or maybe to dazzle.

      Again when I was an immature player I played too fast and it cost me more than one competition. A judge even wrote on my notes that if I hadn't played too fast, the work would have won. That was just something I had to grow out of. Of course that can't be Steger's excuse.

      It does seem that some classical artists want to be Rock Stars and blow everyone away with their technique rather than their musicality.

      Somewhere I read an article on that and they lay the blame on the competition world. The artists who are able to give note perfect performances and knock everyone over with their technique and skill are preferred to others who my not be as flawless but possess greater powers of expression. There can be something sterile in a perfect but soul less performance.

    4. tx Sharon: i just don't hear well enough to pick out the notes, anymore... i have to admit that it's extraordinarily amazing that he can play V that fast, although i am with you in thinking it's unmusical... actually i feel that almost all the orchestras i hear lately play everything too fast; i'm a big fan of Rossini, but modern renditions make him unpleasant to listen to.... the slower, almost, the better, imo... tx again for the comeback...

    5. Years ago I had on a Deutch Grammophon recording on cassette the best interpretation of Bach's flute suite in B-flat I've ever heard. The cassette is long gone (as is my cassette player) and I cannot find the identical recording. Every other performance is too choppy.

      Whoever the flutist was simply milked the melody. I have never heard a more beautiful rendition of that suite.

    6. sometimes the oldies really ARE better... maybe it was Rampal?

    7. I'm not sure and I have not been able to find it. nor have I been able to find an equal quality performance.

  4. Interesting book - I managed to read about half of it before I had to return it to the library. I have a book in Phineas Gage but I hadn't heard about Ben Carson's work.
    Btw - my daughter & I have Ben enjoying your music selections. She's studying for her 6th grade cello exam in October & has a couple of pieces by Vivaldi & Bach & its helpful for her to hear different renditions. Crazy recorder playing! Did you drive your parents crazy with the recorder? We all did. It's so good to hear the instrument played beautifully.

    1. Hi Carol! I'm glad to know you all are enjoying the music. I always listen to music when I write my reviews and I decided to share what I was listening to with my readers.

      I actually taught the recorder when I was the music teacher for a local elementary school. I had the students every other day so Thursdays and Fridays were recorder day.

      We started with hot cross buns in the third grade and by the fifth grade they were playing simple Renaissance dances. It was a lot of fun!

      Of course it took patience on my part since third graders have to learn not to over blow, which can give you a head ache when you hear it all day.

      Ben Carson's book is called "Gifted Hands" and is worth reading. He's a dedicated Christian and the book chronicles his life's journey being raised in inner city Detroit by his single mother and working his way up and getting accepted into Yale and finally U of Michigan's Medical School and becoming a Brain Surgeon. If memory serves, he lived in Australia, practicing there for a time.

  5. I like the idea of throwing out the scraps and ending up with a whole new crop. :) I wish all gardening was as easy as that, if it was I might even grow a few vegetables.

    The Brain That Changes Itself sounds absolutely fascinating, and I’ve already added it to my ‘must read’ list. Thanks for the tip.

    1. Hi Barbara. I showed our crop as a joke because as much as I love other people's gardens I have no talent for it. So it's funny that by not trying at all, we got such a nice little collection of squash.

      TBTCI is a good book. I would like to find more books on the subject now.

  6. Nice harvest, I've tried that with pumpkin seeds but they didn't take. I've heard of your book recommendation and thought it sounded intriguing, so it's great to learn more about it. Thanks!

    1. Hi Marcia. We "tried" that with pumpkin seeds too. Or rather we dumped old pumpkins out back and our dogs ate the remains. They "helped spread" the seeds all over the back yard. We never got a crop, though.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.