The Brain That Changes Itself: Review

The Brain That Changes Itself explains the properties of the brain that allow it to change through a phenomenon called “neuroplasticity” -and what that means to us as the “owners”-.

3 Sentences Summary

  • Our brain constantly changes -and you can use it-
  • The critical period of growth in childhood can shape our lives
  • Habits shape us as much as genes do -and more than choices-

Full Summary

About The Author: Norman Doidge is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. Technically, not a neuroscientist or neurobiologist, then. However, he does a great job not only in reviewing all the science around the brain’s plasticity, but also in taking us through the stories of those who proved that plasticity with their own lives.

Preface

Norman Doidge says that The Brain That Changes Itself is a collection of stories of scientists, doctors and patients who discovered and proved that the brain does change itself, without the need of surgery or medication.

The author explains how the common wisdom before only until recently was that the brain would not change after childhood unless during our senior years when it started to decline.
That means that injuries and brain limitations were there to stay… Until death.

As scientists started to prove otherwise, the brain property of changing itself has been referred to as “neuroplasticity”.

The author met with people who, born blind, started to see, deaf people who started hearing, stroke patients who recovered and people with learning disorders who increase their IQ.

At the same time, neuroplasticity also allows people sometimes to develop paranoia or habits that are not in our best interests. And that’s one more reason to learn and understand brain plasticity.

Chapter 1: A Woman Perpetually Falling

Norman Doidge talks about how for a long time the brain had been though like a machine or a computer, where each part was assigned a precise task.
This -mistaken- point of view is called “localizationism”.

Bach-t-Rita never believed in that though.
He says that we see with our brains, not with our eyes. It might seem like a small grammatical difference, but it’s huge because it means that whichever input comes to the brain could be decoded as a visual image.

Our brain indeed only reads electrical patterns, so no matter how and where they come from, the brain will read them.

Chapter 2: Building a Better Brain

Chapter two of The Brain That Changes Itself tells the story of a woman who had been labeled as retarded and how she taught herself to be “normal” instead.

She showed that children with learning disabilities can go beyond compensation and correct the underlying issues instead.

My Note:
the story also reminded me of the power of grit (Grit by Angela Duckworth) and hunger for succeeding. The woman indeed didn’t just “study”, she was up all night and worked super hard on her learning skills. First, she designed her own tests, then applied herself to them tirelessly. 

Chapter 3: Redesigning the Brain

Norman Doidge talks at length here about another hero of neuroplasticity: Merzenich.

Merzenich has made the most ambitious claims of them all when it comes to neuroplasticity: that brain exercises are as useful as drugs even when treating severe diseases and that our brain is plastic from birth to death.

Rewiring: What It Means

When we talk about “rewiring” we are talking about the connection between neurons.

Neurons are separated by a space called a synapse. Electrical signals travel from neuron to neuron through the synapse.

Rewiring occurs between neurons, at the synapse level.
A rewired group of neurons strengthen their connections at the synapse level.

Critical Periods

Norman Doidge also introduces here the concept of critical period, such as that brain development goes through periods in which it is especially plastic and sensitive to change.

Language, for example, has a critical period between eight years and puberty. After this period has passed, it’s hard not to have an accent when learning a new language.

The difference in plasticity between critical period and adult plasticity then, says Merzenich, is that during the critical period, simple exposition is enough to change our brain maps because the brain is always in learning mode.
In adults it’s different: in adults paying close attention and efforts are what allow for plasticity.

The Brain That Changes Itself also says this makes sense from a biological perspective because children cannot possibly know what’s important (for more on evolutionary biology, read The Selfish Gene and The Moral Animal).

How To Learn Effectively

Merzenich proved that human brains are plastic even in adult age, and that experience changes the brain.

Specifically, when neurons get trained through repetition, they become more efficient and can fire faster, and faster firing also means faster reaction and faster thought in general (check The Talent Code for more on deep practice and learning efficiently).

