Book Review: The Brain That Changes Itself

Since my recent discovery of the myriad of book blogs, Goodreads and the ability to read while maintaining my schedule has led to me rather bravely attempting a bookish challenge, I have decided to blog about those books.

For the category of Science and Natural History I read The Brain that Changes itself by Norman Doidge. Thanks to SolitaryDiner for the recommendation.

In biology we learn that skin heals, bone forms calluses until it is almost as good as new, and half a liver can soon be a whole new liver. But the brain? The brain doesn’t heal. You break your brain and it stays broken. Even more than healing, the brain doesn’t change. Once you’re all grown up, the grey matter you have is the grey matter you are stuck with until that, too, starts to degenerate.

It is exactly these teachings of popular science that Doidge challenges in his book – a scientific work of literature that reads like a novel.

Doidge travels the world to meet with patients, scientists and doctors who have shown that the brain can – and does – change. And not just after injury; it does so constantly.

In The Brain That Changes Itself we read of learning to balance after damaging the vestibular system, about learning to live again after substantial damage due to a cerebrovascular accident. It tells the story of people who learn to literally “grow” out of their Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and depression. We even meet a young woman who has lived her life with only half a brain – her right hemisphere effectively doing the work that her left hemisphere would have done.

The view of the brain as a machine – fast, efficient, but unchanging – is chiseled down, revealing a malleable brain. A brain that isn’t only formed up to adolescence, but long thereafter.

The Brain that Changes Itself reads easily, has not too much medical jargon and not too many statistics, but I am unsure how much stimulation it would offer to the layperson. Even I, having studied neurosciences (at undergraduate medical level) sometimes felt that the book was slightly above me.

Note that some may be sensitive to the descriptions of animal testing in the book – but it perhaps offers a fairly good view of why animal testing is not all fire and brimstone.

It took me a while to get through the book because it was intellectually taxing and I felt the need to think and research after each chapter. It was well worth it and I wish I had read this during my neurosciences rotation last year. I feel that I will be a better doctor having read this.

“We love being in love not only because it makes us happy but also because it makes it harder for us to be unhappy.”

Norman Doidge, The Brain that Changes Itself


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