I actually came across this book after my ninety-one year old mother-in-law read it in a couple of sittings and described it as ‘fascinating’. It was given her to read by my wife Judith who found it in a charity shop and seems to possess an unerring eye for choosing the right book for the right person. I often go to her when nothing on my TBR pile appeals and I’m not sure which book to pick up next. It’s a bit like consulting a ‘book oracle’; believe me the woman has uncanny powers when it comes to books and I never doubt her infallibility to cast her eye into her crystal ball, tea leaves, entrails or whatever - “What is it you seek, O gentle reader?”- and then select the right book (please don’t tell her I mentioned she has strange arcane powers - I’ve always worried about being turned into a frog).
Anyway, The Brain That Changes Itself is a psychology/science book that is easily approached by any layman like myself. It is written in bite-sized segments and I certainly found it an enjoyable and fascinating read. The basic premise of the book is that the brain is ‘plastic’ rather than (as scientists believed for many generations) irrevocably hard-wired. Doidge presents us with a number of jaw-dropping case histories to back up his theories and the book has quite a large ‘wow’ factor. I read with great fascination how an academic after suffering a most devastating stroke which destoyed a large part of his brain, leaving him with very little speech and partly paralysed, was able to make a complete recovery by ‘rewiring’ his brain, literally by-passing the damaged part. Or how the girl born with only a right hemisphere to her brain had been able to seemingly do the impossible and operate fairly normally.
These are inspiring stories, yet I can’t help feeling there’s something missing here. I’m not accusing Norman Doidge MD of being a snake-oil salesman, however, this book often reminded me of one of those best-selling self-help books that has you cheering but ultimately leaves you feeling a little unconvinced and dissatisfied. Just like the writers of self-help books are apt to do, the author here relies mostly on individual case-histories and he gives very few scientifically backed up facts or statistics. The section on psychoanalysis again makes the kinds of leaps and jumps that might be acceptable in a pacy thriller but I kept asking myself ‘Hang on just a minute there! Just because Mr X lost his mum at the age of three and has always had problems showing his wife affection, this all seems a little bit too much like a tit-bit style magazine when a psychiatrist comes along and puts two and two together, after which the patient has a few significant dreams and in the final scene Mr X goes off happily restored, a devoted family man again.’
In the early part of the book a number of neuroplasticity experiments are dispassionately quoted, and I have to say, when monkeys had nerves in their hands or arms severed and probes inserted into their brains, or kittens were deliberately blinded by sewing up an eyelid, I did feel a little queasy. I found the section on addiction, particularly the part on sex addiction, sado-masochism etc really quite shocking too. However, I’m not entirely sure whether the startling conclusions the author comes to in support of neuroplasticity are always quite as clear-cut as the author would have me believe. I think what I’m saying (as someone who is a completely non-scientific person) that I’m really not certain this book is good science. The Brain That Changes Itself is an enjoyable read and I’m sure there is much more to learn about neuroplasticity, but I’m not sure I can fully endorse all the claims put forward in this book.
I’m currently really enjoying my book of Western short stories (personally recommended by the ‘book oracle’). And as for brains, Steve Martin’s The Man with Two Brains literally made me fall off the sofa laughing when I first watched it on TV!