Also very importantly, when we want to remember something well, it’s important we hear it or read it well, because our memory can only be as clear as the first impression. And it’s important, to learn well, to pay close attention.

Brain Maps Competition

There’s no precise definition of “brain map”.

But I would personally define as

A part of the brain, or a cluster of neurons, allocated to a certain task or to interpret a set of impulses (read brain mapping on Wikipedia).

An important trait of the brain is that if one area is not used for a certain tasks that other areas, with their own maps, will “take over” that area to put that computational power to use, so to speak.

This is very important, because it has major consequences for our everyday life. It means for example that when we stop exercising a mental skill the brain turns that space over to something else that we are instead actively practicing.

This also explains why it’s so hard to learn a new language past a certain age, says Norman Doidge.
It’s not just because the critical period for language learning has ended, but also because the more we use our native tongue, the more it comes to dominate our linguistic map space, thus leaving little space for a new entry.

Similarly, it’s very important for our habits.
Learning a new habit is not just about learning a new one, but also getting rid of the old ones, because that old bad habit has now taken over a brain map and leaves little space for the new one.

So you first have to “unlearn” that old one, and that’s why early childhood education is so important, because it’s much better to get it right early, before the bad habits take hold.

My note:
it’s important though to notice that you can change the bad habits.
Tony Robbins talks a lot about it. Check for example Personal Power on changing habits or Atomic Habits.

Future Possibilities and Keeping Smart

Norman Doidge then puts a chip on every geek’s shoulder talking about the possibilities of future human engineering.

It’s possible for example, in theory and also in practice when tested on rats, to re-open critical period plasticity also in adults via external stimulation and drugs.

It’s also possible to slow, stop or inverse aging decline.
Aging decline happens in good part because the processing speed and the accuracy go down.
The future is full of opportunities… But before any breakthrough, you can simply exercise.

Neurons that fire together wire together

Chapter 4: Acquiring Tastes and Loves

Norman Doidge says that human beings have the biggest degree of sexual variety and plasticity in the animal kingdom.

That plasticity and variety also means that our sexuality is not hardwired, but is altered by our psychology and experience.

The plasticity of this man’s sexual taste exaggerates a general truth: that the human libido is not a hardwired, invariable biological urge, but can be curiously fickle, easily altered by our psychology and the history of our sexual encounters.

It could have been interesting when Norman Doidge says that sexual plasticity seems higher in those who have had many partners and in those couples who stayed together for a long time, but fails to dig deeper and provide any sort of proof.

My Note:
I wasn’t very impressed with the insights on sex and relationships.

Love: It’s The Ensemble of All Attributes

Falling in love brings about huge changes in our brain.

Especially when people commit to each other, they need to alter their existing lives as well, which is why for many love feels like a loss of identity.

The author says that we do not fall with looks alone, but with a host of attributes, including the ability of that other person to make us feel good.

Once in love, highly pleasurable emotional states are triggered that can make us fall in love even with defects of our partners, which made me think of 500 days of Summer.

A tolerance to love is what makes people eventually fall out of love, and couples can keep their “highs high” with novelty in their relationship.

Unlearning, Oxytocin & Love

Norman Doidge says that oxytocin reinforces bonding in mammals and triggers trust.

Contrary to dopamine that triggers sexual arousal and excites us, oxytocin makes calmer and warmer (Sinek in Leaders Eat Last also talks about hormones).

Oxytocin though also allows us to unlearn by melting down existing neuronal connections, as it’s been proposed by Freeman.
Oxytocin is released when falling in love and when preparing to parent so that people can unlearn previous selfish-ier behavior and make space for the new partner and new baby.

Unlearning and changing at such a deep state also helps explain why so many people who fall in love with manipulative persons often end up being puppets and takes them years to recover.

Early Experiences Play Big Roles

The author says that, albeit there are exceptions, research shows that Freud was right.

And early childhood problems can get “wired” in our brains and repeat in adult life.
Especially important for sexual development are critical periods.

