I just finished re-reading The Brain That Changes Itself. It’s a book I’ve recommended to numerous clients, because it is a book that is relevant to everyone.
TBTCI is about neuroplasticity, or how the brain can adapt and change. Obviously in young kids, the brain is constantly learning new things. But even in older adults, the brain is much more malleable than researchers thought a few decades ago. It may be harder for an adult to learn a foreign language, or pick up a new sport, or learn a musical instrument, or change ingrained habits, but it is possible.
The book contains some fantastic stories. My favorite one is about blind people learning to “see” by sitting in a chair with four hundred vibrating stimulators arranged in a grid. A video camera would send electrical signals to the chair, and the vibrating grid would function like the pixels on your monitor. The “pixels” would touch the skin on the subjects’ backs, and they learned to interpret the vibrations to form an image, just the way a sighted person’s brain interprets the images coming in through the lens of the eye.
The blind subjects in this study — conducted in the 1960s! — got so good at “seeing” with the vibrating pixels that they were able to duck when a ball was thrown at the camera. They could also read, and pick out faces and shadows.
Another cool story is about how experiments on monkeys led to a new way of treating stroke victims. The experiments involved cutting the sensory nerve of a monkey’s arm, which would normally paralyze that arm. But Edward Taub, a neuroscientist, found that if he cut the nerves to both of the monkey’s arms, the monkey could use both arms just fine!
This and other experiments convinced Taub that the cause of the paralysis was not the cutting of the sensory nerve, but rather the monkey’s brain was learning that the arm was “not working.” In the days after the nerve was cut, the monkey’s brain would send signals to the arm to move it, and would get feedback from the arm that it was not moving. Eventually, the monkey’s brain would give up on that arm and start to use the good arm exclusively. But if the nerves to both arms were cut, the monkey had no choice but to use the arms, so the brain would reorganize itself to figure out a way to use the arms.
(There’s a fantastic side story about an altercation with PETA activists that almost cost Taub his career, too, which I won’t go into here.)
Stroke patients who have lost the use of one side of their body sometimes don’t get better — that is, they are “permanently” paralyzed on that side. But Taub showed that these patients could, just like the “paralyzed” monkeys, be taught to regain use of their paralyzed side. For example, Taub would put their good arm in a sling, or put a mitten on the good hand, to prevent the patient from using it. Then, step by painstaking step, Taub would train the patient to do progressively more complex things. The patient would start by washing pots (the pot would give the patient a circle to trace). Eventually the patient would learn to trace big letters on a chalkboard, or pick up small buttons and put them in progressively smaller cans. Even patients who had been paralyzed for 10+ years were able to regain some function of their limbs.
TBTCI is beautifully written and entertaining as it is informative. I like to say that it is the most hopeful book I have ever read, because it shows how stunningly resilient the human brain can be. If you (or a loved one) are affected by OCD, autism, Alzheimer’s, depression, stroke, addiction, chronic pain, or any number of brain-related conditions, please read this book!