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The Brain That Changes Itself - Book Review

1 November 2014

Dr. Moria Levy

"The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science," authored by Norman Doidge in 2007, possesses only a partial connection to the themes of knowledge management and learning processes discussed in this series of summaries. Consequently, this summary offers a preliminary glimpse of the book's ideas.

For many years, the field of neuroscience was primarily influenced by the idea of locations, proposing that every bodily function was governed by specific, well-defined areas within the brain. This idea gained substantial acceptance, even after studies on neuroplasticity or brain plasticity were published, leaving many still skeptical of its feasibility. Neuroplasticity, the notion that thoughts and actions can reshape the brain's structure and nerve cells, thereby influencing brain functions, only partially disproves the theory of locations. Instead, it implies that while specific functional regions exist in the brain, the brain remains adaptable and open to change as needed. This means that the brain can be trained, improving its functioning to overcome various challenges and difficulties.

The four primary types of flexibility can be summarized as follows:

  1. Proliferation of Neural Maps: This involves expanding one brain area at the expense of another, permitting changes in the boundaries between these brain regions to accommodate our functional requirements. For instance, a specific area may be enlarged when needed. An example of this phenomenon is when a healthy hand becomes immobile, allowing an injured hand to "take over" a neural map. While competition is always present, this adaptation can lead to improved functionality.

  2. Alteration of Sensory Function: This type of flexibility pertains to how our senses relay information to the brain. It becomes relevant when one sense cannot perform its usual function. For instance, the brain might adapt to convey information through touch without functional sight.

  3. Detour Compensation: This form of flexibility enables tasks to be accomplished through alternative means, compensating for an individual's limitations. For example, someone may adopt a roundabout approach when the brain's orientation area is impaired, facilitating overcoming challenges.

  4. Takeover of the Mirror Area: In cases where one side of the brain, either the right or left, is compromised, the other side can partially assume control of the missing mirror functions. An illustrative example is a girl born with one side of her brain underdeveloped yet still managing to function in a nearly typical manner.

Right from the start, our brain's structure is influenced by our genetics, but it's profoundly shaped by our environment, effectively rendering it a product of the culture in which each of us resides. Our sensory and cognitive attributes are imprinted upon us through our surroundings and culture, seamlessly becoming an integral part of our identity, impacting our outward selves and how our brains are configured.

However, beyond this profound, multi-generational transformation, our brains display individual-level flexibility:

We can train our brains and improve our overall functionality through exercise and learning.

There are circumstances when training and change become necessary or achievable. This includes instances of congenital disabilities such as autism and disabilities, as well as when a malfunction or illness like an accident or stroke occurs. Furthermore, even in old age, it remains possible to generate new neurons and extend the lifespan of existing ones.

The method for training the brain primarily depends on individual needs. When faced with medical limitations and challenges, it's advisable to consult with a neuroplasticity specialist in neuroscience. For those of us approaching old age and seeking to preserve or enhance our cognitive abilities, a combination of physical training and learning can be advantageous.

Physical training yields benefits, including cycling, cardio exercises, or brisk walking. These exercises not only enhance the brain's oxygen supply but also foster the growth of new nerve cells. They simultaneously stimulate the sensory and motor cortex while maintaining the brain's vestibular system's fitness.

Engaging in learning, especially when delving into new subjects and unfamiliar skills like acquiring a new language, can also prove highly effective. It's essential to emphasize that this learning should be focused and deep, requiring our complete attention.

To grasp the concept of neuroplasticity in the brain, it's essential to understand the neuroplastic paradox: the quality that enables us to change our brains and demonstrate flexible behaviors can also establish fixed patterns within us. Repeatedly traversing the same neural pathways can lead to entrenched behavioral patterns. The initial flexibility we nurture can evolve into functional rigidity. The choice is ours - whether to adhere to familiar paths, reinforce them, or opt for new routes, thereby promoting flexibility. Each approach has its advantages, and there is no universally correct answer. The timing and circumstances play pivotal roles in making this decision.

Plasticity is a multifaceted and intricate phenomenon characterized by various layers and behaviors. The wisdom in harnessing it ultimately rests in our hands. It is recommended to delve into the entire book for a deeper understanding and more comprehensive insights with examples.

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