Pornography is Addictive

Norman Doidge goes on a long tirade against pornography.

He says pornography is addictive for its dopamine release and has negative repercussions for couples.

People who get hooked often require kinkier and kinkier stuff or more and more violent and cannot get horny anymore with their partner without fantasizing about pornographic scripts.

Sex, Violence and Overlapping Maps

The author speaks at length about a patient he had.

The patient had a childhood where violence was common and her mom also had sexual encounters with him.

He ended up mixing sex with violence and the two maps for sex and violence overlapped with each other. Merzenich calls two overlapping mental maps that are supposed to be separated as “mental traps”.

Doidge was able to disassociate the two maps by pointing out the difference between the two every time they came up in conversation, helping him see the difference and that he was capable of untangling sex from violence.

Sexual sadism is similar in that the two maps of sexual and aggressive are fused together.

Chapter 5: Stroke Victims Learn to Move and Speak Again

For a long time, it was believed that there was little that patients could do to recover after a stroke.

Of course, given our brain plasticity, that was quite wrong.

Norman Doidge introduces Thaub and his research with monkeys.
Basically, monkeys who had had their arm deafferented -ie.: cutting the motor nerve- were not using their arms anymore, which is what everyone expected.

But Thaub had a genius idea: maybe the monkey were not able to use their arms because when they tried a few times it didn’t work, And so learned that it was futile to try again and simply gave up.

They still had the other arm they could use.

However, when both arms were deafferented they eventually started moving them again because they never stopped trying: they needed to use them.

You don’t get what you want – You get what you need

Thaub began treating people with strokes even long after they had stopped normal rehabilitation, and many showed large improvements even when their stroke happened more than 4 years before.

One of the main tenets of Thaub’s treatment was “massed practice”, such as concentrating a huge amount of exercise in just a couple of weeks.

We can learn different tasks even when there was lesion because most of our brain’s operators are not specific.
A few are -like the one for colors-, but many are generic, so that our motor skills or computational skills for example, can be taken care in whichever part of the brain.

Chapter: 6 Brain Lock Unlocked – Obsessions, Bad Habits

Norman Doidge talks about OCD, obsessions and neurosis here, which is super interesting.

What happens from a neuroplasticity point of view is that a patient which indulges his worry by checking and re-checking that everything is OK only strengthen his fears and worries because he keeps firing those neurons over and over, making the neural connection more and more efficient.
Worry begets worry, says Doidge.

The author talks about Schwartz and his research to cure OCD.
Schwartz proposes that the patient, as soon as the worry comes up, should tell himself that the problem is not whatever he is worried about, but the OCD episode.
This will help him get some distance from his own brain chemical reactions. It can also help them to think they are helping themselves carve new positive pathways when they don’t give in to their compulsions. The struggle is not to make the feeling go away, but not to give in.

The next step is that the patient focuses instead on a new, pleasurable activity.
The idea makes sense because instead of firing the worry neural connection, it grows a new brain connection.
Because of the use or lose it principle, the more the patient does it the more the new connection gets stronger and the weaker and weaker the worry connection gets.

The patient does not really “break” the old pattern, but replaces it.

Because the patient should think about a pleasurable activity, he also gets rewarded with a dopamine release which helps grow the new neuronal connection (Seth Godin in Linchpin says he overcame his neurotic tendencies by refusing to double and triple check the passport was in place and the key was in the pocket).

To read more on Schwartz and his researches, this is his website.

Chapter 7: Pain The Dark Side of Plasticity

Norman Doidge explains here that plasticity is a property.

As a property, it can be good, or used in good ways, or it can be negative or used for negative purposes.

The author then introduces Ramachandran and the phenomenon of phantom limbs, such as patient who lose a limb, but feel like the limb is still there. Sometimes the original pain that led to losing the limb can also be “locked in”.

While pain has often been seen as the transmission of information from a part of the body to the brain, Ramachandran says instead that pain is a more complex system obeying the brain’s plasticity properties.
He says that “pain is an opinion of the organism’s state of health”.

