Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Brain That Changes Itself---Book Review

by Dr. Norman Doidge

This is the inaugural Book Review/Book Give Away for the Parents With Purpose Blog. Each quarter I will review a book that is applicable to the topic of brain development. Everyone who leaves a reasonable comment on the review (spam, porn and inappropriate responses will be deleted), will be entered into a random drawing for a copy of the book which was reviewed. Be sure to check back on the blog to see if you are the winner so I can get an address for the book to be mailed.

The first book I’ve chosen to review and give away is: The Brain That Changes Itself by Dr. Norman Doidge. This book is available in many public libraries and is on the New York Times Best Seller List.

In this book, Dr. Doidge shares the story of 11 different people who have changed their brains or changed the brains of many others through their research. Some of those included are Paul Bach-y-Rita, Barbara Arrowsmith Young, Michael Merzenich, Walter J. Freeman, Edward Taub, Jeffrey M. Schwartz, V.S. Ramachandran, Alvaro Pascual-Leone, Eric Kandel, Frederick Gage, Dr. Jordan Grafman, and others.

Chapter 3, entitled “Redesigning the Brain” is devoted to the work of Michael Merzenich, one of my personal favorites. Merzenich is the founder of the company Scientific Learning. One of Scientific Learning’s products is a family of programs called Fast Forword. I have personally used these products with my own family and know them to be very effective. However, the reason Merzenich is one of my favorite neuroscientists is because of what I’ve learned from reading about him in Dr. Doidge’s book. Here are some quotes from the chapter about Merzenich that I found most enlightening:

“Merzenich claims that when learning occurs in a way consistent with the laws that govern brain plasticity, the mental “machinery” of the brain can be improved so that we learn and perceive with greater precision, speed and retention.” Wow! Isn’t precision, speed and retention what we’re ALL chasing? Isn’t that exactly what we want for our children? If we can change how we’re working with the information getting into the brain, we can improve all three. That’s exciting to me.

“There is an endless war of nerves going on inside each of our brains. If we stop exercising our mental skills, we do not just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead.” Use it or lose it. We don’t really OWN anything in our brain, it is always part of the “endless war of nerves”. Very encouraging for us to keep up our edge.

Setting for the following quote: Merzenich had done brain mapping and proven that brain maps could alter their borders, location & change their functions well into adulthood. Now the quote:
“Almost everybody I knew in the mainstream of neuroscience thought this was semi-serious stuff—that the experiments were sloppy, that the effects described were uncertain. But actually the experiment had been done enough times that I realized that
the position of the majority was arrogant and indefensible. Can I get an “amen”? I have found so many people who hide inside that comfortable fort of believing the brain cannot change, or there are time limits to neuroplasticity, etc. I wonder HOW ON EARTH they can ignore the endless volume of research. I wonder EVEN MORE how they can ignore the families whose lives are changed because their children have made dramatic improvement. I have to agree with Merzenich, “arrogant and indefensible.”

“The reward is a crucial feature of the program, because each time the child is rewarded, his brain secretes such neurotransmitters as dopamine and acetylcholine, which help consolidate the map changes he has just made. (Dopamine reinforces the reward and acetylcholine helps the brain “tune in” and sharpen memories.)” When we are working with our children, we need to remain positive and REWARD their efforts. We need to be very creative in our efforts to motivate them. It is very easy to become negative and just want them to “get it done.” We have hard scientific research that teaches us to focus on appropriate rewards, such as increased affection and lots of WAHOO and other privileges. I’m not a fan of children getting “stuff” for their efforts. After all, what all children really want is the undivided attention of an adult who loves them. I cannot over-emphasize this in what I’ve experienced. Thanks to Merzenich, I can understand why.

From chapter 4, “Acquiring Tastes and Loves”:
“The plastic influence of pornography on adults can also be profound, and those who use it have no sense of the extent to which their brains are reshaped by it.”
The word reshaped is very powerful here. Those who peddle this insidious product say it is a harmless pleasure. It isn’t. It is literally changing the shape of a brain. Perhaps this fact will help others avoid it.

From chapter 7, “Pain”, conclusions from Ramachandran:
“Pain is an opinion on the organism’s state of health rather than a mere reflexive response to an injury.”
Completely changes how we see and understand the pain response!!!

“Think how remarkable this is—for a most excrutiating, chronic pain, a whole new treatment that uses imagination and illusion to restructure brain maps plastically without medication, needles, or electricity.” For those in chronic pain, this is revolutionary and life-changing.

From chapter 8, “Imagination”:
” . . . a part of the brain devoted to one sense had become devoted to another.”
The implications could be far-reaching! Could we recruit another area of the brain to restore vision if the visual cortex is physically damaged? This supports Merzenich’s work that brain plasticity is allocated on a use it or lose it basis.

“Each thought alters the physical state of your brain synapses at a microscopic level.” I guess they understood this principal at some level back in Old Testament days, As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he . . . Proverbs 23. The positive mental attitude guys will attest to this also.

From Chapter 9, “Turning Our Ghosts Into Ancestors”:
“Kandel’s work shows that when we learn, our minds also affect which genes in our neurons are transcribed. Thus we can shape our genes, which in turn shape our brain’s microscopic anatomy.”
I sometimes hear people comment about particularly-accomplished students, that they are smart like their parents. In its simplest application (perhaps a bit over-simplified), if you want “smart” transcribed into your dna to be inherited by your children, LEARN. It works.”

From chapter 10, “Rejuvenation”:

“Recent research shows that exercise stimulates the production and release of the neuronal growth factor BDNF.” My 17-year-old son, a Varsity football play in Football Heaven, aka Texas, would say this fact is HUGE. Athletes have long been chasing something to help them achieve maximum growth in height and muscle strength. They have, unfortunately, gone so far as to try to chemically replicate human growth hormones. Many, many substances are banned from competitive sports. There have been hearings in Congress about the abuse of these substances in high school, college, amateur and professional sports. There is, however, GREAT news for everyone with a brain. There is a LEGAL activity which will stimulate the production and release of a BRAIN GROWTH FACTOR. That legal activity is exercise. Your brain literally grows and organizes as a result. Simple, inexpensive, and effective way to protect your brain from the ravages of disease and age. Much, much better than sudoku or crossword puzzles. Plus there are cardiovascular and other benefits as well. Nike was right when they said, “Do it”.

In conclusion, I will say once again, I looooooove this book. It should encourage every one of us to strive for a better, healthier and more productive life for our children and ourselves. For many of the years I have been trying to share the principles of brain growth through stimulation, people have said, “Show me the research and I’ll believe you. Until I see scientific research, I won’t.” Well thank you, Dr. Doidge, because I can point those folks to a book that is widely available and is easy to read. This is written for everyday folks in language we all relate to.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I want to go re-read it!