Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Brain That Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge, M.D.

Once in a great while, you find a book that knocks you silly while you're reading it and that changes you. This is that book. Only, it turns out that every book you read alters your brain. This one just helps you recognize the process.

This week, in the midst of reading The Brain That Changes Itself, I recommended it to a friend who is uniquely religious and incredibly well educated. She seemed intrigued by my description of the brain's phenomenal plasticity as outlined by Dr. Doidge, but straight away she declared that she would be unsatisfied with the book. She believed it, like other science books, would fail to take account of the soul while fully addressing the physical aspects of the brain.

Leaving aside the point that science and religion are two different games and applying one to the other is like playing tennis by Dungeons & Dragons rules, I had two questions for my friend: If you believe God in whatever form created the universe, is it not reasonable to think that by better understanding his handiwork you could better understand the nature of him? and, What is so wrong about finding miraculous that which we have here, on this planet, in this physical universe, without having to ascribe to it some unattainable, and by definition incomprehensible, religious context?

The questions are more important than the answers, so let's leave behind my friend and her responses. Whatever your beliefs on the physical brain's relationship to the mind/spirit/will, we now have empirical evidence that the brain is malleable well beyond our infancy. Environmental and social factors shape it, certainly. But the really cool part is that our thoughts alter the actual structure of our brains. Our minds can define our cranial anatomy!

Tell me, how does that belittle or ignore the presence of the soul? Our consciousness, at least as much as our environment, has the capacity to shape how we function. We determine ourselves!

Since reading The Brain That Changes Itself, I can hardly move a finger or take a step without wondering why my brain is organized the way it is, and how I'm changing that organization with each action and each thought.

Yes, our brains are products of our early childhood, of our most formative and plastic years. But no part of that programming is set in stone. Which means your conscious thoughts have control over yourself to a greater extent than most Western societies ever believed. Do you feel incapable of working at your computer without first checking Facebook and conquering another game of Spider Solitaire? You can alter that neuronal pathway to make your routine what you want it to be. Do you feel like you'll never be able to ride your bike up that steep hill? Visualize yourself doing it enough -- really working to accomplish it -- and your brain will actually strengthen itself for the real deal.

Those are the routinely applicable aspects of this book, the everyday motivational abilities our consciousness has over the physical aspect of our brains. The real inspiration comes from just how freaking powerful the brain is, to the point where it can compensate for its own damage and help stroke victims relearn movement of paralyzed limbs, help autistic children differentiate sounds and distinguish interpersonal cues, and help elderly people keep their brain activity young.

Call our brain plasticity an inconceivable accomplishment of evolution or a gift from God, whatever fits your worldview. Either way, its abilities astound me, and this book reconfigured my mind. Literally.

No comments:

Post a Comment