Ramachandran managed to help people with phantom limbs by basically “tricking” the brain.
He managed to finally allow an amputee to scratch his arm by scratching a part of his face because the brain maps of face and arm had overlapped in the patient’s brain.

And he managed to cure other people’s pain with a mirror, tricking the brain to believe the arm was still there, so that the patient could “move it” until the pain went away.

The whole idea also led to a simple revolution: providing with pain-killer before the surgery even started allows patients not to have their pain “locked in” in their brain after the surgery was completed.

Chapter 8: Imagination – How Thinking Makes It So

Norman Doidge introduces Pascual-Leone researches and talks about the neuroplasticity of learning.

Brain scans of students during the whole week showed that on Friday the brain maps had a dramatic expansion, only to return to normal size on Monday.
Friday maps continued to grow for six months, but always returned to normal on Monday.

Monday maps were the opposite instead: they only started changing after six months and then increased slowly and stopped growing at the ten months mark.

Pascual-Leone believes that on Friday the scans show the brain strengthening existing neural connections and “looking” for buried ones. The longer term Monday changes instead represent the new neural connection being formed.

The two different speeds also help understand a phenomenon we can all be familiar with: some people learn quicker and seem better at a new skill only to be overcome later on by those who stay at the skill longer and build longer term skills.

And this is why it’s bad to prepare hard for a test a few days in advance: we cram all the information but we forget it because it’s not long term learning.

To learn long term we need to stay at a skill for longer.

Mental Practice

Super interesting to me was also the research of Pascual-Leone on “mental training”.

People training mentally on a skill were almost as good as people who actually trained physically in that skill.

Even when it came to physical tasks, people actually doing the physical task increased muscular mass by 30% and people just thinking about physical exercise increased their muscles by 22%.

The “trick” is that doing and thinking about doing aren’t that different after all for our body. Both start as electrical impulses in our brain which then sends signals to our muscles.

Experiments have already proven how people with electrodes in their brain could move objects connected to those electrodes, allowing us to imagine a future where paralyzed people can move objects around them.

Our brain is not disconnected from our body. Every thought leaves a trace by altering the shape of the brain itself.

Plasticity, Brain & Identity

The author poignantly asks: if the brain is so malleable, how come we don’t change continuously?

Pascual-Leone uses a great analogy: imagine your brain a hill covered in snow.
The slope, snow consistency and terrain beneath the slope are our genes, a given. Albeit the slope is partly given, we can steer the sled to choose a path.

Here’s the interesting part though: sliding down the slope with a sled, we carve a few pathways.
The more we keep using those paths, the more we strengthen and the more we increase our chances of using them again. Those are our habits, which can be good habits or bad ones.

As Thaub showed with his research on OCD, to develop a new pathway, you have to block the other already existing ones.

However, Doidge later explains, we can also shape our genes.

Not all our genes are expressed, so that when we learn we also affect which genes are utilized, which in turn shape our brain’s anatomy.

Chapter 9: Psychoanalysis as a Neuroplastic Therapy

Norman Doidge goes through a breathtaking case of a patient he cured.

The patient goes beyond the walls he had erected to avoid dealing with the devastating pain. He regresses several times until he uncovers the uncomfortable truths he was hiding to himself and the author then explains how it all ties back to neuroplasticity.

If you’re interested in it, get the book here.

Chapter 10: Rejuvenation and Preserving Our Brains

How do we preserve brain functions?

Our brains, like all other organs, gradually decline. And yet it still goes under massive plastic reorganization.

Here are a few ways Norman Doidge fleshes out in the book:

  • Change your surroundings
  • Exercise (physically)
  • Exercise (mentally)
  • Eat healthy

Appendix

IQ and Recovery
In spite of some books which seemed to downplay the importance of IQ (check Emotional Intelligence), IQ helps people with brain injury to recover well.

High IQ has been correlated to how well someone can recover from lost brain functions. It seems like having intelligence to spare allowed people to better restructure the brain.

