Brain that Changes Itself, The; Norman Doidge; 2007; Penguin Books; 284 pgs; appendices; notes, index
This is an interesting book, recommended to me by my friend D. Harper. It starts out very strong with a story about a woman who had lost her balance. That is, her vestibular complex had been destroyed and she had no balance. She felt like she was in a permanent state of free fall. If she stood, she fell immediately. Then they put a small accelerometer under her tongue. The accelerometer would raise and lower bumps on the tongue contact to indicate how her head was moving. Miraculously, it worked. She was walking again in a short time, and could ultimately get by without the device for most for the day.
Her brain had rewired itself to take balance input not from the ear, but from her tongue! That is neuroplasticity, the subject of the book. This is NOT neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) which is a crock.
As a computer scientist, I see computing analogies all over the place in this book. All your senses act as "ports", the technical term for how data gets into a computer. It turns out if one port breaks, the brain can, with some work, relocate the input to another port. A great deal is made of the topological nature of the brain. What this means is that there is a map of your body (to pick one example), in your brain. This is no surprise. It means that if you touch yourself on two adjacent parts of your leg, there will to two adjacent parts of your brain that "light up".
Some pithy conclusions:
These ideas imply a lot of possibilities. The brain is a big de-localized computing machine. If parts die, the functions can be relocated. If parts are not busy, they will get seconded for other uses. For example when you are blind your hearing improves, using bits (literally and figuratively) of our visual cortex for help. Knowing these mechanisms has led to real treatments for injured people.
I have little doubt, for example, that my brain map for my hands has gotten larger since I started practicing close up magic. The same would be true for learning to play an instrument.
The book starts out strong with deeply interesting experiments and outcomes, and finishes with weak examples that to me are little more than simple learning (which, of course, also changes your brain). Just imagining things (like rehearsing in your head) can make long lasting changes to your brain.
One take away: Learn new stuff. All the time. It will keep your brain healthy longer… and you are your brain. If your memory is getting iffy, exercise it!
Lee Moller is a life-long skeptic and atheist and the author of The God Con.