You can teach an old brain new tricks

Henry Zwartz

Norman Doidge

Norman Doidge

The French philosopher Descartes maintained you could change the mind but not the brain; his influence had a profound and in some ways negative impact on Western medical thought by essentially dividing the fields of psychiatry and psychology.

Now it is well documented that the brain can improve itself, with training enhancing our memory and performance. That is in no small part due to Dr Norman Doidge, the psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, researcher, author, academic, essayist and poet who brought the field of neuroplasticity to world attention in his best-selling 2007 book The Brain that Changes Itself. In his recently released follow-up, The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity, Dr Doidge explores and gives examples of how the mind can influence the brain to repair itself and also to fix or improve chronic pain, psychological conditions and physical injuries.

Dr Doidge was in discussion with Radio National health presenter Dr Norman Swan at the Sydney Recital Hall on Thursday night. He told the packed house how patients suffering from conditions such as strokes, which damage brain tissue, could make near-miraculous recoveries by utilising the abilities of the brain to compensate for disabilities. “Things you lose you can regain in some shape or form through neuroplastic rehabilitation,” he said.

He warned that Western medicine had become indoctrinated into the idea of an unchanging brain, a mere “electrical object with chemicals… This all-destructive doctrine had its high in the 1990s. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of the unchanged brain. If you don’t try to use techniques to repair the brain, then of course you won’t see that difference.”

Dr Doidge said this doctrine was misplaced. “We have use it or lose it brains, our brains constantly adapt to our environment. If we do not use part of our brains, say the part for vision if someone is blind, then the neurons in that area will become dedicated to other uses, increasing that person’s tactile abilities for example.”

The brain should not be thought of merely as a computer, he said. “What you’re dealing with is a complex brain. No two injuries are alike. We have this hyper-efficiency in Western medicine, the industrialisation of Western medicine, which breaks things into components, kidney specialists, heart specialists, but a lot of conditions share the same problems – learning disorders have a lot in common with strokes. Neuroplasticity addresses the commonalities between these different issues with similar problems.”

Dr Doidge cited the case of a man named John Pepper, who developed early-onset Parkinson’s Disease. Mr Pepper was able to effectively combat the disease by working out how to ‘de-automate’ movements such as walking, and making the unconscious actions a conscious series of movements. In doing so, Mr Pepper was using another part of the brain not affected by Parkinson’s, because it was treating each movement as a conscious act, which occurs in the frontal part of the brain, and not instinctive movement, which is affected by the disease, explained Dr Doidge. “He was able to work around Parkinson’s this way, by using exercise – something very accessible because anyone has access to that.”

Naturally, many people view Dr Doidge’s idea with scepticism. “Neuroplasticity seems fantastic because the doctrine of the unchanging brain, which says that where any hope is almost a false hope of recovery, is so pervasive. Simply thinking of the brain as chemicals or electricity is too simple. Our brains are reacting to our environments and adapting accordingly.”

He concluded: “You don’t need to believe neuroplasticity to get benefits from it. You only have to believe it enough to try it. Things are only too good to be true when they are not true.”