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The Brain that Changes Itself

Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science

By Norman Doidge
19-minute read
Audio available
The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge

How can stroke victims who become paralyzed start using a fork or buttoning their shirts again? Well, contrary to what was believed for so long, the brain is not hardwired. It can change, regenerate and grow. Drawing on real-life cases of scientists, doctors and patients, The Brain that Changes Itself (2007) shows us how, rather than relying on surgery and medicine, we can alter our brains through thought and behavior.

  • Anyone who wants to change their habits
  • Psychology students
  • Anyone seeking inspiration while recovering from an injury

Norman Doidge is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and researcher at the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research and the University of Toronto’s Department of Psychiatry. His work has been published in many popular media outlets including The Wall Street Journal, TIME and The Guardian. Doidge has appeared frequently on TV and radio and is a New York Times bestselling author.

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The Brain that Changes Itself

Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science

By Norman Doidge
  • Read in 19 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 12 key ideas
Upgrade to Premium Read or listen now
The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge
Synopsis

How can stroke victims who become paralyzed start using a fork or buttoning their shirts again? Well, contrary to what was believed for so long, the brain is not hardwired. It can change, regenerate and grow. Drawing on real-life cases of scientists, doctors and patients, The Brain that Changes Itself (2007) shows us how, rather than relying on surgery and medicine, we can alter our brains through thought and behavior.

Key idea 1 of 12

The brain changes itself through processes like “unmasking.”

For years it was thought that the brain, once fully formed, was fixed until it deteriorated with age. But with the rise of neuroplasticity, we’re discovering this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to continually change itself. The prefix “neuro” refers to neurons, i.e., the nerve cells in our brains and nervous systems, and the suffix “plastic” means changeable. The brain, then, alters its nerve structure and function through thought and activity.

But how exactly does the brain reorganize itself? One way is through unmasking.

Unmasking describes what happens when one neural pathway is shut off and a secondary one is exposed, the latter becoming stronger with repeated use.

Cheryl Schiltz is a great example of this phenomenon. For five years, each time she stood up, she would lose her balance. She had almost entirely lost the vestibular system of her brain – the area needed for balance. That is, until one of the pioneers of neuroplasticity, Paul Bach-y-Rita, designed a special device that Schiltz could wear.

The device, called an accelerometer, sent signals to a plastic strip containing electrodes, which had been placed on Schiltz’s tongue. The sensations on her tongue were then redirected to the area in Schiltz’s brain that processed balance, rather than going where they normally went: to the sensory cortex, the area that processes touch.

After much practice with the device, a new pathway in Schiltz's brain was unmasked and strengthened, and she began to regain her balance on her own.

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