A collection of anecdotes about doctors and patients demonstrating that the human brain is capable of undergoing remarkable changes.
Research psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Doidge (Columbia Univ. Psychoanalytic Center) calls this growing awareness of the brain’s adaptability “the neuroplastic revolution,” and he profiles scientists whose work in neuroplasticity has changed people’s lives. He begins with Paul Bach-y-Rita, a pioneer in brain plasticity who has helped stroke victims improve their balance and walking. Doidge also interviews Michael Merzenich, a researcher and inventor who claims that brain exercises may be as useful as drugs in treating schizophrenia and has also developed training programs for the learning-disabled and the aging. The author talks with V.S. Ramachandran, a neurologist successful in treating phantom-limb pain, and he visits the Salk Laboratories in La Jolla, Calif., to report on the implications of current research on human neuronal stem cells. Some stories focus on nonscientists, such as the brain-damaged woman who developed her own brain exercises and then founded a Toronto school for children with learning disabilities, and a woman who functions well and has extraordinary calculating skills despite her brain having virtually no left hemisphere. The author draws on his own psychoanalytic practice to illustrate how the brain’s plasticity can also create problems, e.g., when early childhood trauma causes massive change in a patient’s hippocampus. One appendix explores the issue of how culture shapes the brain and is shaped by it; another takes a brief look at changing ideas about human nature and its perfectibility.
Somewhat scattershot, but Doidge’s personal stories, enthusiasm for his subject and admiration for its researchers keep the reader engaged.