The Brain That Changes Itself has been my favourite book for some time now. Younger, novel devouring me would never have believed that one day I would come to love a non-fiction book more than all the others, but that’s where I find myself. Today I read to learn far more often than I read for escape.
The Brain That Changes Itself completely opened my mind to new and amazing ideas. It enlightened me as to the previously misunderstood workings of my brain and to the hope that comes from recognising infinite possibility.
It’s been a while since I’ve read thoroughly through the pages, this review will be focused on what I’ve learnt from reading it, what I’ve retained several years later and how the information has effected my life with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome.
First published in 2007, The Brain That Changes Itself has made an impact on many people. This is a big achievement for a science-type book, many of them are inaccessible through all of the jargon. Norman Doidge, however, has managed to bring together inspiring stories from the world of brain science and communicate them in a way that is easy for readers to understand.
This book approaches its topic from the angle of sharing personal stories. The byline reads: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science – and that’s exactly what you’ll find inside.
There are stories about people with issues such as brain damage, stroke, anxiety and phantom limb pain. Sometimes, the way that we figure out how something works is by studying what happens in the cases that it doesn’t work. In the instance of the brain, a lot can be learned by looking at how the brain copes with or recovers from injury.
Some of the most inspiring stories in The Brain That Changes Itself are those about people recovering from strokes (a situation in which parts of the brain no longer work at all) and also those about people that have re-wired their brains around actual missing tissue, that is, part of their brain is physically absent due to injury or development issues.
If a brain that has missing parts can learn to work around the gaps, then surely a brain that has all its parts, but is misfiring, can learn how to function harmoniously again!
Possibility is powerful.
Neuroplasticity was long considered a dirty word. Many revolted against the notion that the brain is constantly rearranging as it processes and learns. Many interpreted the discussion of neuroplasticity as some sort of victim blaming, although that really has nothing to do with it. I’ve written about neuroplasticity before, in relation to depression and received some rather passionate responses from people who chose not to accept my opinion or were blatantly outraged by me blogging about it.
When a person attempts to improve their situation by practising mindfulness or meditation, they are attempting to incite neuroplasticity. When a person reads a book or a news article or watches a report on the television, everything that they learn and retain from that experience is evidence of neuroplasticity.
Learning itself is one of the most obvious forms of neuroplasticity and one of the easiest to understand.
That concept sounds a little bit ridiculous as I’ve written it here, however it is a very common misunderstanding of how memory works (it’s the vague comprehension that I had before life forced me to study further).
Memory, along with every other process in your body, works by creating connections between neurons in the brain. These create a complex pattern that is often referred to as a “brain map”.
When you give a thumbs up, there is a specific brain map of synaptic impulses that connect so that you can create that movement. This brain map is unique to you, despite similarities across people. A brain map is the product of each person’s individual experiences with both external stimuli and internal interpretation.
Reading The Brain That Changes Itself helped me to to understand the value of individual case studies when it comes to neurological research. There is a fabulous quote from the man that Doidge refers to as the Sherlock Holmes of modern neurology, V.S. Ramachandran:
-V.S. Ramachandran, quoted in The Brain That Changes Itself
Stories of individual accomplishment will never fit the scientific method, but they are nonetheless incredibly valuable in the field of neuroscience. To be proven by science, something must be able to be hypothesised, tested and have results that will repeat if the same method were to be re-followed.
People aren’t always like that. Brains aren’t like that, they’re the most intelligent parts of our bodies and it shouldn’t be a surprise that they are the most difficult part to understand. We are trying to decipher our brains, using our brains. This was never going to be easy.
There is a chapter in The Brain That Changes Itself that is all about pain, specifically phantom limb pain, which is not all that different to chronic pain in the absence of injury. A confused nervous system is a confused nervous system.
– from Chapter 7, Pain: The Dark Side of Plasticity, The Brain That Changes Itself
This isn’t the full story of how chronic pain affects the body, but it’s a great explanation to start with. When describing the stranger symptoms of CRPS, I am usually talking about how the body responds to this “excess firing” over time. In short, the pain system malfunctions for long enough that the brain starts trying to treat symptoms of the ghost injury.
The idea the brain is always changing can be a hard concept to get one’s head around, especially for those that have grown up with an image of the brain as a machine with certain cogs (physical regions) responsible for each different aspect of its function.
In some ways, the brain is like a machine and this analogy can be helpful to the education process. The difference between something mechanical and the human brain is that the brain can physically reorganise its parts. The brain can change to adapt to changing circumstances or input. It is not a rigid, one-trick organ, it is a malleable mass of interwoven circuitry. If the brain was a machine, it would be made of plasticine with interlocking parts that could be re-shaped and re-arranged.
CRPS is difficult to explain and difficult to understand. Reading a lot and across various platforms exposes me to many different ways of thinking, to different ways of approaching healing now that I’ve landed just to the left of medical knowledge. I’ve learnt lessons of epiphanic degrees from hippies, scientists and even slightly crazy people.
I’ve learnt not to judge information, it’s just existing. Just like trees, birds and bees. Information is not the intent of the person delivering it. Information is not the style of writing of a text, an author’s arrogance, or a concept that appears based in imagination.
I’ve learnt that no matter how much I learn, I will never know all that much of anything at all. That’s how much information this world has; that’s how many ways there are to look at things. I’ve learnt not to be attached to my opinions as they are prone to changing, just like everything else.
I’ve learnt a lot since reading The Brain That Changes Itself. The book inspired me to go and seek out more information. It prompted me to buy more books, to find more stories, more theories. It helped to explain to me how and why chronic pain has been able to grip me so tightly and throw out such confusing symptoms.
It even inadvertently explained why I find The Feldenkrais Method so helpful – the therapy is a method of strengthening helpful, healthy brain maps.
The most important thing that it did was give me hope. Hope for my future and for that of neuroscience. Humans are only at the beginning of fully understanding the workings of our brains and there’s so much hope to be had by pondering the things it has left to discover.
I could write a blog post every day for a year and still find more to write about within this book. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Thanks so much to everybody that has been supporting me in the NHBPM challenge! If you like what I am doing, please share these posts with the people that you share things with or click that little thumbs up. It’s CRPS Awareness Month, which is why I’m choosing to disclose a little more about my health on a daily basis. The more awareness that we can raise, the easier it will get for people who are navigating the choppy waters of chronic pain.
Love & Grey Matter,
This post written as a part of National Health Blog Post Month, run by WEGO health. Check out what people have been contributing via #NHBPM on Twitter, or joining the NHBPM Facebook Event.