Friday, August 6, 2010

The Brain That Changes Itself

I know I’ve written about neuroplasticity on this blog before, but it continues to be a subject that fascinates me – partly because of my interest in biology and psychology, partly because I’m experiencing its repercussions every day. In that vein, I recently finished a book on the subject that I really, really recommend: The Brain that Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge.

This book is more than nerd reading. Sure, it delves into the complexity of brain systems and neural anatomy, which was enough to make the biology student in me leap in glee. But it does something more: it lends scientific credibility to the idea that our thoughts do make a difference, that we can change ourselves in unprecedented and positive ways, if we put in enough effort. To an extent, we have a stronger hand in shaping our own minds and our own fates than we sometimes think. This happens not only on an abstract level, but also in terms of concrete physiological change. At the risk of sounding cheesy, I admit I found Doidge’s assessments and anecdotes genuinely inspirational.

The book is a nice blend of scientific insight and personal stories, some of them verging on the bizarre. We meet a woman who functions astonishingly well with only half of her brain, stroke patients and children with cerebral palsy who have been able to overcome many of their obstacles, plus people who have been able to correct learning disabilities and self-destructive behaviors through concentrated therapy and practice. Although cochlear implants are only mentioned briefly, this book’s exploration of neuroplasticity is closely related to what I am going through. And, dare I say, learning to hear is nothing compared to what some of these people have experienced!

To reiterate, learning to hear (or to do anything else) is not about the ear, it’s about the brain. That my brain can radically change its architecture so late in my life, that it can accept new input and form increasingly complex neural connections, in order to gain and fine-tune a sense that I’ve never had before: amazing. (The book talked about colorblind people who can learn to “see” color through hearing specific tones, about visual cortex prostheses to assist with blindness, about a device that uses the tongue to restore the vestibular system, about triggering specific sensations through electromagnetic stimulation. Mind-boggling. I love biomedical engineering.)

In a nutshell – I am not static, I am dynamic and receptive to change. That’s an empowering thought. When I first started reading this book, it was during the difficult early days with the CI, a time when everything seemed to have been turned on its head. Look, the pages said to me, just because change starts slowly does not mean things won’t get better. It’s like picking a trail up a hill, step by step. Each step seems to accomplish little more than the one before it. But within a surprisingly short amount of time, you raise your eyes from your feet and find yourself atop a bluff, marveling at how far you’ve climbed. On to the next peak!

Some days, I needed that encouragement badly. I think everyone does. Isn't change motivational?

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