The neuroplastic brain is a work in progress, constantly learning and shaped by experience.
The Brain’s Way of Healing
These days people tote their individualism around with the fervour of rifle bearers. The inalienable right to be me. Yet, oddly, when it comes to health there is a stampede to cede control, and responsibility for cure, to others. I am but a hapless hostage to illness awaiting deliverance from the storm troopers of medical science. The new science of neuroplasticity promises to tip that locus of control out of the hands of our preferred healers, the pill makers, back to us.
In his first book, The Brain that Changes Itself, Canadian psychiatrist Norman Doidge wooed millions with the tale of a plastic brain whose billions of cells crisscrossed the cranial vault like flight paths, but whose routes weren’t fixed and could divert around stormy weather. Orthodoxy had cast the brain as malleable in infancy but once the basics like sight and hearing were soldered in that was your wiring diagram for life. Having none of it, the neuroplastic brain is a work in progress, constantly learning and shaped by experience.
Doidge showcased the work of late neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita, whose Copernican idea was that the brain’s outer layer, the cortex, was really a generic hard drive ripe for reprogramming. The bits of brain that wag a finger, keep you balanced across stepping-stones or fix your gaze on some bucolic scene are not indispensable. If taken out by stroke, tumour or similar catastrophe their function can, with a little hi-tech coaxing, be hosted at a different cortical address.
Bach-y-Rita sat blind people in a chair that traced images on their backs with a bank of tiny vibrators. These “pictures” were of objects in their foreground, such as a telephone, relayed by camera to the tremulous chair. The blind folk “saw” the objects with such refinement they could even duck from a ball thrown at the camera. Because these tactile images are processed in the brain’s vision area, Bach-y-Rita quipped, “We see with our brains not with our eyes”.
This versatile cortex could be repurposed to move limbs paralysed after stroke, halt antibiotic-induced vertigo and overcome obsessive-compulsive disorder and addictions. Doidge’s alchemy blended hope with solid science and compelling narrative to yield gold, no cinch when the competition includes heavy-hitting science writers such as Malcolm Gladwell, Antonio Damasio and the now discredited Jonah Lehrer.
But conjuring bestsellers is a fickle art so there are no guarantees for Doidge’s second outing.
Read the full review in the Sydney Morning Herald here