On Writers

The Brain Which Changes Itself

by Norman Doidge,
Viking 2007.

In a tradition of anecdotal science writing which dates back beyond Freud, perhaps beyond Darwin and the Huxleys, we’re told of instances of failures in the human body, which are cured or compensated for by changes the brain makes for itself. In Doidge’s Introduction:

The discovery of neuroplasticity, that our thoughts can change the structure and function of our brains,even into old age, is the most important breakthroughin our understanding in four hundred years.Cheryl Schiltz has entirely lost her balance. Her vertigo is banished by wearing a sensory helmet invented by Paul Bach y Rita. After very few moments her balancing senses are permanently restored. So joyous is she:I look up, and Cheryl is dancing with Bach y Rita.She leads.

Barbara Arrowsmith Young is a young woman whose learning facility is retarded. She has brilliant capacities for effort and for interpersonal understanding, so enrols in an Education Studies unit in Ontario, where she studies so hard as to leave only four hours a day open for sleep. Her reading on learning difficulties caused by brain damage have her wonder if a damaged brain facility might be improved by practise and repetition, just as a damaged muscle should be rebuilt by exercise. She and Joshua Cohen devise exercises based on clock faces, since she has difficulty with the concept of representing the passage of time by this cipher.So successful is this that she and Cohen open an educational facility for the restoration of the abilities of comparison, and of the mental capability we might think of as simile or metaphor.Like all brain exercise programs, hers work best and most quickly for people with only a few areas of difficulty, But because she has developed exercises for so many brain dysfunctions, she is often able to help children with multile learning disabilities – children like herself, before she built herself a better brain.Obsessive compulsive disorder sufferer, here called Emma, is blind and before she leaves her house must recheck stoves and locks, and sometimes return simply to go through all this again. Doidge‘s treatment was to train this sufferor to identify the panic signal as from a malfunctioning part of the brain. She and her husband were friends of Doidge. ‘Theodore,’ she said, ‘it’s not that I’m crazy. It’s just that my brain wasn’t turning the page.’

The centres of inductional activity covered here follow Joshua Cohen, Mark Rosenweig, Michael Merzenich, Michael Bernstein, Edward Taub, Jeffrey Schwartz, Eric Kandel, an intellectual hothouse of well educated, quick minded people with a shared culture and shared trust. As with Freud in Vienna, it shows the intensity of Jewish intellectual energy.And reminiscent of Freud whose practice covered, for the most part, middle class Viennese, mostly diaspora, but wealthy, yet Freud was able to identify hidden psychological mechanisms, which proved to be valid across other cultures, or anyway European cultures.

Mapping the brain came at a great cost to experimental animals. Edward Taub used a small tribe of silver monkeys in whom to sever brain parts, so to observe which parts of the body lost use and ability. Doidge’s defence of Taub relies more on outrage and indignation than philosophy and ethics. I’m sure Peter Singer wouldn’t agree.His Appendix One asks ‘What is the relationship between the brain and culture?’‘Culture is not just produced by the brain, it is alsoby definition a series of activities that shape the mind.’The second part of this sentence is truer than the first, but is put in a way that blurs Doidge’s own definitions, that the brain is one object, the mind is another. But I like the possibility that the mind is an acculturated brain, if that’s what he means.

And his ‘How we civilise our animal instincts’ highlights the fact that some in our societies can’t do this at all, particularly the class of highflying CEOs.

Of Civilisation he gives the Oxford dictionary definition, though I’d prefer one more exclusively centred on the co-operative forces of civil living, but at least it led me to devise a clearer definition of my own.:Civilisation is the pattern of systems which influences individuals & small groups to behave productively within large groups.