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The Brain's Way of Healing:
Stories of Remarkable Recoveries and Discoveries
by Norman Doidge
NORMAN DOIDGE is not averse to blowing his own trumpet. A Canadian-born psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, he is the author of the bestselling The Brain That Changes Itself (2007), a book that he modestly claims 'described the most important breakthrough in understanding the brain and its relationship to the mind since the beginning of modern science: the discovery that the brain is neuroplastic'.
In this new volume, he seeks to build on his reputation and examine not just how far we have come in understanding how the phenomenon of neuroplasticity works, but what it looks like in practice.
Put simply, the basic premise of neuroplasticity is that the brain is not unregenerative, as was once believed; it can be rewired. Neural relationships can be re-energised and new pathways formed. Even more remarkable, many of the techniques of neuroplasticity heal without the need for surgery, long-term medication or, in some cases, any drugs.
It is exhilarating science. Children with cerebral palsy learn to walk and take degrees; patients who arrive crippled with a traumatic brain injury leave, within months, walking unaided; a nurse, housebound for a decade with chronic pain and depression after an accident with an obese patient (she damaged all her lumbar discs, and every time she moved, her spine made a crunching sound), learns to control her pain and goes back to work drug-free.
In The Brain's Way of Healing everyone recovers. A 35-year-old woman, who lost her short-term memory and her ability to listen to music and walk after an operation to remove a benign brain tumour, regains control of her life within months using low-level lasers as a form of light therapy; a man staves off the symptoms of Parkinson's with the help of an intense regime of walking and physical self-observation. In an era of ever-increasing medicalisation of the human mind, and the medication of it, the appeal of neuroplasticity outlined by Doidge is addictive.
Some of the most engaging chapters are on how music affects change within the brain. Take the case of Paul Madaule. In 1967, aged 18, he sought solace within the Abbaye d'En Calcat in southwest France. He mumbled, struggled to learn, felt ostracised and had dropped out of school. The monks sent him to Alfred Tomatis, the pioneering ear, nose and throat specialist, who treated him with his unique system of listening to Mozart and his mother's voice through a filter. Today, a multilingual graduate of the Sorbonne, Madaule continues Tomatis's work in Toronto.
Doidge, in the manner of a thumpingly successful evangelical preacher, is devoted to these medical 'miracles', to the patients who have been told by doctors that they will not recover, that their quality of life will never return to anything that resembles bearable, and to children (and their parents) who are warned that they will never be normal. It is inspiring, page-turning stuff, revolutionary almost. But, Doidge, even as he tells these extraordinary stories, is a little blinkered about everything but his own cause.
Reading this book is rather like surfing the web clicking from one compulsive and related story to another. You can have a good time, but you also feel you might be missing out on the bigger picture. For example, we don't hear from the patients about their relentless dedication and discomfort throughout the treatments, or from those who visit the specialists that Doidge interviews whose lives fail to be dramatically transformed. Nor does he consider the wider implications of neuroplasticity outside an outpatient clinic. If you can teach the brain to change, what else can you rewire it to do? The mind boggles.
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