Until recent decades, many scientists have touted a bleak theory about our brains: they have viewed our grey matter much like a hardwired machine, with each part performing only one function. Like a computer, if one part is damaged, it’s damaged for good.
Enter a new wave of science known as “neuroplasticity.” In The Brain That Changes Itself (Viking 2007) Dr. Norman Doidge, a research psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who teaches at U of T and Columbia University in New York, chronicles the study of neuroplasticity – which has shown that the brain is far more malleable than previously thought, and is even capable of reorganizing itself. In the case of damage caused by stroke, for example, one part of the brain can sometimes pinch-hit – taking over functions previously allocated to another area.
Like neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks, Doidge focuses heftily on medical case studies. There is the woman born with half a brain, whose right hemisphere has taken over left brain activities such as speaking and reading. And the young television producer who, after becoming paralyzed on her right side, gained back much of her mobility through constraint-induced therapy – a treatment that coaxes neurons to take on new duties. There is also “Mr. L” – a former patient of Doidge’s – who was able to overcome a 40-year history of depression through psychoanalysis.
Doidge – who has won several Canadian National Magazine Awards over the years – has the exceptional gift of not only making science comprehensible, but also conveying the magic and wonder of these scientific breakthroughs. His book also contains a bit of a medical history: he tracks the roots of neuroplasticity by weaving in accounts of influential studies and doctors from the past century.
Doidge also provides the occasional dark glance into the politics of science – the less-than-charming reactions that humans are capable of when their egos, and theories, are on the line. One such political casualty was Edward Taub: as a PhD student arguing his thesis in the 1950s, his findings contradicted his professor’s celebrated behaviourist theories. His ideas were maligned by the professor and the scientific community, and for years he received no recognition. Dr. Taub now runs a clinic that, building on his original ideas, helps stroke victims regain their mobility. His situation deftly underscores the premise of Doidge’s book: an intractable stance, like an intractable brain, is just too rigid a framework to bear.