The Brain that Changes Itself | Norman Doidge

Summary of: The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science
By: Norman Doidge


Welcome to the fascinating world of neuroplasticity, which has revolutionized our understanding of the brain. ‘The Brain that Changes Itself’ by Norman Doidge explores the incredible ability of the brain to adapt and rewire itself throughout life. This book summary will delve into the concept of unmasking, highlighting the story of Cheryl Schiltz and her remarkable journey to regain balance. You’ll discover how the environment and mental exercises can reshape our brains, and even uncover the mysteries of brain maps. With insights on the brain’s ability to affect our sex drive, change through imagination, and regenerate itself, this summary will bring you closer to understanding the full potential of the human brain and the power of neuroplasticity.

The Brain’s Incredible Flexibility

Recent studies have proven that the brain can change and reorganize its neural structure and behavior through the development of neuroplasticity. This feature refers to the brain’s adaptability to modify itself through changes in its patterns of activity. One way this can be achieved is through a process called unmasking, where one neural pathway is shut down to expose a secondary one that becomes stronger with repetition. The article gives an example of how Paul Bach-y-Rita used an accelerometer to help Cheryl Schiltz regain her sense of balance, therefore proving that the brain can adapt and rewire itself through deliberate effort and stimulation. This realization is a significant breakthrough that shatters previous assumptions about the fixity of the human brain. With this newfound understanding of how our brain operates, we can work to improve our cognitive function and quality of life.

Changing the Brain

The brain can be changed without gadgets. Engaging environments can modify the structure of the brain. This discovery paved the way for one woman to develop her own brain exercises to overcome her challenges in grammar, math, logic, cause and effect. Her efforts paid off as she mastered reading the clock.

Brain Maps: The Key to Unlocking our Brain’s Potential

Michael Merzenich, a renowned brain scientist, emphasizes the significance of brain maps in reorganizing our brain and changing how we think and perceive. Brain maps depict the parts of our brain that manage bodily movements and the areas that process them. Merzenich discovered that brain maps’ borders and sizes vary among individuals and alter according to their activities throughout their lives. Brain maps compete for resources, which can cause nerves to take over unused map space, emphasizing the brain’s plasticity. In an experiment with monkeys, it was found that the size of a brain map can double and take over what used to be another nerve’s map. Thus, as Merzenich points out, by training specific processing areas in our brain using brain maps, we can alter and reorganize our brain, providing the key to unlock our brain’s potential.

The Flexibility of Human Sexuality

Our sexual preferences and tastes are not set in stone and can be shaped by various experiences and pornography. Brain plasticity allows us to develop new neural networks, strengthening existing ones and creating new sexual or romantic tastes. Critical childhood periods play a role in developing sexuality and romantic preferences, but they can also be learned later in life. The release of dopamine during sexual activities increases pleasure, which strengthens neural networks in the brain, and this can result in a new kind of sexuality or a strengthened latent one. As such, aggressive and sexual imagery can become intertwined and impact sexual preferences.

Healing Through Repetition

Dr. Bernstein suffered a stroke and lost the use of his left hand at age 54. After using Edward Taub’s constraint-induced (CI) movement therapy, he was able to regain movement and perform tasks he couldn’t before. Taub’s therapy was inspired by his experiments on monkeys and the concept of learned nonuse. He believed stroke patients could still find motor programs for movement in their nervous system and that constraining the use of the working limb could force the injured one to move. Shaping is another technique that can incrementally mold new behavior effectively through repetitive actions.

Dr. Bernstein’s journey towards recovery highlights the transformative power of repetition and muscle memory. Taub’s innovative therapy, inspired by his experiments on monkeys, upsets the notion of learned nonuse in stroke patients and provides a glimmer of hope towards motor recovery. The brain is wired to adapt and change given the right stimulus and conditioning, and Taub’s constraint-induced (CI) movement therapy is a testament to this fact. By continually repeating basic activities like wiping tables and cleaning windows, patients with stroke-induced paralysis can relearn and reinforce their motor programs, ultimately reintegrating their bodies and regaining autonomy. Shaping, another technique experimented within Taub’s therapy, focuses on gradual progress towards a particular outcome, rewarding every movement made towards a goal rather than solely for completing the task. Effective results are achieved through consistency and massed practice within a short span, incorporating repetitive actions in daily activities. Overall, Taub’s therapy is a paradigm shift in motor recovery, proving the brain’s malleability and its ability to adapt with the right training and repetition.

Breaking the Anxiety Cycle

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and anxiety can feel overwhelming, but understanding the plasticity of our brains can help break the cycle. Brain scans show that the malfunctioning caudate nucleus is responsible for the persistent worrying in OCD sufferers. By voluntarily switching our focus to other activities, such as helping others or playing music, we can stimulate the caudate nucleus and create new, pleasure-giving brain circuits that compete with and replace the old ones. This understanding of how our brains work can lead to effective treatments for anxiety and OCD.

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