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The Brain That Changes Itself    by Norman Doidge order for
Brain That Changes Itself
by Norman Doidge
Order:  USA  Can
Penguin, 2007 (2007)
Hardcover, Audio, CD, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

The Brain That Changes Itself has a wonderful title that deserves spooky background music. The subtitle is a little calmer: 'Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science', but this book is written by a doctor, a neurologist, and if you're looking for a little light reading, this isn't for you. This book takes concentration, as well as lots of interest in the brain and how it works. Another term for a changing brain is plasticity, which must be a fairly new term since plastics were only invented in the middle years of the twentieth century. Many neurologists were initially resistant to the idea that brains continue to change during all of a person's life, so the idea took years to be accepted by doctors or therapists or to trickle down into the awareness of the average person.

The stories used to illustrate the amazing changes that a brain is capable of are like something out of science fiction. There's a woman who becomes chronically dizzy and feels like she's going to fall down all the time, and the feeling is so strong that she actually falls. With help she's able to overcome the feeling and walk normally again. Another woman was born with only half a brain, which compensates so well for the missing half that she learns to function as well as many people who have complete brains. Her brain develops new wiring, allowing her to learn to speak and walk and become a normal person, even though when she was born, doctors told her mother that she would never have these abilities.

While these two women were helped by new therapies, another story illustrates how much determination and self-help strategies can correct damage to a brain. After a stroke, a man learns to walk and talk again with the help of his son, who encourages him to move around in the only independent way possible for him at first by crawling. That's the way a baby learns to walk, and this man's badly damaged brain builds new connections around the damage that over a period of time allow him to walk, talk, resume his work as an eye doctor, and have a full, active life complete with the ability to travel all over the world.

The aging of our world presents us with the possibility that before long we'll have huge percentages of our populations with age-related memory loss. The author tells us about a new therapy that reverses memory loss for those who are willing to spend a few hours a week attempting the brain exercises. Who wouldn't rather attempt to stem memory loss and reverse it if it would mean continuing independence?

Because new treatments are being developed now that researchers accept the possibility that the brain can be rewired, some of the stories are about people who managed to overcome their disability with little assistance, while some relate new therapies that are being used successfully. There is a wealth of information about the doctors and researchers who discovered the brain's plasticity and worked to develop the new therapies, in spite of the resistance of their contemporaries in the field. The new way of looking at the brain went against accepted scientific theories. We seem to be a little more accepting of new ideas now, but there's still a lot of that stubborn attitude that something that seemed true and proven by smart people in the past must be true. More and more education is necessary now to learn the accumulated knowledge of our ancestors, and perhaps it is difficult to admit that some of that knowledge is wrong.

This is a fascinating study of recent developments in brain research, though, with enough historical background to explain the difficulties of the researchers in getting their new scientific theories accepted. We're left with the idea that brain research is an expanding field, and knowing that there is more that can be done to repair the damage done to the brain by stroke, accident, or birth defects is hopeful and positive. Maybe we don't need scary music to accompany this title, but rather an uplifting song of joy.

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