Norman Doidge, The Brain that Changes Itself (2007, Scribe 2009)
This has been beside my bed since the Sydney Writers Festival in May, and had been vaguely circling my TBR list well before that. It was James Tiptree Jr’s stories that finally got me to the point of opening it up. Alice Sheldon was a research psychologist and her stories reflect a deeply pessimistic sense, presumably based on her professional knowledge, that brains are hardwired. In ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read’, for instance, the all-female Utopia, faced with three men delivered to them by a freak of time travel, have to choose between allowing the innately violent, hierarchical creatures to ruin their society and killing them humanely. In an alternative reading, of course, it’s a mostly Australian-heritage Utopia faced with three US military types. Either way, plasticity – that is to say, the capacity for change – doesn’t enter into it. My own experience contradicts this pessimism: with enough thoughtful work, and enough taking of two steps forward for each step back, I believe we can achieve all sorts of things that look impossible. The Norman Doidge book promised good news from the hard sciences and I turned to it for evidence-based optimism.
As well as some unexpected echoes of my recent Tiptree reading (for example, Doidge’s account of the PETA’s 1981 intervention to ‘save’ monkeys from alleged experimental cruelty reads like a real-world equivalent of the fantasy exodus from the labs in Tiptree’s 1974 story ‘The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats’), I got what I was looking for.
The book is immensely satisfying science for lay readers, that is to say for people who know Sweet Fanny Adams about neuroscience but are interested in the workings of human brains. The subtitle – Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science – is a fair summary of the book’s approach to its subject: each of eleven chapters matches the work of a scientist or clinician with the story of a person who has benefited directly from that work. At the start of the twentieth century, mainstream brain scientists were localisationists, working with a model of the brain in which every function was performed by a particular section of the brain, and if that part was damaged, the function was permanently lost. With increasingly reliable and accurate techniques for mapping brain activities, brain scientists have been discovering that the brain is much more complex than that model allows, and much more adaptable. What’s done cannot be undone, sure enough, because the brain isn’t elastic, but nor is it made of stone. Neurons that fire together wire together – if you can figure out a way to make them fire separately, it takes a surprisingly short time to make them unwire from each other. A Spanish scientist named Alvaro Pascual-Leon demonstrated in the 1990s that ‘our thoughts can change the material structure of our brains,’ and that’s only a part of it.
Seen from one point of view, the book is full of wonders. A woman born with only half a brain nevertheless reads, relates intelligently to other people, performs astonishing feats of memory, and dreams of a heaven tailor-made for her needs. People paralysed by stroke years earlier recover speech or movement through an intensive exercise regime. Persistent pain in phantom limbs is relieved using a mirror in a box. People move objects using only their imaginations (helped by electrodes attached to their brains and linked to computers).
From another point of view, it charts the progress of hard science catching up with common wisdom. Contrary to the dogmas of the ‘mental health’ industry, observable changes in the brain don’t incontrovertibly indicate physical conditions that can only be remedied by drugs, surgery or electric shock. The aggressive assertions of evolutionary psychologists look even more ideologically based than they did without this evidence. Addictions, including to internet pornography, look a lot less like life sentences. Doidge is a Freudian, and the progress of one man’s analysis as an exercise in neuroplastic therapy. In an appendix, ‘The Culturally Modified Brain’ he writes:
Neuroplastic research has shown us that every sustained activity ever mapped – including physical activities, sensory activities, learning, thinking and imagining – changes the brain as well as the mind.
I’m glad my primary schooldays included endless amounts of memorising. It looks as if the years that lie ahead will need to include even more.
If Tiptree/Sheldon were writing now, perhaps her time-lost astronauts would be welcomed to the new Earth, and the story would have to become a novel to chart their progress. Perhaps, too, she would have found an intense, repetitive practice to overcome the depression that debilitated her.