Left hemisphere and Special Abilities 
Norman Doidge explains how our left hemisphere inhibits and suppresses the right hemisphere.

It’s an interesting phenomenon, so that people with left hemisphere damage can sometimes develop extraordinary computational or memorizing skills.

The question is then why on earth should the left hemisphere limit our potential?

Well, it’s simple and it’s because our brain is limited: we don’t need to remember everything as that would take away much-needed space in our brains.
Better to let go of the details and use that space for other activities.

Culture and Neuroplasticity 
The Brain That Changes Itself briefly touches upon culture as well.

Culture does shape the brain.
It’s the same for any other activity we are immersed into: it does shape our brain.
Culture is simply no exception and it’s a two-way street: brain and genetics produce culture, but then culture also shapes the brain.

Humans VS Chimps 
Doidge explains we share 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees.

What’s different then?

Well, a key difference is in a gene determining how many neurons will be produced. Our neurons are the same as the ones in chimps, we just produce more.

Civilization VS Barbarian Instincts 
Brain Doidge asks how is it possible for us to mix together our most violent instincts with our cognitive brain.

My Note:
I found the question doesn’t make sense; one because the two are not opposite in any way, and two because it’s been proven that altruistic tendencies make perfect sense from a genetic point of view as well.

Freud said civilization rests on our ability to inhibit our lower urges, but sometimes we can go overboard with it and crease neurosis (Tim Grover indeed in his epic book Relentless says that for top achievement we should be able to find our innermost, basic drives).

However, Freud doesn’t explain how we inhibit those violent and aggressive tendencies.

Doidge does it though.
Basically, our base tendencies from our older, instinctual brain part, can be attached, thanks to neuroplasticity, to a host of different activities, including our more civilized, cognitive-cerebral ones.

For example the rush we get in trapping an enemy’s king on the chessboard is the same we would have gotten in trapping an animal one million years ago. This process is called “sublimation”.

Civilization, says Doidge in one of the best moments of the whole book, is a tenuous affair that must be taught in each generation.

Civilization is a tenuous affair we must constantly teach and care for

TV & ADD 
Norman Doidge ends the book with a chilling finding.

There seem to be a link between how much TV children have been exposed to and the likelihood of developing attention deficit disorder.

Modern medium such as TV, movies and soap operas make constant use of cuts, zoom and sudden noises that, genetically, attract our attention. However, they do so in an unnatural way because we haven’t evolved for constant, continuous attention grabbing.

The price to pay could be a difficulty to concentrate and staying at tasks for a long time.
Which, I would add, is a key to success at pretty much anything.

the brain that changes itself book cover

Practical Application

-Change your habits:

  1. Resist the urge of obeying negative habits
  2. Immediately switch to a positive thought
  3. Replace the negative habit with a positive one
  4. Keep repeating and with time you’ll rid of the bad habit

-Ditch TV and limit Movies

-Stay At Skills For Long 
We learn in bursts, but if you don’t stay at the skill those bursts will quickly fade away. You have to repeat the exposure to grow new neural connections

-What You Don’t Use You Lose 
Connections and activities you don’t use for a long time, you lose. Which is great for your bad habits. But keep the good ones going if you want to keep them for long

CONS

  • Repetitive / Long

Some concepts were relatively simple and repeated a few times during the book. Some stories, like the one against PETA or the one about porn were too long in my opinion.

  • Lots of “I think”

Sometimes the author proposes his own conclusions and his own theories -or other people’s theories- which haven’t been proved.
I appreciate a good theory which makes sense, even though they haven’t been proven yet, but there were quite a few here.

  • Plasticity is real, but it’s also limited: the limits were missing

I found that Doidge does not discuss enough the limits of plasticity.

Review

The Brain That Changes Itself is a fantastic book to understand how the brain works.

And, as you learn about how the brain works, you will also pick up a whole host of tools for self-development.

Get The Book On Amazon

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