The Brain That Changes Itself

Norman Doidge, M.D., www.normandoidge.com

If there was ever any doubt that our thoughts shape our lives (and even remake our bodies), The Brain That Changes Itself (“The Brain”) dispels the doubt, and, in so doing, enables us to live a better life. As the author of three, No. 1 NY Times Best Sellers, Robert J. Ringer, observed:

“We live within our minds. It’s not events that shape our world; It’s our thoughts.”

Written in 2007 by Norman Doidge, M.D., psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, professor at Columbia University and author of several books, The Brain recounts scientific proof of man’s ability to change the brain. As The New York Times said, “The power of positive thinking finally gains scientific credibility…and straddles the gap between science and self-help.” Brain “plasticity” (or ability to change itself) shows that the brain can be “rewired” or taught to think and program the body’s organs in new ways, and, in so doing, affect and reshape our body’s performance.

According to the renowned, late paleontologist, Professor Stephen J. Gould, author of the compelling Wonderful Life,

“Thinking can change the behavior of genes... males, who think more about sex, grow heavier beards."

Doidge’s research goes much farther. His case histories include: "...stroke patients cured; a woman with half a brain that rewired itself to work as would a whole brain...IQ’s raised...learning disorders overcome...aging brains rejuvenated.” This new science, “neuroplasticity”, maintains that the brain, like plastic, can change itself with exercise and understanding.

Remapping the brain, of course, can have negative effects; e.g., males who spend extensive time on porn web sites alter their sexual tastes and become progressively more hard core. Like a drug, porn tends to demand increasingly extreme levels to sustain interest, making some impotent or sexually dysfunctional to normal sexual stimuli. Those who stop going to porn web sites will eventually lose their interest in it, as the brain will unlearn, as well as learn. The mind is a gardener; we must pull the weeds, lest they take over. “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” (Proverbs 23:7.)

When we stop exercising our mental skills, we don’t just forget them; our brain “map” space for those skills is turned over to the skills that we practice. Brain resources are allocated according to the principle of “Use it or lose it.” When a person is motivated to learn, the brain responds plastically to expedite the learning process. Our neglect of learning as we age leads the brain’s plasticity to waste away. To keep the brain fit, we must learn new things: a language, a musical instrument, a career, doing puzzles, and anything that requires highly focused attention (i.e., “cognitive training or remapping”) will help the brain retain its skills and compensate for faded ones. In support, a group of seniors, aged 60-80, did one hour a day, five days a week, of such cognitive training, turned back their memory clocks by 25-35%; i.e., from 10 to 25 years! Similarly, going barefoot allows your foot to retrain the portion of the brain’s map that deals with balance. Also, not looking down as you walk, forces your sensory map to communicate with your feet. Crutches like canes and walkers hasten the decline.

V. S. Ramacharnaran, Hindu neurologist advises, “Pain is the brain’s opinion of an organism’s health…Pain is an illusion…The mind is a virtual reality machine.” In his tests, having the mind visualize and feel no pain for 15 minutes a day, three times a day, materially reduced chronic pains.

To achieve plastic change, we must devote full attention to a subject. Education minimizes mental decline. Exercise and mental activity generate and sustain more brain cells and reduce the likelihood that we will get Alzheimer’s disease or even dementia. While Alzeheimer’s may not be preventable, it surely can be postponed and mitigated. Moreover, small, age-related memory loss is much more prevalent and is almost certainly reversible with the right mental exercises (e.g., new languages, new careers, exercise, etc.). Physical activity creates new neurons and gets oxygen to the brain. Walking at a brisk pace (not at a golf-pace) will accomplish this.

In sum, the principles of plasticity are: Use it or lose it…Thinking makes it so…Visualizing can dramatically improve performance…Activity slows decline on all fronts. We can change our brain’s anatomy simply by using our imagination…The faster that you can imagine doing something, the faster you can do it.”

“There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” William Shakespeare

Lab studies that clinically measure changes in brain cells, neurons, etc, (by implanting electrodes in subject’s brains) have proved this. Everything that we do and think shapes our “Play-Doh” like minds. The power of positive thinking, and the value of reinforcement via yoga, meditation and full-fledged self-hypnosis can no longer be denied.  I am indebted to my brilliant and eminent friend, Andrew Banks, who kindly gave me this book. As Doidge gives us hope, I assume that Andrew feels that there is still hope for me.