To what extent are our brains shaped by our actions, our perceptions or even by our imagination? Is there a way for adults to re-wire their brain? These are just 2 of the questions asked and addressed by Dr. Norman Doidge’s 2008 bestseller, “The Brain Changes Itself.”
Dr. Doidge is a research psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, who wrote about one of the most exciting discoveries of the 21st Century – neuroplasticity.
What Is Neuroplasticity?
Doidge defines neuroplasticity this way: Neuro stands for nerve cells or neurons as well as the nervous systems. Plastic is for the brain’s capacity to be changeable, modifiable, and malleable.
According to Oliver Sacks, M.D. (author, physician and neurologist) Neuroplasticity is “the brain’s capacity to create new pathways.” This ability of the brain to transform, to renew and to rewire itself is “a crucial part of recovery for anyone who loses a sense or a cognitive or motor ability”. Oliver Sacks has described the case histories of some of his patients. He shows how people function and navigate the world despite their deficits caused by injuries in the brain’s central nervous system. Many people who’ve suffered from debilitating illnesses and injuries – like stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, spinal cord infection, or Parkinson’s disease – are still able to cope and to compensate for their lost sense (i.e. vision, hearing), paralysis or cognitive deficiencies.
His work as a physician and neurologist allows him to observe first hand that while there are a few areas of the brain which are hard-wired from birth or early childhood, other areas “can be, to a remarkable extent, rewired as we grow older.” In fact, Sacks asserts that, “the brain has an astonishing ability to rebound from damage.” And he sees that all the time.
The End of Neurological Nihilism
Doidge regrets that the long-held belief that the brain is unchanging, dictated that people born with mental limitation or those who sustained brain damage had no hope of ever getting better or functioning well. This old paradigm made neurological nihilism the norm – a sense that finding a cure for post-stroke disabilities was futile.
Of course, now, that idea has been proven to be absolutely false. Dodge gives his readers a brief history and attributes the belief of the unchanging brain to these 3 sources:
- Scientists’ inability to observe the living brain’s activities at microscopic level
- The fact that very few brain-damaged persons could recover fully
- Our mechanistic concept of the brain: since the brain is likened to a machine, then it has no ability to either change or grow.
Neuroplasticity is not a totally new idea. Several doctors and scientists have been able to observe and conduct studies on this particular ability of the brain, but they did not dare use the term “neuroplasticity” in their publications fearing criticism from their peers for espousing such incredible notions.
This discovery brought hope to thousands of patients with neurological disorders. Doidge recounts how he met people whose learning disorders were cured and people whose IQs were improved. Among others, he recalls the story of scientist Paul Bach-y-Rita, who was able to fully recover from a stroke he suffered in his late 60’s, and who 7 years later died while mountain climbing.
Examples of Neuroplasticity
Though he gives many examples for neuroplasticity, Doidge cautions that the brain’s capacity is not without limits. In fact, he asserts that since the brain has a limited real estate, there are competing forces at work. And the same force that enables us to change is the same force that can keep us stuck with the same set of patterns.
The good news is that we can develop new skills or habits, and the more we practice these new skills or habits, the more the corresponding pathways in the brain grow.
Here are some examples of how neuroplasticity works:
- “Use it or lose it” is a popular saying among neurologists. The visual and auditory areas of the brain even for someone who was born blind or deaf do not entirely disappear. Instead, they are deployed for other uses. Like in the case of Helen Keller who lost her sense of sight and sense of hearing at 19 months old. And yet was able to learn how to read Braille, to write using longhand and using a special typewriter, to speak, and was even able to write entire books describing in detail her childhood, her travels and the wonderful experiences she’s had in her lifetime.
- The Sea Gypsies, a Nomadic tribe living in a cluster of islands that is part of the Burmese archipelago, can see clearly under water at great depths. Since they spend most of their lives in the open sea, and the young learns to swim even before they learn to walk, they have learned to control the size of their pupils and to constrict them to approximately 22%. Those of us who live primarily inland do not know how to do this and have taken it for granted that pupil adjustment is a reflex.
- Learning how to juggle 3 or more objects like a circus performer have been proven to increase gray matter in the occipito-temporal cortex. A research study shows that it can happen as early as after 7 days of continuous training.
- London taxi drivers have a bigger hippocampus compared to bus drivers who follow a limited set of routes. The hippocampus is associated with acquiring and using a complex set of spatial skills allowing London taxi drivers to efficiently do their work.
Neuroplasticity after a Stroke
After a stroke, neurons and neurological connections are damaged, resulting in impaired neurological functions. The brain urgently needs healthy neurons and a large amount of synaptic connections to recover these functions. Neuroplasticity after a stroke allows the brain to rebuild these neurological connections and compensate for dysfunctional information pathways. Undamaged axons grow new nerve endings and reconnect with other healthy neurons, forming new neuronal circuits.
The neuroplasticity process can be stimulated through rehabilitation therapy (physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, etc.) as well as pharmaceutical aid. Traditional Chinese Medicine, for instance, offers natural solutions to strengthen neuroplasticity, such as NeuroAiD, an herbal treatment that helps patients recover from their stroke.
The combination of physical therapy and stroke treatments helps the brain learn rapidly new skills and eventually restore neurological functions to improve the outcome in stroke patients.