I’m having the pleasure of reading The brain that changes itself by Norman Doidge, as a reviewer for a potential translation here in Denmark. Brain plasticity, or neuroplasticity, has always been a hot topic, from it’s (re)birth in modern neuroscience, and all the way up until today, where researchers are still fiercely debating how plastic the brain is and how functions relate to brain structures – aka the debate of modularism. In its early days, the neuroscientific community strongly believed that the modularity of the brain was established during childhood, and that little, if any, change could occur later on. Researchers suggesting otherwise were eschewed, heavily criticized on the ground that their data/ideas did not fit into the existing model. The land did not fit onto the map, so to say. This book is dedicated to the idea of neuroplasticity.
The book introduces brain plasticity in a very vivid and close-up manner, as Doidge tells the story from the inside, through some of the biggest names in this research, including the late Paul Bach-y-Rita, Michael Merzenich, and Gerald Edelman. Not only is the book very interesting to read as a historical background, but it also takes a look behind the scenes in two ways. Doidge has talked the researchers himself, and bring their experience of how plasticity came to go from a ignored (and carreer risky business) field, to a scientifically acceptable and highly influential topic. Even today, one may claim that we do not fully comprehend or apply the insights from this research.
Doidge also does a great job in describing patient cases of brain plasticity, including:
(…) a woman born with half a brain that rewired itself to work as a whole, a woman labeled retarded who cured her deficits with brain exercises and now cures those of others, blind people learning to see, learning disorders cured, IQs raised, aging brains rejuvenated, painful phantom limbs erased, stroke patients recovering their faculties, children with cerebral palsy learning to move more gracefully, entrenched depression and anxiety disappearing, and lifelong character traits altered.
(from the book cover)
The stories from both researchers and patients are written in a most vivid and entertaining way, and the first 100 pages alone makes the book a page-turner. The book as a whole is filled with these fantastic descriptions and stories that equal great writers such as Oliver Sacks.
So how about the sex part? Yes, this is where I got a little puzzled, too. Going from the insights of neuroplasticity, Doidge turns his attention to sexual disorders and abberations. This is, of course, both a very interesting, challenging and risky choice, but it is also a topic that Doidge is intimately close to through his clinical work. In much the same manner as the description of neuroplasticity cases, we are presented to patients of Doidge (or his peers) that suffer from psychological illnesses, in particular sex related problems. Interestingly, it seems that the insights from plasticity can be applied to these disorders and problems, and Doidge does a great job in presenting and discussing these issues.
My quarrel, however, is with Doidge’s theoretical position — psychoanalysis. Is it not itself strange to combine the insights from the edgy yet stringent scientific approaches of neuroplasticity with the unscientific theoretical (armchair) century old approach? Doidge does use the suggestions from Freud to interpret the psychological cases he presents. This includes the interpretation of dreams, a business receiving a lot of criticism, too. At best, I think this part of the book becomes an anachronism. The problem lies in why, at all, Doidge needs to invoke a theoretical position like psychoanalysis at all in order to understand what is going on. This is where science becomes fiction, and where the book breaks down. But not totally. If one is aware of the problems associated with psychoanalysis and science, the book is still a wonderful read.